I heard a terribly depressing thing from one of my clients yesterday:

We don’t have time for the luxury of play

It’s a sentiment that I hear in one way or another from many of the organisations with which I work. That the Calvinist ethic of hard work has lead to a focus on efficiency above all else in so many businesses. But efficiency is measured solely in terms of easy metrics – mostly cash. “Let’s use space more efficiently!” (Let’s pay less rent by losing desks.) “Let’s use talent more efficiently!” (Let’s have fewer people doing the same amount of work.)

Relentlessly tapping away at any fat in a system is a recipe for disaster. Running a machine at absolute peak capacity for long periods will cause it to fail (peak capacity is always greater than the maximum recommended capacity – yes you can run it faster. Just don’t.)

But knowledge and people-based organisations aren’t machines. The relentless use of Taylorism to streamline knowledge working through the deployment of information technology doesn’t scale in the ways that manufacturing processes did. We have reach a point of zero gain when it comes to returns in productivity on the basis of investment in technology. And we’ve been there for some time. I’m not sure we even know what productivity is in a knowledge and people-based organisation. These places, when run deterministically, are very good at producing worthless outputs (yes – that PowerPoint; those meetings).

“We don’t have time for the luxury of play.”

It’s because we’re too busy working ineffectively, with no time to investigate alternatives, to adapt to the opportunities that new technology might proffer to enable us to work more effectively, more creatively, more enjoyably. We are caught in the firefighting trap: too busy extinguishing fires to prevent new ones.

No organisation can be too busy to have time to play. Because experimentation, tinkering, play is how we make organisations better. If you run a machine at peak capacity for long periods it will fail. If you exercise an organism at peak capacity for long periods it will die.

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