Clever trumps diligent

Efficiency and effectiveness aren’t terms you stumble upon in your typical youth. You have to look for the ideas before you’ve learned the words.

I must have been about 15 or 16 early in my high school career. For reasons that I have no memory of, I signed up (or was signed up) for an after school activity called Junior Achievement. The premise is to learn how business works by starting a small company with a group of other students. You choose a product, make it, and sell it. A gentle introduction to capitalism.

As I said, I may have been pushed into this more than choosing it for myself although that runs very contrary to the way my parents worked.

How I got there isn’t really the point.

I did it for two years.

In the second year I was somehow in charge of our little company despite being younger than most of the other participants. Our product was jumper cables to sell to car owners to restart dead batteries. We had to obtain the raw materials and parts, cut cable to size, assemble and package the cable sets, and sell them to prospective customers.

The salient memory for me is how we managed to sell our products. The implicit premise of this whole endeavor was to imitate all of the functions of a typical small business. In the mythology of American small business that included selling door-to-door. An activity meant to build character and grit I’m sure. Also an activity that terrorized an introverted young teen boy.

I have no memory of whose idea it was. Unlikely that it was mine. Doesn’t matter. We chose to approach local fire and police departments and sold to them in bulk to equip their fleets. For a little bit more effort we got a lot more result. We ended up at or near the top of all the other companies in the program that year.

The lessons baked into the Junior Achievement program were meant to be about the value of hard work, cooperation, and diligence. All good lessons. But the seed planted was the value of thinking problems through before charging ahead.

We encourage diligence. It’s easy to see and evaluate and promote.

But the real payoff goes to clever.

Dethroning productivity: becoming more effective

There’s an itch I’ve been picking at for some time. Everyone wants me to be more productive. All I need to do is listen to their podcast, buy their book , install their software, or implement their system. I’ve spent too much time and energy chasing those promises with limited return.

Productivity metrics are appealing because they’re easy. Count the number of notes you’ve captured to your personal knowledge management system. Plot the number of words you wrote today. Reward the programmer who wrote the most lines of code last week.

Productivity matters if you’re turning out cars or cellphones. Not a great metric if you’re in a more creative line of work. Einstein wasn’t lauded for how many papers he wrote. Picasso wasn’t praised for being prolific.

We appreciate this distinction in clearly creative realms. We haven’t managed to transfer that appreciation to less obviously creative spaces. More importantly, we haven’t grappled with the reality that we now all operate in creative realms.

Peter Drucker made a step in this direction when he wrote The Effective Executive (see Effective executives are design thinkers for my review). Although Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker”, he didn’t extend his analysis of effectiveness to them. But we knowledge workers now drive the economy and we don’t have good ways to sort out how to manage ourselves appropriately.

I’d like to spend the next few weeks taking a deeper look at what it might mean to shift from thinking about efficiency to thinking about effectiveness. Can we think and talk about effectiveness in ways that can better shape how we go about doing our creative work?