The Paradox of Efficiency


If you find yourself on a quest for maximizing your productivity, you’ll eventually encounter a fundamental paradox: efficiency does not play well with new learning.  We extol the virtue of cutting costs and finding efficiencies.  We similarly describe ourselves as lifelong learners who embrace the opportunity to learn new skills and try on new approaches.  Predictably, we like to see ourselves as deeply committed to both.  But learning, perhaps by definition, is not efficient.

Take driving, for instance.  We all recall the excitement and agony of learning to drive. Some of us, mercifully, escaped our first years of driving without a major accident.  I include myself in that group – plowing into my closed garage door excepted.  Driving is a critical skill in our modern society, and so we persist in our learning, risks notwithstanding.  Efficiency in driving emerges as we practice over and over again.  You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 Hour Rule that Malcolm Gladwell has made common knowledge.  Expertise and efficiency come with lots and lots of practice as skills move into our muscle memory and well worn cognitive tracks.  It’s hard to remember not being able to drive.  It becomes intuitive.

That’s the beauty of efficiency.  We practice something over and over until we internalize it and can perform tasks with less attention and cognitive load.  Our brains love the efficiency.  If you don’t believe me, you should read Nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow – perhaps my favorite non-fiction read ever – which outlines just how eager our brains are to take shortcuts to preserve energy.  We actually are predisposed to think less if we can.  We crave cognitive efficiency.

On an individual level, what does it mean to say we are a lifelong learner?  I assume it means we are deliberately choosing, at times and with some regularity, to be uncomfortable and inefficient.  That’s the genius of the “5-hour rule” you may have read about – carving out 5 hours a week dedicated solely to new learning.  That’s the value in reading books that directly challenge your well tread assumptions and experimenting with routines and practices that inevitably feel clumsy at the start.  It means committing your finite resources – time, energy, and money – to activities that you know will be deeply inefficient for some time.   You hope the learning will pay off in new skills and efficiencies later down the road – but often there’s uncertainty involved.

On an institutional level, what does it mean to say we are a learning organization?  It’s not hard to buy-in to the widespread belief that society is accelerating towards ever greater complexity.  We’re living in a moment where the uncertainty feels palpable.  We’re in the age of disruption.  Entire industries seem to be born over the course of a few short years, while others die out just as quickly.  It’s popular to say that the solution is to foster a learning organization – an attribute where new learning is constantly happening across the organization to address the ever-shifting landscape.  As Elmore would put it, we are constantly asking people to do things that they don’t yet know how to do.

But let’s be honest.  Learning is expensive.  Efficiency comes in doing what you already know how to do.  Just do more of it…faster.

In the context of schools, when budgets tighten, often the first thing out the door is a commitment to professional learning and willingness to experiment with new ideas.  We adopt a hunker-down attitude.  We do only what is deemed necessary.  This is a predictable reaction, and in the context of limited resources and resource needy schools and students, perhaps even defensible.

But it’s a devil’s bargain.

Which is why even in the hard times, you need to create spaces where, rather than doubling down on efficiency, you invest in your creative solutions and moonshot ideas. This is what Tushman & O’Reilly call building an “ambidextrous organization,” where you reap the benefits of efficiencies, while simultaneously encouraging and supporting teams within the organization that are deeply immersed in the difficult work of learning and experimenting with new ideas.  You embrace incremental improvement while incubating the possibilities for revolutionary transformation.

Be assured, if you don’t make that investment, there are others out there who will and are, and they will be ready to eat your lunch.


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