The Virtue of Inefficiency?
Sometimes, the quest for efficiency is a red herring. Consider the example of the first light bulb, described in The Bottomless Well: The Twilight of Fuel, the Virtue of Waste, and Why We Will Never Run Out of Energy:
Thomas Edison’s first light bulb wasn’t at all efficient. One 1905 observer complained that “the incandescent lamp is an extremely poor vehicle for converting electric energy into light energy, since only about 4 percent of the energy supplied to the lamp is converted into light energy, the remaining 96 percent being converted into heat energy.” And the power plant that Edison built to light his bulb didn’t convert even 10 percent of its heat into electricity.
But the end-to-end losses of over 99 percent seemed worthwhile to produce such a wonderfully clean, compact, cool, and safe source of light. Efficiency was beside the point. As Jill Jonnes recounts in Empires of Light, gas and oil lamps didn’t stand a chance against such a superior alternative.
Sometimes a concern for efficiency undercuts what really matters. To have said “96 percent of the energy that goes into the light bulb produces heat, not light, so let’s get rid of this thing” would have missed the most important thing: we have light. And this is way better than oil lamps.
It’s often the same way in organizations. An organization often starts out vibrant and energetic and full life. Things are getting done, and people love what they are doing.
But then someone says “we need to get this organized better.” So they bring in the efficient organizers, and the life and spirit of the organization is efficencized right out of it.
Of course, organizing is a good thing. The problem is in treating it as the main thing. Or, which is the same thing, sacrificing the things that create the life and spirit of the organization to the perceived need to “have control” and be efficient.
Don’t be an efficient organizer — someone who cares about cost-cutting and efficiency as though they are more important than the mission and goals of the organization. Put the mission first. Be efficient where you can, but don’t let that become the point.