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Examiner
Author Stephen Balzac offers ways businesses can increase revenue and attract more clients.
The Efficient Light Bulb: A Productivity Fable
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By Stephen Balzac
Author Stephen Balzac offers ways businesses can increase revenue and attract more clients with his 7 Steps Ahead philosophy. Whether you're trying to hire the right people or get your team on track, this is the place for accurate, useful ...
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Business Advice
Author Stephen Balzac offers ways businesses can increase revenue and attract more clients with his 7 Steps Ahead philosophy. Whether you're trying to hire the right people or get your team on track, this is the place for accurate, useful information. Stephen is an expert on leadership and organizational development, a consultant and professional speaker, and author of \x34The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,\x34 published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of \x34Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.\x34 Contact Steve at steve@7stepsahead.com.
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By steve
Oct. 22, 2013 5:16 p.m.



This is an excerpt from my new book, Organizational Psychology for Managers.

 

Once upon a time, there was a light bulb. This light bulb was quite a remarkable light bulb: it was praised far and wide for its incredible efficiency. This light bulb gave off no waste heat. This light bulb did not contribute to global warming. It had no carbon footprint.  It did not rely on fossil fuels. Truly, it was an amazing light bulb and visitors came every day to see this remarkable light bulb.

One day, though, a traveler coming to see the light bulb in action was delayed by an unfortunate flood that closed several roads. He did not arrive until well after night had fallen. Much to his surprise, he found the light bulb sitting in a pitch dark room.

“Why aren’t you giving light?” asked the traveler.

“Give light!” replied the light bulb in shocked tones. “You must be joking. If I did that, I would use fossil fuels. I would have a carbon footprint. I would give off waste heat. I would no longer be efficient.”

“But isn’t the purpose of a light bulb to give light?” asked the traveler.

“I’ve always been told to be efficient,” replied the light bulb with a shrug. If you have never seen a light bulb shrug, it is truly a wonder to behold. The traveler would have been amazed, except, of course, that the room was too dark for him to see the miraculous event.

Once upon a time, there was a software company named “Soak, Inc.” Soak’s product relied upon a very complex database server. One day, the VP of Engineering stormed into the office and declared, “The server is too slow. We need to speed it up.”

From that day forth, every effort was focused on improving the speed of the server. Other issues were deemed insignificant beside the one, critical, goal of performance. Engineers who dared to raise other issues were publically humiliated for wasting the company’s time. Bugs that did not relate to performance issues were deemed “optional.” People who spent time reviewing the optional bugs and trying to fix them were warned that their insubordination would cost them their jobs if it did not cease immediately.

Eventually, Soak developed an amazingly efficient server. It was fast. It was robust. It was ready to demonstrate to potential clients.

The demo started out remarkably well. The server did not crash, causing some to believe that this couldn’t actually be a demonstration of a software product. Indeed, the server performed flawlessly. All would have gone well indeed for Soak had not someone noticed that the data being delivered by the server didn’t make sense. Yes, what the server had gained in performance it had lost in accuracy. In other words, it was incredibly good at very rapidly delivering useless or incorrect information.

When the engineers were questioned about this unfortunate oversight, they shrugged and replied, “We were told to be efficient.”

While it is not nearly as amazing to see an engineer shrug as it is to see a light bulb shrug, the effects are much the same.

At Soak, a goal was set, a metric for success was defined, and that metric became the sole determinant of progress. Goals are extremely powerful tools: the best thing about them is that you accomplish them. Unfortunately, sometimes the worst thing about goals is that you accomplish them. At Soak, they accomplished their goals. A dead light bulb is extremely efficient, but not useful. Similar observations can be made about the server.

Before leaping into setting a goal, especially a goal to solve a problem, it helps to understand the actual problem and to understand what the actual symptoms are. Rather than create useful goals, they fixated on a symptom. That did not, however, actually change anything.

At Soak , the VP stated that they were trying to solve the problems his company was facing as rapidly and effectively as possible. They were setting goals. They were Taking Action! Taking action is certainly helpful, but it is even more helpful to be taking the correct action. Since it’s not always possible to determine just what the correct action is, it becomes even more critical to listen to the feedback and questions from the people who are charged with actually executing the action. The engineers knew that something was wrong, but no one was willing to listen to them. As we will discuss shortly, a key aspect of successful goal setting is understanding the feedback you’re getting.

I realize that many of you reading this are probably chuckling to yourselves and thinking that this scenario could never happen at your companies. The folks at Soak said the same before, during, and even after it happened to them. The light bulb had no comment.

Productivity seems like such a simple thing. Somehow, though, it never is. As we have already discussed, cognitive shortcuts such as the Halo Effect can influence how productive we perceive someone to be. Ultimately, the only real way to measure productivity is through understanding goals and knowing how to construct goals so that they will actually get you what you want. Otherwise, you may just end up with a dead light bulb.

 



After it was released, Organizational Psychology for Managers sold out in two days at Amazon.com. Order your copy now.


 

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