Bacteria, Efficiency, and You

The rumbling of my insides was no friendly warning of hunger; it was a premonition of rebellion. I had managed to get a case of food poisoning. A simple case of bacteria where it wasn’t supposed to be. Even though it was a generic, run-of-the-mill organism, it made me ill enough to go home halfway through the day. A single celled organism, enough to lay a highly trained human low. But that is not its only achievement.

That bacteria has something to teach your leadership seminar.

The superbugs – MRSA, VRE, and several others with huge latin names and dangerous-sounding acronyms – have been a huge concern for hospitals years before the recent general public awareness. Once they were virtually unknown of outside of the group of health professionals, but now they’ve become a new public boogeyman.

And they’re inefficient.

These superbugs are hard to cure. They eat some of the most advanced antibiotics for breakfast. They are a real threat to thousands of lives. They cause or lengthen innumerable hospital stays. They are specialized to deal with a specific situation, and that’s what makes them inefficient.

When antibiotic resistant bacteria are cultured alongside their generic brethren, the “superbugs” lose. In a nonthreatening environment, the normal bacteria are far more efficient at reproducing, processing food, and all the other things that bacteria like to do. The superbugs have traded efficiency for antibiotic resistance, and simply can’t complete.

Yet, when the environment changes – antibiotics are added to the mix – the superbugs have a huge advantage. The inefficient ways of living, the cruft and the slack, turn out to be absolutely vital for survival.

This concept is scalable.

The economic growth of the last thirty years has often been attributed to increases in our efficiency brought to our workplaces by computing advances. Inspired by a computer’s efficiency, we have begun to strive for that kind of pace in our own lives. Whether it’s the soccer dad managing over committed kids or young professionals lifehacking, we are constantly wanting to squeak out that little bit more.

The same process has occurred at all levels of business. It began back during the Industrial Revolution. Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who wrote Principles of Scientific Management almost one hundred years ago, pioneered the time and motion study. He would measure each part of a job, and determine how best to make each worker’s motion more efficient. Taylor also felt that the workers who did a job couldn’t understand it – and so his efficiency proposals should be imposed upon the workers he studied.

There were quite a few strikes.

Taylor’s idea still persists among hamburger managers. When there is any pressure in their environment – whether from competition, economic downturn, or random bad luck, they’re suddenly much more interested in controlling every moment of your work life – and beyond. Taylor – and the managers of today – do have a point. There can be so much slack that nothing gets done.

But it is exactly here that the bacteria – both generic and superbug varieties – can teach us about the downside of efficiency, and how much it is overrated. Economic models – which usually imply that increased efficiency is a good thing – also presume that ceterus parebus, that all other things are equal. But as our bacteria in the petri dish found, all other things are not equal. In each situation, different skills and structure were more advantageous. Or to put it differently, the slacker bacteria has the special skills needed to survive the penicillin bath.

As lifehacking, simplicity, and efficiency become even greater buzzwords in the coming years, we can all learn a little from a simple bacteria.

The flexibility to adapt to changing situations may result in some inefficiency in the short run, but in the long run, it will become an advantage.

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