Innovation through Laziness

Posted in Innovation by AST on Monday, June 29th, 2009

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Hmmm... I could do that... or not. (picture of a cat lying on a couch)Ok, I admit it: I’m lazy. It isn’t that I don’t like to work or that I don’t like doing many things. It’s just that I don’t like doing things that I don’t actually need to do. Here’s the paradox: if I find myself repetitively stuck doing things I don’t think make sense, I’ll work tirelessly to come up with a way to avoid doing them if I think there’s enough value in it for me in the long term. They may say that “Necessity is the mother of invention,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if Laziness wasn’t the father.

Innovation isn’t just about developing cool new products like the iPhone that sell a million units the first day. Innovation is also taking new ideas and putting them in practice to make a task easier or faster, streamline a process, reduce errors and generally make life a little more convenient for those involved. When this is done often enough, the net effect on the individual is generally positive: you have more time to do other things, including thinking more creatively; you reduce your stress levels; and you’re generally a happier person. For a business, the effects are also quite positive: improved customer service; higher worker productivity; and reduced costs. How do you achieve these goals? It all starts with YOU!

The “Why” Questions

Regardless of where you are in the organization, you have a sphere of control over how you do what you do. It might be bigger or smaller depending on both your position and the culture of the organization, but the reality is that it’s still there—even if you have to hunt a bit to find it. You’re going to put your laziness to work within your sphere of control to make you happier and help the business at the same time. In order to better understand how this works, let’s examine a few “why” questions:

Why should you care?

Granted, this is potentially a bigger question, but in this context the question can be taken rather selfishly. Do you:

  1. want more responsibility,
  2. want less stress,
  3. want more influence over how you work,
  4. want a better review, or
  5. just want a bigger paycheck?

If the answer to any (or all) of the above is “yes,” then channeling a bit of laziness in the right direction might just be the best way to do it. If you are a CEO or a file clerk, your work life is generally heavily influenced by your overall performance. Implicitly or explicitly, you have some very real performance metrics that govern how your contribution to the organization is measured. How well you score on these metrics is generally directly proportional to achieving any of the goals above, and you won’t score well if you’re frustrated and/or demotivated because you’re stuck doing things you don’t like.

Why are we doing X?

This question is probably one of the most important questions you can ask about anything you do. “Because someone told me to” is not an acceptable answer here. You need to truly understand why you perform a particular task - understanding what the objective or desired outcome really is - so that you can see how it relates to your own job responsibilities, your team’s role and what your organization does. There are many good techniques for doing this, but “The 5 Whys” Technique can be a great place to start.

Why are we doing X this way?

Now, we’re really starting to make some progress. When you ask this question, you’re already likely to have a long list of things you do every day that seem more complicated than necessary, take longer than they should, often require you to go back and correct mistakes or are just things about what you do that you hate. However, stay focused. What we’re trying to do is find ways to improve or eliminate some of these, but not at the expense the overall objectives you’re trying to achieve. That’s why the answer to the previous question is so important.

There’s Got To Be a Better Way!

Can you see some new way of still achieving your objectives but without as much hassle? Don’t be afraid to discuss this with other people involved in the process either. Alone, you might not be able to see the whole picture, but by discussing the issues with everyone involved, you might be able to come up with a solution that helps everyone.

However, you’re not out of the woods yet. In order to actually be able to avoid doing the things you don’t like, you’ve actually got to turn your idea into reality. You might not be able to do this on your own, but here’s where understanding the extent of your sphere of control is necessary. While you might not be able to do everything, there is probably some aspect of it that - with a little creativity and cooperation between your peers - you can actually do.

Take small steps at first. Make small changes for small progress. That progress is going to help move you in the right direction, and it’s also likely to help you move closer to scoring well against your performance metrics. When you do that, you demonstrate your abilities to solve problems and your enhanced credibility will allow you to tackle even bigger problems.

The best part? If it works, you’ve innovated! Congratulations! Not only that, but you get to be just a bit lazier and still do what you need to do. This allows you to tackle more interesting problems, give more attention to your customers and hopefully reduce your stress levels a bit.

Connecting to the Bottom Line

The final thing to do is evaluate where you are now vs. where you started from. Are you happier? Are you getting more done? What difference has it made in the way you do your job?

As a means to achieving your “what’s in it for you” goals, it makes sense to answer these questions. If you can answer these questions, what impact do you think that has on the business? For example:

  • If you’re happier, does this make your customers happier? Do they have a better customer experience? Are they more likely to buy again? Have you “made their day” by doing something easy for you that had a huge impact on them—just because you were happier?
  • If you’re getting more done, does that mean you’re making more sales? Are you making more widgets in the same amount of time? Can you now see other issues to be addressed that you couldn’t see before? Can you quantify what this means to your manager, your director or the Board?

In most cases, it’s straightforward to find the bottom line impact of such activities, and they will have a significant influence over time. The more you repeat this process, the bigger the impact, the easier it will be to do your job, and the easier it will be to achieve your own personal performance goals. At General Electric, Jack Welch’s team called these “work outs” because the goal was to find unnecessary work and take it out of the processes. Over time, it became a naturally-occurring activity that created a win-win situation with both the business and GE’s employees.

You can’t change the world or your company’s culture over night, but what can you do today to turn a little bit of laziness on your part into innovations that will help both you and your company be a better place tomorrow?

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