Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Killing The Goose

A colleague of mine has discovered that you can make your work life worse by making it better. Here's how that works…

She consults for a living, and her clients find her work extremely valuable. One finds it so valuable, in fact, that her work frequently finds its way into the client's standard operating procedures. That's what happened with a template she developed for reporting weekly progress.

Over a period of time, she developed and refined this template to where she was able to complete and email her weekly report in a few minutes from her desktop. After a couple of months, the client liked her template so much that they began requiring all their consultants to use it. They started hosting the template online and requiring all the consultants to complete it there. But the hosting tools were not nearly as efficient as desktop tools were, so now the report took a half hour to complete. And any further refinements my colleague might want to make to the template will have to go through "channels" – hardly worth the trouble for such little reward.

My colleague's story llustrates a pervasive weakness of modern business: its drive to standardization often kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. Here's how it happens:

Standardization Discourages Creative Workers
My colleague has seen an insignificant task become a time-consuming annoyance due to her own creative success with it. And the task itself, a living work-in-progress, has now been turned into stone. How creative do you think she will want to be with the next task that comes along?

Standardization Suppresses Adaptation
It's unlikely that the reporting template will change much in the future because it is now too well-protected in its online castle. If it does change, that will be due to an intentional top-down initiative rather than the emergent bottom-up process that gave it its value to begin with. Top-down change is reactive, at best, while emergent change is highly adaptive.

Standardization Often Costs More Than It's Worth
A five minute task now takes a half hour, and an online template (with its associated process) now needs to be maintained. The time these responsibilities take detracts from time available for more productive activity. Though there may be value in standardizing reports, the practice is notorious for seeming important while not actually being so.

Can you see where I'm going with this? I've described one work task, a half-hour's time wasted weekly, and a dose of discouragement – all for just one worker at a small company. A larger company that insists on standardizing everything in sight can expect to multiply that waste and discouragement by hundreds or thousands of workers and all their workday tasks. For that company, there won't be just one goose at stake – there will be hundreds or thousands of them. Think of all those golden eggs!

You may laugh, but the geese are, in reality, disaffected or former employees who leave their talents at home or have taken them to your competitors. Isn't that worthy of your attention?

So if you find yourself making plans to standardize yet another part of your business, think twice before you do. Scrutinize the expected value carefully, and remember that there's a lot of adaptive value in disorder.