When More is Not Better

It doesn’t mention COVID-19, but 2020 couldn’t have been a better year for the release of When More is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, by Roger L. Martin. This book piqued my interest and went to the top of my reading list because I often consider what we’ve learned from the challenges of doing business during the pandemic and what forms of economic recovery will be most beneficial in the short- and long-terms.

The book’s findings are based on a six-year project on the future of democratic capitalism in America conducted by the Martin Prosperity Institute. Martin is Professor Emeritus at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, where he served as Dean. He is a trusted strategy advisor to company CEOs worldwide. A Canadian by birth, he was educated in the United States and currently resides here.  

Martin says that the prevailing model of the U.S. Economy as a machine that can be taken apart, each part be made to run more efficiently, then the whole reassembled to reach a higher state of optimal perfection, has failed to reach its desired outcome. It was to have distributed wealth in ways that created more families in the middle class and shrunk the numbers of rich and poor families. Instead, the middle class is shrinking, making many people feel disenfranchised, his in-depth interviews around the country showed. It seems to me that during the pandemic, many of the difficulties we face nationwide (like those associated with remote learning and the shrinkage of safe childcare options) have been most disastrous for people who are already disadvantaged.

Martin suggests that instead of the economy-as-a-machine model, we should strive for a balance of efficiency and resilience. Beginning last spring, businesses and nonprofits were forced to answer questions relating to how we could change how we operate, be more resilient in the face of multiple unique challenges, and still be both efficient and effective.

Martin’s book describes the existing model for democratic capitalism, offers his alternative model of balancing efficiency with resiliency, then gives many examples of how this alternative model is being successfully applied.

One idea I particularly appreciated was the notion of “slack;” that is, spending more than is necessary in some areas. While this is not in keeping with the machine-based model, I agree that some such investments are the smartest. For example, our business is overstaffed in the Customer Service department by design. We do this because we want our customers to always have a world-class experience in reaching a highly trained and knowledgeable person by phone or email. By overstaffing, we can give thorough training, allow for internal promotions, and remove all roadblocks to our representatives responding with speed, accuracy, and helpfulness. Please post some suggestions from your own reading list as we enter a New Year. Have a safe, healthy, and prosperous one.

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