The last two decades have been all about ensuring that American workers are as productive and efficient as possible. But the tide is turning. Organizations have started to emphasize cultivating more innovative work products as opposed to churning out higher volumes of it.
Last year, we reported on the worldwide productivity slowdown. A report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) compared the annual growth rates for labor productivity in 32 countries for two periods, 1995-2004 and 2004-2013. Every country but one (Spain) had slower productivity growth in the second decade than in the first. In particular, the United States’ productivity decreased from 2.2 percent to 1.0 percent.
At the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the news wasn’t much better. Its report too showed that productivity is growing slower today than it has in the past. And productivity is defined in economic terms as efficiency, or delivering work in a time and energy efficient manner.
Definitions Are a-Changin'
However, in a recent Forbes article, David Sturt and Todd Nordstrom rightfully pointed out that efficiency isn’t the be all end all of business success. “Productivity in today’s business world means something new,” they said. “It’s not focused on just zero-defect proficiency. It’s not focused on just perfectly managed minutes of the day. Productivity in today’s world must focus on adaptation, innovation and forward progress.”
Without this modern definition of productivity and with teams that were efficient according to the traditional definition, Apple would have never created the iPod and auto manufacturers wouldn’t be introducing hybrid or alternative energy cars. “Without the evolution and re-invention that creativity brings, teams and companies stagnate and even die. Just ask the cellular giants who were put out of business because they couldn’t keep up with the rise of the touchscreen smartphone,” said Sturt and Nordstrom.
Indeed, some people are efficient and conscientious to a fault. They are so focused on the bottom line that they forgo brainstorming, ideation, and collaboration – and creativity suffers for it. They do what’s asked on time, but they don’t tinker and look for ways to challenge the status quo because that wouldn’t be efficient. And they isolate themselves and don’t ask others for ideas because that slows them down.
Efficiency Does Not Equal Great Work
New research on great work illustrates that efficiency may be in its death throes. The O.C. Tanner Great Work Study looked at over 1.7 million cases of great work worldwide, and found that the skills that deliver such work are actually the opposite of the governing principles of a technically efficient workday.
For example, 88 percent of great work starts with an employee asking an inquisitive question. The types of questions that the efficient worker doesn’t stop to ask, such as “Why don’t we …?” or “Should we try …? or “How can we improve on …?” are often the catalysts for industry-changing ideas. And 72 percent of great work ideas succeed because the employee speaks to many people about their solution, and incorporates diverse knowledge and viewpoints into the design.
Can We Meet in the Middle?
I don’t ever like to recommend that organizations move from one extreme to another. Inevitably, transitioning from a total focus on traditional efficiency to a total focus on its opposite is likely to result in a whole lot of chaos. My feeling is that there is room for all types in the workplace, and that the best overall style is a happy medium between action-oriented, deadline-driven work and open-ended, exploratory projects.
For me, the most important message here is that there is more to productivity slowdown data than meets the eye. Instead of becoming alarmed at the downfall of the American work ethic, we should examine exactly how we’re defining productivity and whether that’s the correct course for all circumstances.