There’s a lot of focus on being lean and mean – making our business as efficient as possible, cramming our days with activity, reinvesting every penny. This might make sense during good times, but we come unstuck when everything gets a bit squirrely. During a pandemic and recession, for instance.
Andrew J. Scott and Lynda Gratton explain in The New Long Life that if we’re too focused and efficient – what they refer to as tunnelling – we can end up in a place of scarcity. With few options to choose from, we make bad decisions. And decisions made with a scarcity mindset are both limiting and often short-term. ((For the basis of this idea, see Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir)) What we need instead is slack, a pool of resources that gives us more options. This could be savings, protected blocks of time for experimentation, or regular learning. The point is not to plan for exactly when, we’ll need to deploy these resources, but to have them in reserve if they’re needed. And they will be at some point.
In Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb rails against (amongst many other things) our obsession with optimisation. Yes, being super-efficient is effective under very specific circumstances, but it doesn’t help businesses survive in tougher times. As we’ve seen over the last few months, firms are imploding partly because they don’t have the capacity to try anything new. Already stretched to the limit, they can’t adapt without taking expensive risks. They’ve been tunnelling for years and lack other options.
As Taleb illustrates, Mother Nature likes redundancies (or slack) and the human body keeps going thanks to spare parts. We are generally blessed with two eyes, two lungs, two kidneys and can still function when one of them refuses to cooperate. An extreme approach would be to share kidneys and rent out our eyes at night when we don’t need to look at anything – Airbnb for our organs. Efficient, yes; sensible, no. We don’t know what we might need tomorrow.
We don’t know exactly what the future holds (thank goodness), but by being a bit more slack and keeping hold of our kidneys, we can prepare ourselves for it.