The problem with productivity

Dixon Bainbridge


November 21, 2017

Am I the only one who shudders at the mention of the word ‘productivity’? It’s a code word employers and their representatives use when what they mean to say is: You are all going to work more and we’re not going to pay you any more.

The Productivity Commission has stuck its head up again recently. You may remember it came up with some outstanding ideas on the way the superannuation system could be improved. This time it’s aiming even bigger, and is looking at the entire economy. So that’s all of us.

Productivity is the lever business leaders grope for when they’ve run out of real ideas – you know, like how to innovate or actually be creative. It’s similar to how politicians and the readers of newspapers turn to ‘common sense’ when they have no actual expertise in a given subject.

Everything I know about productivity I learned from football, not unlike the French philosopher Albert Camus, who once said that, “All I know most surely about morals and obligations I owe to football”. Camus was a goalkeeper. Those guys have plenty of thinking time.

Productivity is the ratio of outputs to inputs. You can work harder to improve productivity, but it’s much more satisfying (and much less effort) to improve inputs by working smarter.

The football (as in soccer) team I play for has an entrenched habit of taking throw-ins and throwing the ball to the opposition. The smartest thing we could do is to try, instead, to throw it to someone on our own team, who would then knock it back to the thrower’s feet, and then away we go. So, of course, we hardly ever do that and we’re constantly chasing the opposition around the pitch.

A teammate who knows about football – and judging by the car he drives, also about business (and possibly drug dealing) – suggested that our productivity as a team is shot because we keep doing stupid things like giving the ball away. If we could just improve our inputs by being smarter, we’d produce better outputs, and our productivity would improve. We’d get more out of it without working harder.

We couldn’t immediately agree on what the outputs should be, but after we lost 6-0 there seemed to be a loose consensus that failing to score any goals at all, and shipping six to the opposition, was not the sort of output we wanted.

Then there was an argument about whether conceding a goal counted as an input or an output, and for whom. But before we could draw any hard and fast conclusions, the beer ran out and we all went home.

In a football scenario, improved productivity occurs when you stop doing stupid things and start being smarter. The same is true at work, except there are not as many obvious ways to do things smarter. Finding them requires creativity and insight, and a willingness to get a few things wrong before you get things right.

In fact, in a work context, it often seems like our ability to work smarter is actively being undermined. It was another French philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, who said: “In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team.” But in business, too often, the opposition we’re up against is not the competitors in our industry, but the management inside our own business, especially when there’s some sort of reward on offer for them if they can increase productivity.

Since we’re not being helped to work smarter, we’re asked to work harder: for longer hours during the week; on weekends; and sometimes even when we’re supposed to be on holiday. Then when our output increases, even though it looks like we’re being more productive, in fact our inputs have gone up, too, so the ratio hasn’t changed. Then, the most creative task of management is to disguise or ignore the inputs and take credit for the outputs.

Sometimes our productivity actually falls, because the output does not increase proportionally to the (hidden) increase in inputs. And then someone goes and gets sick and the entire house of cards collapses anyway.

Since philosophy seems to have limited application in a business setting, perhaps the final word this month should go to the legendary manager of Liverpool FC, Bill Shankly, who wasn’t talking about business when he made this comment, although he might as well have been.

“Football,” Shankly said, “is a simple game complicated by idiots.”