Pursue effectiveness not productivity

The Magic of Theatre

One of the many hats I’ve worn over the years is that of “Production Stage Manager”. Backstage is a wonderful vantage point to learn how what happens behind the scenes connects to what the audience sees and feels.

If an element of a set is out of the audience’s sight lines, it more than likely will remain unpainted. During rehearsals I will sit in the auditorium with the set designers to verify what can and cannot be seen.

By the same token, we will spend hours working out the colors and intensity of the lighting changes on a single singer in a three minute number. I might be responsible for coordinating dozens of lighting cues during that number to ensure that we enable the singer to deliver the director’s intent.

It is meaningless to discuss (or even think about) what it would mean to be more productive at executing those lighting cues.

Knowledge work is more theater than factory

The work that distinguishes success from failure in today’s economy is knowledge work. We make a mistake when we think the important word here is “work” and look to the factory for insight. Yet this is where most of the thinking I see about the doing of knowledge work starts.

The lesson from the theater points in a better direction. One choice could be to embrace the arts metaphor fully and displace the factory for a stage. But that would likely create its own limitations.

Let’s go a layer deeper.

What makes the analogy between knowledge work and theater interesting is that effort and outcome aren’t correlated. No one asks or cares what effort went into delivering an art experience. They judge based on the experience not the effort.

I want to explore this shift in perspective. No one switched to a Macintosh computer based on how hard the development team worked. They switched because they sensed an opportunity to somehow be more effective at accomplishing their goals.

I’ve been nursing what Steve Johnson calls a “slow hunch” for a while now that “effectiveness” is the right organizing metric for knowledge work. Over the next month I’ll be digging deeper into that hunch to see where it takes me.

One thought on “Pursue effectiveness not productivity”

  1. Look forward to reading your hunches. Effectiveness is ALWAYS what we should aim for – even in “pure” manufacturing, efficiency is the wrong measure for most operations. It drives behaviors that damage the overall system – the overall effectiveness.

    And the obsession with efficiency becomes hardwired measures that are difficult to break out of.

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