The death spiral of organizational ineffectiveness

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“When I go into a company, I usually find that about 85% of effort is wasted. Only a sixth of any of the work done actually produces something of value”.

Jeff Sutherland – Scrum Creator

A paradigm yet to be overcome

When it comes to productivity, many organizations, actually most of them, still operate in the industrial paradigm.

The problem with this paradigm is that it focuses only on the quantitative side of productivity – on efficiency – which makes a lot of sense in a production chain, but plainly falls short in knowledge work.

Just as the savvy Peter Drucker explained decades ago, if there is one thing that differentiates knowledge work from traditional manual work, it’s the qualitative factor, efficiency.

It’s no longer enough to do things well and optimizing usage of resources (efficiency). Now it’s also essential to do the right things (effectiveness) and not touch the rest.

Continuing to operate in the limited industrial paradigm is the root cause as to why so many organizations are stuck in the death spiral of organizational ineffectiveness, the result of which is what Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum, highlights in this article’s quote above.


Understanding productivity solely in quantitative terms favours the natural human tendency to do, rather than think, whenever possible.

This is a serious problem since in knowledge work value contribution comes more from thinking and deciding than from doing.

In fact, in knowledge work, the less you think, the less effective you are.

Effectiveness is about doing the right things well and it’s independent of quantity. You can add a lot of value by doing a few things, or you can do a lot of things that don’t add value.

Moreover, the seemingly simple act of deciding what to do, what not to do, how to do it, when, who, and especially, what for, is a substantial part of the value delivery process.

Lack of thinking

Excessive action always comes with attention deficit and consequently, a deficit in thinking.

In his book “Focus: The Hidden Driver for Excellence”, Daniel Goleman even alludes to the “attention deficit syndrome” in organizations.

The current trend is worrisome. Since reality is increasingly complex, ever changing, and overloaded with information, many organizations are actively deploying weapons of mass distraction,  in other words, the exact opposite of what is needed.

It seems to have been overlooked that without thinking, as in without paying the right attention to the right things at the right time and with the right frequency, it is virtually impossible to make sound decisions which are the essence of efficiency and thus, effectiveness.

Overreaction and/or haste

Thoughtlessness leads to doing unnecessary things and doing them in slapdash haste, in other words, poorly.

Thinking is a mental process managed by what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2. It is therefore a rational and conscious process that gives rise to thinking behaviour.

Reacting, in contrast, is a process managed by System 1, an emotional and unconscious process that leads to impulsive behaviour.

An organization that does not think enough is incapable of being a proactive organization and is condemned to reactivity.

The sense of urgency that Kotter talks of has nothing to do with haste, just as analysis paralysis is rarely the result of analysis but of procrastination in thinking.

Botched jobs

Overreaction and haste lead to botched projects, to partial results with temporary fixes, but without achieving the real goal.

Botching is the methadone of a job well done; it may seem to solve a situation at first, but it is always a time bomb that explodes sooner or later.

Besides, by definition, shoddiness is inefficient, as it leads to waste in the medium and long term. Botched work is not economically sustainable.

Tinkering as a one-off solution for one-off situations may make sense every now and then, but an organization that has built tinkering into its culture as a way of doing things is one that’s doomed to fail.


Reworking is about having to work on the same thing more than once for the same purpose and irksomely generate zero value.

Apart from being the ultimate expression of inefficiency (wasting resources), reworking is also evidence of past inefficiency, like when the decision was taken to botch the job instead of to do things right the first time around.

When Jeff Sutherland says that 85% of effort going into organizations is wasted, he is referring to the reworking of all the previous botched jobs.

Since it is unnecessary extra work, reworking can in no way justify not touching the rest of the work that really needs to be done. This leads to work overload, encourages hyperactivity, and reinforces the death spiral of organizational ineffectiveness.


Getting past the natural rejection and discomfort that such statements may trigger, it’s easy to assess the reality.

Take your last working week, for example, as a benchmark and ask yourself in net terms, what percentage of all the work you did, rendered real added value for your customers?

If you exceed 15%, pat yourself on the back, because you are an exception.

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