Efficiency can be its own enemy (Guest commentary)

The perils of being too good for your own good
By Andrew Hargadon
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/20/2007

A recent United Airlines “non-flight” left me stranded and scrambling at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I had arrived with plenty of time to catch my final leg home to Sacramento. But in the time between deplaning and getting to the gate, United had cancelled the flight. Not for bad weather or for lack of planes, but because the flight crew was stranded in Kentucky from bad weather six hours earlier and in another part of the country. The only remaining direct flight home had more than 140 people waiting on standby. I rerouted and got the very last seat to Los Angeles, connecting to Sacramento, and was home by 1:30 a.m., only four hours late.

There is an illusory, often unnecessary, tension between the wild and crazy side of innovation and the button-downed nature of ongoing operations, which is distracting us from one of the real problems in managing innovation. My United story illustrates creativity is not the enemy of efficiency, efficiency is the enemy of efficiency.

By that, I mean the pursuit of efficiency. The relentless accumulation of little improvements in efficiency (each one a creative act on someone’s part) creates an organization that, while efficient, is no longer safe from even small disruptions in its operating environment (whether externally or internally generated). The pursuit of efficiency can move unnoticed right past effective and into something you might call hyperefficient — which sounds good but in medical parlance is a pathology.