Too busy for progress: Why efficiency is killing business


By Jason Fox

Irrelevance awaits business leaders who find themselves too busy for meaningful progress. It’s an insidious threat and the shadow side of the number one breakthrough business idea from the Harvard Business Review in 2010—‘The Progress Principle’.

Research by Professors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer identified that people’s motivation is at its highest when they can see how their efforts contribute to progress. This explains why we find lists of things to do so motivating – to the point where we will sometimes write down things we have already done, just so that we can tick them off to get a sense of progress. It is one of the most useful business concepts for any leader: visibility of progress is more important as a motivator than peer support, clear goals, incentives and rewards.

But beware: organisations that ​utilise strong metrics for performance and ​prioritise operational efficiency can suffer from A Delusion of Progress. In this scenario, the activities that provide the richest and most immediate sense of progress are the well-established default ways of doing things. This means we feel a sense of progress by completing emails, attending meetings, ticking all the right boxes and being productive. But the question remains: is this meaningful progress?

We need to carve out time amongst the busyness to refresh what true progress looks like within our current and emerging business context. Or else, one day after a long winning streak, you may wake up to realise that our business is no longer relevant.

Patterns and default thinking

The path to relevance starts with the identification of patterns and default thinking. Most of the time, these patterns are needed – they save us time, and make us more efficient. But if they get in the way of strategy – that’s when we are in trouble.

Good strategy can feel incredibly inefficient. For example, when a strategic offsite is done well, there is room for curiosity and empathy. There is an opportunity to explore better ways, and to meet the anticipated needs of your customers. The conversation is emergent and you resist the urge to jump to quick fixes and familiar solutions.

But, when too busy for meaningful progress, strategy meetings are made ‘efficient’. We fall into familiar patterns: a tight agenda is made in order to optimise time and previous templates are used in order to provide structure. In this scenario, someone may challenge the default strategy—but it won’t be long into the discussion until someone points out that we are already running over time. The group will then rally to get back on track with the agenda, choosing to persist with the established default, or to go with the idea that maximises harmony (and group think) amongst the team. Then, at the end of the day, the leadership team will find themselves staring at a set of goals that looks disturbingly similar to last year’s set of goals. Efficient, yes. Effective: not one bit.

If all this sounds too familiar to your business,​ ​here are three​ ​hints on how you generate meaningful progress:

  • Review your business model every six months with a diverse team. Invite input from customers and those who work directly with them;
  • Develop rituals that emphasise critical reflection and new learning. Rotate the chair for your meetings and integrate TED talks or similar stimulus material; and
  • Reward useful failures to signal that curiosity and experimentation is valued.

The future belongs to those willing to pioneer beyond the established efficiencies of default thinking.

Dr Jason Fox is the author of How to Lead a Quest: A handbook for pioneering executives. Learn more at


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