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Letting Go of Efficiency Can Accelerate Your Company

This post lists the key insights from this article, based on an interview with Adam Pisoni, co-founder and CTO of Yammer.


Traditional models are broken

“Efficiency is great if you can plan for the long-term,” Pisoni says. “If you know what you’re going to do for a long period of time, you can really get into the nuts and bolts of how to do it efficiently.” But because efficiency, by design, locks in roles, processes and practices, it also makes it much harder to change.

The minute the future becomes unpredictable, efficiency can become your enemy.

“It would be naïve to think that no one inside Tower Record, a CD-ripping company, saw the digital revolution coming or advocated for innovation. But the structure of their company locked them into traditional retail,” Pisoni says. This ultimately spelled their demise.

Responsiveness: The New Model

This uber-shift from efficiency to responsiveness requires a new framework for making all decisions on a daily basis.

To help leaders get started, Pisoni shares a simple way to think about this new framework. Imagine three spectrums, each “tuned” with a slider (like on a music mixing board). Your company falls somewhere on each of these spectrums:

Secrecy vs. transparency: In the efficiency model, roles are prescribed, no one needs information beyond what is necessary to execute their piece of the plan. If you expect your organization to be more responsive, your team needs context — they need to know what’s going on in your company and in the market (think of the designers of the Red Robin Tavern Burger talking directly to servers). The rise of cross-functional groups demands that information be shared between team members to maximize the value of your organization.

Planning vs. experimentation: Efficiency stems from long-term planning — if anything went wrong, it was because you weren’t able to predict and plan for it. In an era that demands you leverage the benefits of unpredictability, you need to create a culture of hypothesis-testing and quickly change course based on results.Read This Next

Control versus empowerment: In the efficiency model, people are hired for a skill set, given a role, and then told how to execute it. Innovation isn’t the priority; leaders simply want employees to implement a known plan. This is no longer the case. “When we say ‘empower,’ it doesn’t mean team members are empowered to do whatever they want. Everyone still has a role. But in the responsiveness model, they’re empowered to innovate on how they deliver their value,” Pisoni says.

Creating lasting change is about changing everyday decisions.

Take another look at those sliders, and you’ll see that they’re all connected by a figurative “rubber band.”

“The three sliders aren’t sequential; they’re deeply interrelated,” he says. When companies try to move just one, it almost always fails. “Let’s say your company is all the way on the left, totally efficient, and one day you decide to make things totally transparent. You push that slider all the way to the right — but only that one. Well, now everyone in the company can see all the problems, but they have no power or resources to fix them,” Pisoni says.

“You have to move the sliders in concert — and it’s not about moving everything all the way to the right,” Pisoni says. “It’s about gradually moving, bit by bit, finding what works, and accepting that it’s going to be really uncomfortable for everybody.”

Building Responsiveness from Scratch

Most startups believe in iteration of their products. Now they need to apply the same thinking to their organizations.

“In 2015, if you go to your people and say, ‘Our product is a big experiment. We’re always experimenting,’ they’re not going to be surprised. But you’re also going to have to say, ‘The organization is an experiment, too, so don’t be surprised if it changes. We’re working together on this.’”

Still, Pisoni isn’t advocating wholesale change — it’s about gradually shifting your approach to every decision no matter what it is. To start, just identify one problem, pick one team that’s bought into this process and enlist them to try something new.

“Startups are very familiar with hack days — you get so much done, right? So what would happen if you tried a five-week ‘hack day’ project?” Pisoni asks. Pick an objective your company has decided is important, get the necessary team members together, and establish the target but not the process. Have them figure it out using responsiveness as a guide.

The Value of Responsiveness

By breaking down hierarchy and conducting smaller-scale, cheaper experiments, you can dramatically reduce the cost of failure and ultimately make your process both more responsive and more efficient.

“The best news is that — because we’re still just figuring this responsiveness model out — we’re at the low-hanging-fruit phase,” Pisoni says. This may not be true in another decade, but for now, even starting a group where people can talk about a burger yields transformative results. Small changes, and in many cases really easy ones, will move the needle. “That’s not the hard part. People are afraid because all they know is increasing control or planning. Right now, the hard part is trying something different and seeing what happens.”

People are naturally innovative. They see the problems. They often have solutions. But companies beat it out of them.

In many ways, the responsiveness model isn’t about instilling something new — it’s about removing barriers. Give your team access to information, tools to experiment and the freedom to execute their role, and you’ll unlock untold willpower, bold ideas, and brand-defining originality. “It’s usually not hard. It’s actually pretty easy. Many companies trip themselves up because ‘easy’ is counterintuitive. But really, it’s just a leap of faith,” Pisoni says.

So have a hack day. Try a new internal communication tool. Or implement one of the most transformative changes Pisoni’s seen: Open dialogue between leadership and the rest of the team.

Many of the companies he works with have begun to hold regular Q&As with their CEOs. “In every instance, employees love it. The CEO is blown away by the insight they get, too. And that’s so easy. It’s an hour of time once a week.” The shift toward responsiveness is mostly about reorienting your mental models away from the hierarchy and toward the network.

“Just take one step,” Pisoni urges. “Some things are easier done than said.”

5 min​ read

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