The Paradox of Efficiency

We simultaneously desire maximum efficiency & maximum stability

A short time ago, I wrote a piece titled My Brain is Lazy. In it, I examined the resistance to change that we experience, concluding that we do not resist change; we resist what we consider a threat to our safety. I mentioned in that article that there are many avenues of thought regarding the lazy brain. The avenue we are exploring today is the brain’s inherent desire for efficiency.

 My interest in the lazy brain came in part from Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Part of that book examines both the biology and the anthropology of the brain. Kahneman provides considerable evidence that simple glucose depletion caused by concentration has a significant effect on the brain’s decision-making capacity.

It is this glucose depletion that provides the biological explanation of our desire for efficiency. In primal times, we needed to conserve energy. Any use of energy was a threat to our survival, so we developed a compulsion to complete any task with the minimal expenditure of calories. The brain, more than other organs, uses an inordinate supply of calories to complete any task, especially when problem-solving. That naturally leads us to attempt to find the simplest solution to any problem.

Ultimately, the brain only wants to feel safe. It wants the primal, limbic brain to be in repose. It does not want to feel threatened. This is why we often prefer simple solutions to complex issues. It is simply far too exhausting for the brain to delve more deeply. We settle for solving a symptom rather than a root cause.

At ExecuVision International we often see this in organizations. Companies develop a process to solve the problem at hand. Once they have created the new solution, and it has finally been accepted, they resist going further. The current solution solves the immediate need. To further examine the overall process, and how it integrates with other, existing processes is dangerous.

Dangerous? Why? Because once we begin examining process, we discover that much of what we are doing is replicative and inefficient. If we begin to pull at each inefficient thread, we unwind the whole ball of yarn. We know, inherently that the ball of yarn is not producing the results we desire, but the challenge of questioning everything is perceived by the limbic brain as an existential threat to our own value to the organization. We decide to ignore the real, deeper issue, the solution to which would require a major investment of brain energy.

Not surprisingly, our desire for maximum efficiency brings with it an accompanying distaste for bureaucracy. Our dislike of bureaucracy is that it inherently opposes the most efficient use of our energy. It is experienced by the amygdala as a threat. This is the paradox: We simultaneously desire maximum efficiency and maximum stability in our daily lives.

This rejection of bureaucracy also explains the visceral reaction to being kept on hold by customer service. It explains our anger and frustration of waiting in line. It explains our hatred of filling out repetitive forms in the doctor’s office. Our brain experiences all these delays as a waste of precious energy that the brain believes threatens our very existence.

What does this mean for you and your organization? The direct implication is that people who are operating in an inefficient organization will automatically resist the inefficiency of bureaucracy. Their energy will be diverted from the task at hand to speculation about the time they are wasting. The human mind, of course, never speculates in the positive. The human mind spends its time assessing threats. Inefficiency fundamentally threatens every member of the organization: First, as a primal reaction against waste of energy; Second, as a realization that inefficient organizations cannot survive in a dynamic, rapidly changing world.

You may see this in your own organization. Think of:

  • unproductive meetings
  • the lack of clarity regarding the corporate vision
  • repetitive tasks, perhaps well-executed, but the goals of which are unclear
  • the lack of role clarity in jobs, both for yourself and for those to whom you report

The resulting frustration stems from the basic paradox the brain experiences – the primal need for efficiency opposed to the innate desire for security.

All modern organizations are forced to address this paradox. They must create a dynamic atmosphere that embraces change, while recognizing that people will resist any change that threatens their safety. Successful companies build organizations built on trust, commitment, efficiency, and a willingness to adjust to the demands of a rapidly changing world.

How well does your organization measure up to this challenge?

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden, Professional Outsider

David Belden lived abroad for 30 years, successfully completing 5 startups and 3 major turnarounds internationally.

For over 20 years, ExecuVision International has helped companies create organizations where every employee is encouraged to contribute at their highest level of ability.

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