Productivity, Like Water, Finds its Level

They say necessity is the mother of invention. I say sometimes just the opposite: invention is the mother of necessity. What if the tools we use to increase productivity raise the bar on what’s expected rather than really increasing our productivity?

No, I don’t hate technology. I have three computers in my office, four at home, one on my belt. I blog, I tweet, I IM, I txt, I keep my cellphone with me at all times, I have bluetooth for hands-free phone answering in my car. I own several iPods.

But what if there’s a natural cycle, in which early on the technology gives the early adopters a boost, but then the bar raises automatically and we end up in the same place?

For example, 30 years ago I would project the Mexican economy for Business Week using a yellow pad and a calculator and a bunch of newspaper clippings. And 20 years ago I was projecting Latin American computer markets for Apple Computer using an early Microsoft Excel and research gathered in online text databases, libraries, and interviews. And if I did that today (I don’t) it would be Microsoft Excel and a lot of online information gathering, plus research and interviews. Then the problem was finding information and putting into some kind of numbers mechanically. Today the problem is wading through all the information that’s out there. We have way more information and way better tools, but we expect much more.

What do you think? Do we get better output per unit of input? I’m not sure. Maybe we just demand more as output because it’s so much easier to produce more as output.

I can think of other examples.

  • Before desktop publishing, we used to write letters and print them onto letterhead using either dot matrix (low budget) or daisy wheel (high budget) printers. Then came desktop publishing and we could make things look way better with relatively little effort. Now we take things for granted, expect every communication to be laid out like a newsletter.
  • Slides and presentations. When I was with McKinsey Management Consulting in 1981, there was a team of artists making slides by doing the art and taking pictures to create actual slides, as in 35 mm photographs. Today we have PowerPoint or Keynote or whatever … have presentations gotten better? Do we take less time?
  • Email. Gulp. And instant messaging, and sms. Take a blackberry addict to lunch and see how productive that is.

I’m not sure of an answer with this, just asking the question. Do our expectations raise the bar so quickly that we end up no more productive than we were?

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Tim Berry, Entrepreneur and Founder of Palo Alto Software, and Borland International About the Author: Tim Berry is president and founder of Palo Alto Software, founder of, and co-founder of Borland International. He is also the author of books and software on business planning including Business Plan Pro and The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan; and a Stanford MBA. His main blogs are Planning, Startups, Stories and Up and Running.


Tim Berry Tim Berry is Founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, Founder of Bplans, Co-Founder of Borland International, Stanford MBA, and co-founder of Have Presence. He is the author of several books and thousands of articles on business planning, small business, social media and startup business.

11 Reactions
  1. I would contend that the vector on productivity is indeed moving in the right direction. Obviously our expectations raise the bar, but raising the bar in itself is a testament to improved productivity. Whenever the bar goes higher, it is based on an inherent assumption that meeting the takes the same or less amount of effort, as compared to what it took to reach the lower bar with older tools. In my opinion, higher bar represents better quality – concluding that we get better quality with the same amount of effort, thus better productivity. Taking your examples, the quality of presentations have indeed come a long way, much easier for audience to grasp, much easier for presenters to change and incorporate feedback. Agree!

  2. Very interesting concept you’re referring to here and I can relate to what you’re saying. And I’d have to say that I agree with you. I think our expectations these days can be high and our productivity. . .well, that may depend. I only say this because as in your second example above it may just be that we spend similiar amounts of time working with the technology that we have now – as we spent working with the technology that we had then.

    I guess it just depends on what that technology is. Because with certain tasks there are obvious time saving differences that make performing that task much more efficient. But there’s a bit of a flip side to that as well. I bet the artists working on those slides in 1981 were putting in a similar amount of hours into the task as you would using PowerPoint to prepare a presentation.

  3. Yes, I think our never ending high expectations are the force behind invention, not the need for better productivity. If you can produce X than you can produce X +10%. There are those who see technology as evil and avoid it like the plague. And there are those that use technology to be more productive and some create lifestyle businesses.

    Discretion and restraint belong in technology toolbox.

  4. Actually I think some of these gadgets that are invented take up the same amount of time or sometimes more. Take the iPhone for example, instead of just making phonecalls and receiving voicemails; you get caught up in using so many of the other features. It’s not just a simple hello & goodbye anymore. Download this, email that….. I’m sure certain products save time but don’t you just use that extra time using another gadget?

  5. You bring up so many important points, Tim. Reading through your article, I could relate to every single example, from pen and paper, to having a graphic department that did slides, to the time that uploaded a document to Kinkos at 3am and had a series of beautiful, full-color, tabbed binders on my client’s desk the next morning.

    The productivity question is almost like the chicken and the egg. Regardless of which came first – the cycle produces a modern reality that doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

    Perhaps the next big thing will be applications that help us deal with managing complexity.

  6. I think absolutely we are more productive than before. Although there is more available information than every before, and in the click of a mouse, sorting through this information, which might take a little while, is still significantly faster than manually researching information in a library or sorting through clippings. This information on the web will only become more and more organized…. look at a story I wrote…

    After that, look at this for awesome tips by a serial entrepreneur on how to manage companies that are dealing with the same things you are talking about….

  7. Tim,

    I hope I don’t sound sarcastic but I’m from the tech industry.

    I like technology, and have much respect for it, and in fact makes a living selling solutions on it, but on the other hand, I want to say that tech actually lowers the standards.

    A generation of bad photographers who would absolutely have horrible pictures because they don’t know the basics, are acting like they are really pros because technology allows them to shot better looking pictures.

    A generation of singers thinks they sing as well as the pros.

    Look at YouTube, and you see millions of horrible videos. Well, in fairness, alot of good ones too.

    A bad speaker who won’t hold an audience more than afew minutes in the lectern are acting like professional speakers just because they have great videos, and beautifully designed powerpoints….

    So, i can say that tech also lowers barriers, and on the same account that it increase sproductivity, it also allows us the means to waste time spectacularly.

  8. Martin Lindeskog

    I am for the tech development. I see it as useful tools for business and leisure activities. I have gone from Filofax to Psion PDA and to a Qtek SmartPhone. But on the other hand, I have always with me a couple of notebooks and a SpacePen for my “carpe diem” moments and future “pluck the day” fruits of my labor.

    I have figured out that it is often an on/off button on the gadgets. Take a moment and… switch it off.

    Tim: Regarding forecasting the economy. Right now I am reading a fascinating but scary book called The Collapse of the Dollar and How to Profit from it by James Turk and John Rubino. Today’s economists, Fed white collar workers and other financial people, have all kinds of tools, gadgets, forecast systems, etc, but they have huge problems to see the ominous parallels and learn from the history, e.g. Rome’s bread & circuses, James Law’s Mississippi company in France and today’s “reflationists” in America.

  9. Productivity and productivity tools have never been the same thing.
    More so now, as most of the current tools are in the realm of Information
    technology, which is a glut industry.

    Making sense of so much information is still a function of the human
    driving it. Am afraid, much of his time is consumed in the tool exploring
    rather than tool using.

    But are we still slightly ahead on the productivity index ? Is it a net gain?
    It is highly likely, as *more* number of people are driving up the index.
    As a whole, it is a net gain. As an individual, it depends less on the tools
    and more on how much we understand the priorities.

  10. Addendum:

    A manufacturer of architectural products asked his people what they make and they said, “Ornamental titanium products”, to which he replied, “We make money and architectural products are the means to do that.”

    The true measure of productivity is income. So are you making more money as a result of technology usage?

  11. Spot on, the bar DOES keep raising. Leaving aside powerpoint, which is a bane of mine, and the fact that most modern phones put out ads that fail to mention the fact they can make and receive phone calls, filling the space with all kinds of other features instead, I was only having a conversation the other day about how many job descriptions these days seem to combine 3 (or more) roles into one position – and how many of them would have been specialist, expert roles in a time not so long ago, but the expectation is there’s now going to be someone out there who has expert level knowledge in ALL THREE of them. Some of them you just don’t know whether to laugh or cry when the mashup is of 3 totally unrelated fields, and the pay is rock bottom. Strange and frightening new world we live in, isn’t it?