When Adaptability Outperforms Efficiency

Operations, irrespective of industry, has a firm footing in process efficiency.  Yet in a constantly-shifting context adaptability trumps efficiency. In Team of Teams Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his co-authors note that, "Being effective in today's world is less a question of optimizing for a known (and relatively stable) set of variables than responsiveness to a constantly shifting environment.  Adaptability, not efficiency, must become our central competency."

In particular the authors note that the power in new connectivity - the Internet, proliferation of cell phones and social media networks - "lies in their emergent, nonlinear behaviors, not in the sum of their nodes.  This technology produced complex problems-the kind of challenge that, as Warren Weaver observed seventy years ago, refuse to yield to reductionist analysis."

Is there anyone who coming out of the past two years does not feel this in your bones?  When I worked at The Rockefeller Foundation, where Warren Weaver had served as an officer, a number of strategies focused on resiliency.  Resiliency is the ability to recover from a setback or adapt quickly to a challenge. A core quality of resiliency is having a reserve or redundancy so at the moment of emergency resources remain available. McChrystal and team touch on "resilience thinking." He quotes Nassim Taleb, "Fragile systems are those that are damaged by shocks; robust systems weather shocks; and anti-fragile systems, like immune systems, can benefit from shocks."

There is a point past which increased efficiency detracts from adaptability and resiliency. In agriculture, for example, mono-cropping reduces soil quality and makes crops more vulnerable to catastrophe.  Recently, we've seen supply chain disruptions, perhaps in part due to just in time materials delivery that fell apart when labor and transportation conditions deteriorated. Adaptability requires an ability to respond to challenges effectively without knowing in advance what will be required.

This is NOT to say that legal operations can forego process optimization. At the same time running lean is not in and of itself sufficient.  You must build in some redundancy or reserves.  Reserves should include internal cross training and holding up to 20% of resource hours in reserve to handle unexpected contingencies.  Tested and dependable external on-demand resources can also help. Importantly, simply throwing additional people into a behind schedule project "has no better chance of working...than would a scheme to produce a baby quickly by assigning nine women to be pregnant for one month each." (McChrystal p.128) Adding manpower to a late project most frequently simply makes it later.  

Another core operations area impacted by complexity is data analytics. In Team of Teams, McChrystal notes, "Data-rich records can be wonderful for explaining how complex phenomena happened and how they might happen, but they cannot tell us when and where they will happen...a hallmark of complexity is that small, occasional deviations can have massive impact."  

So what do we need to focus on going forward? I tend to agree with Gen. McChrystal that "We will need to confront complex problems in ways that are discerning, real-time, responsive and adaptive. We will need systems capable of doing things that no single designer, however masterful, could envision-things far beyond an individual planner's capacity to comprehend and control." Two key take-aways: 

  • Focus on developing capacity for "swift effective response to the unexpected." Over-emphasis of efficiency, while excellent for executing specific, long-planned-for things, impedes ability to deal with volatility. (McChrystal p. 81)
  • Develop situational awareness of what is happening, and why, to help you to do your part of the task better, not to step in and do someone else's. 'Eyes On-Hands Off' cultivates real-time distributed decision making. (McChrystal p. 218)

    In Team of Teams Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his co-authors build a strong case for how the rules of engagement have changed in a complex world.  Because legal, as an industry, exists to reduce risk and create order and shared understanding in how we interact with another, this shift is felt keenly.  I was particularly struck by his opening salvo that "...the constantly changing, entirely unforgiving environment in which we all now operates denies the satisfaction of a permanent fix...the organization we crafted, the processes we refined, and the relationships we forged and nurtured are no more enduring than the physical conditioning  that kept our soldiers fit: an organization must be constantly led or, if necessary, pushed uphill towards what it must be. Stop pushing  and it doesn't continue, or even rest in place; it rolls backward."

    This is our new challenge for legal operations.