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Don’t Confuse Effort for Outcomes

In many ways, hard work is the backbone of every success. It’s touted in every as industry as the key to getting ahead, and it’s stayed strong as the cornerstone of our society for centuries.

It’s seductive, working hard. The idea that if you put in the time, the effort, and work until the sweat pours off your brow, you’re on the fast track to greatness. At the very least, no one is going to tell you that you didn’t try. Maybe even more important, you’re not going to hear “you didn’t try” echoing in your own head.

And when we look at the great things done by people we admire, they almost always involve hard work on their part. So, the path becomes even more apparent: work hard, and you’ll get to where you want to go.

The hard work delusion is insidious, though, and works its way into individual and company failures alike. When we look at the innovators and change-makers we admire for their hard work, we’re really looking at them for their accomplishments. We forget that dozens, hundreds, thousands more labor just as hard — probably hard — and have little to nothing to show for it.

It’s obvious, if you take a step back. Hard work alone doesn’t equal success. If it did, we’d simply pick some task nearby — lifting up a coffee cup and putting it down repeatedly, perhaps — and simply keep at it until we were millionaires. Dumb example, sure, but not so far off from what many of us are doing on a daily basis if we look at things from an outcomes-based perspective.

Discouraging news? Maybe. But the flipside is actually wonderful, if we look deeper. If we know that hard work doesn’t equal success, we also know that hard work is not a requirement for success. For many, this is revolutionary change in thinking, and an uncomfortable one. Doesn’t that mean I’m being lazy?

We live in an outcomes-based world, for the most part. No one is grading you on laziness, they’re measuring by what you produce and change. If you can make that happen with the snap of your fingers, all the better.

What does this mean for organizations? Start by taking a deep look at your innovation process. Are the parts where people are working hardest correlated with the parts where the most value is being generated? Often times, the answer is no. You can even experiment here, too — if we spend half as much effort in a certain area, what is the affect on output? Is it even noticeable? Intentional laziness can be an amazing thing.

Of course, there are cautions to be taken. Placing too rigorous of an outcomes-based rubric to your innovation program will kill it in its infancy, and figuring out the right outcomes to be measuring is another beast altogether. But, when we start asking ourselves these questions, rather than “How hard are we working?” we start to make progress towards achievements worth aspiring to.

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