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How effective is being efficient? – Of Value, Creativity and Innovation

As you can see below MindNode is a tool that makes mind mapping easy. The guys from IdeasOnCanvas write that “Mind Maps are a visual representation of your ideas, starting with a central thought and growing from there.” And our thoughts did indeed grow. When we started we wanted to deconstruct efficiency and soon enough found two promising clues which we would investigate further. This was the aspect of value in the first place and secondly a link to creativity.

If you are using Safari download the MindMap here.

But first things first: We started off with elements of efficiency in the upper left branch. Wikipedia tells us, that efficiency is comprised of three main elements. First, the time a process takes from its beginning to its end. Second, the effort it takes someone or something to reach a set goal. And third, the amount of expenses it takes to reach it. Waste would be another aspect that might be worth mentioning at this point. But since it is possible to waste time, effort and costs alike we chose to exclude it at this stage.

The next step was to find out metrics for each element as well as a way to measure them. What sounded like an easy task at first would soon lose its ease. Finding metrics and measurements for time didn’t turn out to be an obstacle at all. The metric for effort wasn’t a though nut either. In 1977 Maurice Halstead tried to identify measurable properties of software and relations between them. His metrics were quite effective and sciences and economics absorbed them soon after. In contrary to the measurement. Finding the two main monitoring methods called for quite a bit of reading since different fields use different terms for similar things. Cost on the third hand was both a good and a long read. There is a huge amount of literature and articles out there. And even more opinions that are more or less relevant to the topic.

Most of these opinions stem from economics. And it was also the economic perspective that became our reference point. For both the progressing research as well as the mind map. In another article on an ngram of efficiency we took a closer look at efficiency in the 20th century. The key findings were that it is linked to values that society believes to be desirable. These values are not static but in a constant flux. According to Foucault and Habermas they are a product of a series of social discourses that shaped and formed our ideas of what we want and how we want to achieve it. Do we want to achieve an increase in productivity at all costs or should it be environmentally sustainable? Is a new IT service still lucrative even if cheap energy isn’t as easily available as ten years ago?

Paul Heynes makes an interesting point when it comes to value: “The inescapably evaluative nature of the concept raises a fundamental question for every attempt to talk about the efficiency of any process or institution: Whose valuations do we use, and how shall they be weighted? Economic efficiency makes use of monetary evaluations. It refers to the relationship between the monetary value of ends and the monetary value of means. The valuations that count are, consequently, the valuations of those who are willing and able to support their preferences by offering money.”

Money is a remarkably well working denominator for value. I might even go as far as to argue that it is the most effective denominator there is. It doesn’t take into account who you are or where you are coming from. As long as you have access to it only few will ask questions. If we look at it in the context of private ownership then we get to the root of its effectiveness. It adds a measure by justifying it as the amount someone is willing to pay. And it pretty much equalises social differences by doing so. Theoretically anyone can access and use money. For example the whole idea of the American Dream is based upon the assumption that anyone can make it from rags to riches. Practically I am not a dreamer.

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The referential context we call (…) the western world or modernity.

Norbert Bolz writes in “Die berechnende Vernunft” (from german: “The Calculating Reason”): “Pecunia non olet (from latin: “money doesn’t stink”) – money has the convenient property to be autonomous from its history. It is the ideal medium to be freed from ones origin. (…). It creates the referential context we call Europe, the western world or modernity, even post-modernity.”

Being efficient and creating efficiencies is lastly about being more productive. And what better denominator for a product is there than money? And secondly does money create our modernity? Where does this rather dry view come from? Max Weber calls it an ethic of work and writes about a religious character when it comes to working and earning money. 150 years ago Karl Marx put it that money “forces the contradictory to a kiss”. He notes that money circumvents what makes us human. By that he means our affections and emotions. In short: being happy.  Bolz is a bit more concrete when it comes to the impact of money on society. In his view Homo Oeconomicus is a pale player. He doesn’t care what he is being sold. As long as it is good and worth the money. Or in other words the goods become replaceable. The player loses his notion of originality and enters a state of emotional slump. He is uprooted.

But can it be that money is the ultimate end of all means? We took a closer look at value and realised that there is such things as cultural and social value as well. But they are hard to grasp and even harder to measure. Most of their characteristics can be captured in personal testimony, qualitative assessments, case studies and critical reviews. Not in hard numbers. Nevertheless they play an important role according to Nathan Rosenberg of Stanford. He says, “it is taken axiomatic that innovative activity has been the single, most important component of long term economic growth.” It is these values that spark the creativity necessary to innovate. Not monetary incentives. And innovating is a creative task indeed. If we draw on a rather economic definition of creativity it “involves the production of novel, useful products.” While innovation takes these products and maximises their economic aspects by turning it into a product or service considered to be competitive and of value.

This article is about efficiency, isn’t it? Did we fail to recognise that every concept of efficiency has to employ some measure of value when we started to venture off into the realms of creativity? Simple answer is ‘no’. Creativity is among other things a skill. There is nothing mystical to it. Nor is it reserved to a creative elite. As a skill it is measurable to a certain extend. In the case of creativity it is a.o. a scale called the 4P’s. It consists of process, product, person and place and applies a measure to compare the creative results of different people. It also takes into account that creativity isn’t a uniformly concept and tries to mediate between different kinds of creativity.  These can be different thought mechanisms and techniques, intellectual habits, the circumstances in which creativity flourishes and lastly measures that focus on the creative output.

If we take this perspective of creativity as a framework we can even go as far as to apply it in a management context. In an organisation we can find employees and employers. People who work creatively need to be motivated to combine their expertise with creative thinking skills in order to come up with innovative ideas. Whereas an employer needs to allocate resources to the right people while maintaining a hands-off approach for people to work autonomously.

To effectively innovate it is necessary to create and foster efficiencies that boost creativity. Effectiveness is goal oriented. The long-term effect of an innovation should hence be to stimulate economic growth. It is effective if its successful in doing so. However to efficiently innovate means to possibly rethink the structure of an organisation. Efficiency is about doing things the right way. In order for employees to work as creative as possible it is necessary to create an environment that allows people to get their creative juices flowing.

There is yet more to come about what it takes to innovate efficiently. A little excursion into efficient workplaces and what it means to be creative at work. In the meantime tell us what you think what it takes to effectively innovate. Don’t be shy, let us know.

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