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Monday
Oct172011

What is organic efficiency?

How do you reconcile being human, being a primate, being an animal with answering your email regularly, paying bills, sending invoices, organising things, organising people, doing a job.

It has taken me many years to integrate these two aspects of life: being creative, humorous, lively, having fun; with being responsible, reliable, efficient, effective.

Remember back when you shared a house with friends or college pals there was always one person who ended up paying the bills, staying in for the plumber, phoning the plumber… the substitute mum figure, the nag perhaps.

Years passed and you found you had to become THAT PERSON at least some of the time in order to get stuff done.

I had all but given up and decided that life had to be lived in bi-polar separation: work and play, Mr Fun and Mr Boring. The thing was- it was killing me. I was always dragging my feet when it came to being efficient, or going way over the top with ‘systems’ which, when Mr Fun was in the driving seat, would be blithely ignored. The truth is- if you try to split your personality there is always a ‘settling in period’ when a new personality takes over…and that’s when the stress begins.

I was looking for some higher integrative possibility- and realised that there was one- it had been staring me in the face all these years. Organic efficiency. That is, efficiency judged from an organic, non-mechanical perspective. Example: mechanical efficiency says that you should answer every email within a day of it coming in. Organic efficiency says that some days your email answering power will be huge, other days there will be intractable emails and you’ll be otherwise occupied. Organic efficiency acknowledges that some emails do not need to be answered asap, indeed, should not. But some need instant attention. Organic efficiency acknowledges that sometimes you’re on a roll and a ton of work is done in a very short time (I have taken weeks to make a website and other times I have done it in a day).

This is the defining insight: mechanical solutions take TIME out of the equation. They assume that all parts of the day are equal. But they are not. On a simple level it makes sense not to write after a heavy lunch- so timetabling writing activities for the most appropriate part of the day is a first step towards organic efficiency. But that’s only the beginning.

What about a magic email box? You put in it all those emails you can’t think of the right answer for. When you are feeling a bit inspired you pull one out and answer it. There is no time scale on this because for the organically efficient time is not a universal, ticking away equally at all hours of the day and night. Time is simply ONE PART of the complex holistic picture any enterprise is a part of. Example: I have written books in three weeks and seven years. Both books were the same length. Both made about the same amount of money. I’m equally proud of them. But seven years is rather more, ahem, time consuming, than three weeks. Why the difference. Because one – the three weeker- was written organically and the seven year one was written mechanically. I tried too hard on the seven year book grinding what enthusiasm I had into grit that just got in my eyes.

Organic efficiency uses what nature offers and runs with it. It uses enthusiasm, momentum, inspiration and adds it to a well run plan. It also uses nature’s way of finishing things, always a problem if you lean too much on inspiration. Nature has seasons. Find your own seasons for being productive and for selling what you produce. Don’t treat yourself like a mechanical milch cow there to be milked until you die.

Organic efficiency uses what is there, rather than what ought to be there in an ideal world. In an ideal world you get top people to do a top job. In the real world you work out the 80% of any job that needs doing and find people who can manage that and still keep smiling. No predator is a 100% efficient, they play a numbers game, operate on an iterative basis, going back and forth over the same ground hoovering up the left overs. If there is one way to increase efficiency all round it is to adopt iterative processes for cleaning, maintainence, and incremental quality improvement. Instead of spending 90% of your time fiddling with the last 10% of anything keep sweeping by and picking up a few more % each time. You’ll get 99% in what seems like very little effort at all.

Organic efficiency is mainly about taking a longer, wider view. When we zoom out the mechanical solution becomes only a small part of a heaving crazy organic whole. The world is what it is, and by fitting in with its tides and weirdness we can only succeed more. By trying to treat the world like a petulant engineer with a troublesome diesel engine we’ll only come to grief. For one thing, most of our interactions in the world are with people, at one remove or another, and dealing with people in a mechanical way guarantees mechanical side effects: stress, resistance, friction, breakdowns for trivial reasons, lack of direction.

The organically efficient first locate themselves within the world, the greater world so to speak. They remove the labels and look at the people involved, at what is really going on rather than what a mechanically perfect situation should be. At a literary festival I was given the tedious job of making goodie bags for authors. Mechanical efficiency suggests that this simple task needs one person. I got five friends to help me in a production line. It was fun, fun, fun and super quick. A production line looks mechanical- and can be- but it can also be a great laugh- which means more energy left over for doing other stuff. The mechanical solution would be to have one person doing goodie bags, another on some other task- each isolated , each bored and slightly frustrated. When faced by mechanical boring jobs most people become slackers, not surprisingly. To motivate we need to make things more of a laugh. Organic efficiency takes account of the human spirit- its need for friendship, and good friends too, not just ‘work mates’. The extreme violence largescale faceless capitalism has done to the human spirit has been well documented, following Marx we assume that it’s the way the workers lose out on the loot that counts. But factory owners can be just as miserable as workers. Those miserable bosses, like Mr Burns in the Simpsons, use mechanical methods to slowly destroy a workforce in the interests of ‘efficiency’. Britain no longer has a homegrown car industry despite our obvious engineering talents. It is interesting that the metal workers of Birmingham, whose grandchildren became car workers before losing their jobs, used to take Monday off, sometimes Tuesday too, start working full time on Wednesday. Steam through Thursday and sometimes all night into Friday to get the work done on time. Then take off and enjoy their weekend, extending it if need be. As a writer I’ve had to find my own way of working that doesn’t do too much violence to the well-springs that supply the ideas that are the basis of new writing. I’ve found, now that I am organically efficient, that ‘wasting’ two hours walking each morning along the cliffs more than pays for itself in terms of energy, enthusiasm and ideas- such as this one, which was conceived on just such a walk.

Organic efficiency can mean looking at the way nature solves a problem and taking a hint. Brainstorming, I’ve found, works well as a way of solving a defined problem, also as a way of coming up with catch phrases. However it is not very good at bringing a problem into focus. And that is usually the MAIN problem. Once a problem is lined up in your sights and the range is set, you can pretty much say it’s solved. But when the problem is a bit slippery I’ve found the mechanical blitzkrieg of a brainstorming session just results in everyone feeling ‘creative’ and a lot of fizzling out later on. Instead you need the organic approach- look at the way perception works- we’re designed to notice things on the periphery. Look slightly side-on at something in the distance and you’ll see it more clearly. Instead of banging away at something head on use a spiralling approach- even going away from the subject perhaps as I do by taking a walk or some other kind of journey. Instead of waiting for chance to build serendipity into the process, build it in organically. Writers nap in the afternoon to get better ideas- it works- maybe executives should be doing it too.

It always seems to come back to time. Being in a rush is now part of the human condition- yet we all know that rushing is the best way to cock up everything – be it a poem or a penalty kick. But telling people NOT to rush is unfair- when the system around them is designed to create and maintain a rush. The only way out of rushing is to embrace organic efficiency, that is, act in a way that takes the most informed view of the humans involved and the duration such an action is likely to take. You can’t rush a tree- it grows at it’s own rate- we need to recognise, and use, the natural and differing duration of things to be more efficient in what we do. 

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