With tongue firmly in cheek, my brother argued half-convincingly this weekend that UK football teams could increase their success by improving their efficiency. Take, for instance, the goal keeper who is active - and thereby productive - for only around 15% of the average game. Similarly, other players are only in contact with the ball or the opposing team for relatively short periods of time. ‘It would be far more efficient to reduce team sizes from, say, 11 to 6 players – or to engage the players in additional activities whilst on the pitch to fill their non-productive time.’ Now there’s an idea.
It reminded me of a conversation I had with an ex-Director of a large international bank. The bank had been successful for a time but then unexpectedly slid into crisis. I asked him what, on reflection, had led to its demise. He answered without hesitation: ‘Efficiency’. When I inquired further, he responded: ‘We reduced staff levels to reduce costs and increase profit. As consequence, Directors could delegate less and became busier. The busier they became, the less time they had to step back, view landscapes and horizons, spot emerging opportunities and risks...and the rest is history.’
There are, of course, some very compelling reasons to improve our efficiency. Take, for instance, developments in aerodynamic and engine design that make cars and aeroplanes more economical and less polluting. The problems arise when we unquestioningly associate more-efficient with more-effective. What can appear to be a great solution when viewed through an efficiency lens can prove detrimental (if not catastrophic) when viewed through a whole system, effectiveness lens. So, as leader, coach or OD, how do you address this challenge with people, teams and organisations?
I took part in a fascinating workshop this week on systemic coaching and constellations led by Sarah Rozenthuler and Edward Rowland. Part-way through, I went for a quick comfort break and smiled when I saw this sign on the wall: ‘Please refrain from spitting chewing gum in the urinals. It blocks the system.’ What a great metaphor! A simple action in one part of a system can have inadvertent and far-reaching impacts on other parts of the system – or even on the system as a whole.
This reminded me of an incident 3 years ago when I snapped my left knee in a cycling accident. It was a serious injury that left me immobilised for 3 months. As I started learning to walk again, I felt sharp pains and heard crunching sounds in my right knee. Feeling surprised and alarmed by this, I spoke with a physiotherapist who explained that I was, in effect, overcompensating for the injury in my left knee by avoiding putting weight on it – and thereby placing extra strain on my other knee.
Here’s the point. The solution to the symptoms I was experiencing in the right knee lay not in the right knee per se but in how I dealt with the left knee. Imagine now that the issue is not a knee but is an issue at work. As leaders, OD or coaches, how often do we locate an issue or a problem in a person or team, thereby attempting to address or solve it there without paying attention to factors elsewhere in the system, often out of sight, that could be creating, exacerbating or sustaining it?
Edwin Nevis, a Gestalt organisational consultant, comments that we often see and feel aspects of the macro system reflected and revealed in the micro – and vice versa too. A simple inquiry can be illuminating here, e.g. ‘Who else?’ or ‘What else?’ It draws us to step back, to be curious, to shift our focus, to consider who or what may be influencing what and how. So: what do you look for, what are you (not) noticing, what are you experiencing and how do you make sense of it?
Nick is a freelance coach, trainer and OD consultant specialising in reflective practice.