Diligence, Efficiency, and Creativity: Can We Achieve Competing Goals?

One of the most challenging things managers, leaders, workers, planners, and doers face is the need to balance diligence and creativity with efficiency. Recently the issue of creativity and diligence vs. efficiency got me thinking about how so many of us struggle with balancing creativity (which is often low-tempo and takes time) with efficiency (which is often more high-tempo, requiring highly effective time management skills to get the job done to meet the requirements we are often squeezed into). Efficiency examples could include constraints such as the cost, schedule, performance triad in project management. To me this relates directly to the need for workers to balance quality, reliability, and safety with the efficiency of task accomplishment. I recently experienced a situation involving creativity and efficiency, which was unintentional, but which taught me a valuable lesson, and which I would like to share.

There are a few organizations and individuals whose newsletters and blogs I subscribe to. I subscribe so I will receive the content they work so hard to provide, and I appreciate this valuable content. I also blog and write newsletters, and I try to provide my newsletter subscribers with even more value-added content in my newsletters than is available through my public blog. But writing (any writing) takes time and creativity, yet without efficiency goals and constraints we can let the creativity aspect of our work run away from us, and we may never get anything accomplished. I understand this pull because when I wrote my book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams I thought over the smallest details during the editing process and made changes into the last phase of editing before the book went to production. I am sure I could have made additional changes if I looked hard enough, but at some point we need constraints to force us to commit. And that is what recently happened when I was scheduled to work on the newsletter for my subscribers.

While writing the newsletter was on my to-do list (and I already had the topic in mind), I didn’t have anything to specifically push me to get the content down and submitted to my subscribers by a certain deadline. Then it happened. One of my favorite bloggers submitted a post and when it came to my email inbox, that was the triggering moment that said “its time to get going.” So, with my thoughts organized I pushed to get that content out within a short timeframe so I could launch the newsletter to my subscribers that same day. I used the external trigger to push me to get the content written so that I could now meet my self-imposed constraints. The result was what I considered to be a value-added newsletter with image content designed to help readers understand the challenges with performance variability and safety and ways teams, crews, and organizations may learn from performance variability.

I think that in many organizations all (or nearly all) workers struggle with these types of tradeoffs. Some that are in less creative roles may not struggle as much as others, but in many jobs that are not even linked to the words “creative,” creativity,” or “design” employees must still use a degree of creativity and innovation to get the job done within pre-set constraints. Sometimes it may be necessary for us to impose our own constraints to help kick-start the process. Other times the organizational planners will provide the constraints, such as timelines and production deadlines. In any case, workers, teams, and leaders must figure out how to balance competing goals. Sometimes creativity may be embedded into the tasks without people realizing it, such as minor technique or procedural tweaks to make the product or service output better. Sometimes the production demands themselves force workers to become more innovative and creative because there are time constraints, not in spite of the time constraints. In many jobs workers will adapt to the situation to be as creative as they need to be, given the internal and external constraints, to get the job done.

What I learned from this exercise is that creativity and efficiency goals are both important and if we set boundaries to create a “safe space” for working that allows a degree of creativity and timelines we can accomplish interesting work that meets our objectives. From a safety standpoint have you ever noticed employees improvising and using creative methods to get the job done, even if it meant workarounds that were not designed into the job or which perhaps even resulted in a rule violation? If so, did you ask yourself why they might be doing this and how the conditions in the operational environment may have been set up to lead the workers to the point where they felt these workarounds were necessary? Did you ask why it made sense for them to do what they did to get the job done? These are all great discussions to have with your employees, teams, and crews so that you might learn from them as they strive to balance efficiency with productivity and as they try to balance creativity with other constraints. In some cases these workarounds may be unsafe and the rule violations may have negative consequences. In other cases perhaps the workaround may actually make the task performance safer, but the only way we can find solutions to many problems is to ask and learn. If we address these issues from a blame and punish standpoint we may not identify ways to improve organizational goals, such as safety, productivity, efficiency, quality, reliability, and creativity.

Do you have any creativity vs. efficiency stories or thoroughness vs. efficiency stories to share? If so, why not add your voice to the discussion so we can hear from you and learn as a community? Thanks for reading and have a great day!