Sin, thy name is efficiency

January 18, 2007

My thanks to Gary Oliver for this quote from 1972. He suggests, and I concur, that the quote stands even if you delete the word ‘computing’.

More computing sins are committed in the name of efficiency (without necessarily achieving it) than for any other single reason – including blind stupidity.
Wulf, W. A. “A Case Against the GOTO,” Proceedings of the 25th National ACM Conference, August 1972, pp. 791-97.

Efficiency is all about stripping away all apparently superfluous functionality so that all that is left is what you really need. It is at the heart of BPR and its modern successor Six Sigma. The problem is that the definition of what is superfluous at any one time is very specific to the context of that time and the knowable future. Focusing on efficiency is great for aspects of an organisation that are process based, but not for the more fluid and complex areas of innovation, service etc etc. There the issue is to be effective which implies a degree of planned inefficiency, the grit in the oyster, that provides adaptive capacity over time. Efficiency is all well and good for stable environments, but for all other context we need to focus on resilience.

All of this links well with a recent DEMOS report (picked up by several bloggers including Dissident) which indicates that government in the UK is finally starting to realise that evidence based policy, like process engineering has its boundaries. If we can start to break them of the habit of outcome based measures at the same time we may have a chance of a decent public sector in the UK sometime soon!

All feed the growing need for evidence-based policy. But expertise has always been about more than evidence. Expertise is also about judgement, about wisdom, about asking new questions and challenging convention.

The one thing I am sure of is that a failure to realise the natural limitations or boundaries of process and evidence-based policy(or any other approach for that matter) can destroy otherwise healthy organisations. I have a nasty feeling that in a few years time we will be saying: More sins are committed in the name of evidence (without necessarily seeing it) than for any other single reason – including blind stupidity.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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