A discussion of why big organizations are inherently inefficient and grow more indolent as they grow more profitable, and why we all work harder than we have to.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being lazy. I believe it’s human nature (and natural, period) to only work as hard as you have to. Only shareholders and customers care about ‘productivity’ — that modern euphemism for more work for less pay. With few exceptions, if we could be comfortable doing less work, we would. In an ideal world, we could each work an hour a day, or a day a week, and all live comfortably. So why don’t we?
The main reasons are:
Many of us have sought to escape this wage slavery by becoming entrepreneurs, but thanks to the massive power of large corporate oligopolies, and the equally massive subsidies and tax breaks their political contributions earn them, entrepreneurs need to work even harder to garner the crumbs that are left for them in niches the oligopolies can’t be bothered to corral for themselves.
The irony is that once these oligopolies reach the level of comfort their power earns them, they naturally can, and do, become lazy themselves. Why produce quality locally when you can outsource production to China and let them do all the work? Why innovate when you can simply hire an army of lawyers to patent everything and sue anyone who dares threaten your industry dominance (or just buy them out)? Why provide good service when through bad service you can coerce customers into ‘self-care’?
Nowhere is this trend to big business laziness more evident than in the information and entertainment media. In television’s early days there was an enormous pioneering spirit and sense of responsibility to the viewing public. You had news and public affairs programming that was hard-hitting and investigative. You had dramas that were brilliantly written and so innovative that they embarrassed big-budget Hollywood with their courage and creativity. You had comedies that were genuinely funny, heart-warming and heart-rending in turn.
Today you have timid media unwilling to challenge or investigate government and corporate wrong-doing — the news is endless sound bites, the same video is repeated on every network — shared by the networks to cut costs, and focus is on cheap, easy stories — the crime blotter and celebrity scandals. Instead of well-crafted drama you have ‘reality TV’ — cheap, contrived, improvisational ‘staged’ drama with no message or information value spewed out by unimaginative producers and delivered by semi-literate amateurs. And as I have written before, and as a new article by James Martin (not available online) entitled The Future of Comedy: It’s Not Even Funny points out, ‘neo-funny’ comedies feature cheap humiliation and embarrassment of characters “that make the audience cringe rather than laugh”, in place of wit and humour that takes skill and genuine effort to create.
In short, the media (of all genres, not just television) have gotten lazy, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. Of course this is due in part to the fact that this strategy minimizes costs and hence increases profits, which is what modern corporations, alas, are all about.. But, bottom line, there is no right-wing conspiracy in the media — the right-wing slant exists because it’s easier and cheaper to pander to that audience segment, and there is today no sense of responsibility to either inform or truly entertain the public.
This is not to suggest that people, even executives, in large corporations do not work hard. On the contrary, because their ‘productivity’ has come at the expense of mid-management and now top management jobs, those who remain are working harder than ever. And large organizations. as John Ralston Saul has demonstrated, are inherently bureaucratic and inefficient, so an enormous amount of largely wasted time and unproductive work is required just to keep them from sinking into a bureaucratic quagmire.
So ultimately, no one benefits — as shareholders and customers we are getting higher profits and lower prices, but as customers we are also getting lower quality, and as workers we are getting lower wages, often, when we are laid off, as entrepreneurs, and often despite working longer hours.
Interestingly, there is a segment of the entrepreneurial workplace that has found the best of all worlds in this chaotic and overworked economic system. These are the people who have founded Natural Enterprises, keying in on niches the oligopolies cannot, or cannot be bothered, to fill, working modest hours for comfortable wages with low risk and 100% control over their company and destiny. They are true models for the rest of us, in large and small organizations alike — they work only as hard as they must, producing goods and services that customers genuinely need, at a fair price, and loving every moment of their work.
Are they lazy? Damned right. They know there are more important things in life than work, and that no one on their deathbed ever wished they had spent more time at the office.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking large organizations for being lazy while praising entrepreneurs for the same thing. They’re both rewarded for what they do, and it would be illogical to expect them to behave otherwise.
What this indicates, however, is that the economic and legal system that produces this dysfunctional behaviour is seriously broken. The answer is to change the economic and legal system to discourage oligopolies and offshoring, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.
Would the world be better if we all worked shorter hours, for our own businesses, for more modest ROIs, trading less ‘stuff’ for more time for ourselves, our families and our communities? I think it would.
Cartoon by Robert Weber from the New Yorker. I know I posted it last week, but it’s so good and so a propos of this post I couldn’t resist a re-post.
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