One vivid memory from my otherwise unmemorable high school career was carrying the school’s bleachers from the west field across the school parking lot to the east field. No not by myself, but all the boys in gym class. The thirty of us, under the direction of our gym teacher, picked up the seemingly immoveable object and walked away with it.
What’s so memorable about that? — that we as a coordinated team could lift and easily move such a heavy and large object.  Hardly.  What happened next is what stuck with me. As we moved across the parking lot we moved into view of classes in session and in to view of the young women in those classes. Some of the more enterprising young men of the bleacher-lifting team decided it was time to show off — and to “direct” the operation. This meant not lifting and helping, but feigning direction. What I remembered was that the “lift” did not seem any heavier. There was no perceptible change. There didn’t even seem to be a heavier lift when some of those “leaders” thought it was even more impressive to those young females eyes to ride on bleachers. Amused I was not, but my “lift” did not seem heavier.

A recent post on the HBR Conversations Blog brought this memory to mind.  As more people in our work force drop out (i.e. layed off) from the “lift” of doing the work of the economy, the more the “lift” must fall to those remaining.  The bleacher, (i.e. the economy) keeps going.  Output remains steady, but there are fewer workers.  Productivity magically increases in the teeth of a recession.  Some commenters took the conventional wisdom about cutting deadwood.   High-level conventional opinions obscure a more complex phenomenon.  This myth of has more of a relationship to human nature and my bleacher carrying event.

Our knowledge economy produces far more ideas than widgets.  Fewer people on the factory floor had a direct relationship to the output.  Today, ideas still go out if there are fewer people in the office.  The quality of those ideas may degrade though.  Where, though, is the tipping point?  When less people  carrying the “bleacher” starts to cause such hardship on the remaining carry the work of the economy with measurably less gusto or that they can’t carry it any more and catastrophically fail (Toyota, BP anyone?)

Conversely I wonder that as the economy recovers and we start to add people to the workforce.  Will the productivity gains continue?  Or will output remain unchanged (i.e. the same “bleacher”) while more people are employed.  The  result: null productivity gains.

Tony Schwartz is right on about the burnout factor.  How long can our work force continue to put in hours beyond what is sustainable?  Are we borrowing hours form our future that result in missed innovation or too many corners cut?


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