Taking the Short Way
Posted on: 4/25/2011
The shortest distance between two points; 1980 Boston Marathon “winner” Rosie Ruiz; wormholes; anabolic steroids; the Panama Canal.
It’s clear that nature adores a shortcut. The long way around is for suckers. As much as we publicly laud those with the discipline and patience to pioneer pathways through uncharted waters, the majority will always gravitate towards the quick fix. In your job and life, you are probably constantly using Google to find a shortcut for something.
Many short cuts are meant to abbreviate something you already know expertly, like shorthand note taking, or to take the burden out of a repetitive task, like speech-to-text. Keyboard shortcuts are no longer hallmarks of computer power users, but everyday tools for everyone.
The world’s complexity has motivated all individuals to truncate many parts of their lives simply to be functional. To witness this, one has only to point to the growing percentage of our language that is acronyms. Heck, even “OMG”, “LOL” and symbols like hearts are now being incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary. And the forever-increasing nature of time-based business competition makes shortcuts an essential management technique.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Shortcuts are often discussed in the negative, as an “easy way out” or lazy person’s method. However, a shortcut can just as easily be seen as efficiency or as a cost saving tool. At this point in human history, there is an abundant number of giant’s shoulders on which to stand, so in many instances, it’s just smart to build on the knowledge and information that came before us. In this instance “shortcut” could become synonymous with “experience.”
One lesser known shortcut concept is the “minimum effective dosage.” Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek, discusses this in his new book, The Four-Hour Body. Basically, the idea is that for whatever result you are seeking, it is smart to find the minimum effort required to achieve it, with anything above that considered a waste. Applied to fitness, this would mean that if you get the full possible metabolic increase from three workouts per week, any additional workouts are superfluous. Applied to business, negotiating a partial delivery shipment order for three clients can make better sense than completing only one customer’s giant order on time, but if you instead choose to sacrifice quality to gain speed, that is a negative type of shortcut that should be avoided.
In manufacturing, the Japanese lean assembly method known as poka yoke guides designers to make parts fit together intuitively and quickly and often physically impossible to build incorrectly. This is a great example of a shortcut that takes time to conceive, but pays back multiple dividends in tangible hours and dollars at the other end while also improving quality by preventing defects.
In my business of educating people about product development, we distribute information that completely revolves around shortcuts. Seminars about best practices, benchmarking, and company case studies are attractive because they can cut the amount of time it takes to access something important, whether it is an idea, a process or even a person.
Some of the biggest complaints I’ve heard are from people seeking an effective way to shortcut the project-approval process of their phase-gate system. Development staff are some of the most skilled corporate employees at finding workarounds. When you put policies and processes before them that create roadblocks, they will employ the best of gaming theories to subvert them, like how water always finds its level.
Shortcuts are increasingly being used with information management. An increasingly popular acronym regarding anything published on the Internet is “tl;dr” which is a language shortcut for “too long, didn’t read,” and often followed with a very brief sentence or two summarizing the larger content. Academic publishing has always featured the “abstract,” a summary of an article’s content, so while not a new concept, tl;dr is often applied to relatively shorter content and even smaller attention spans, a natural Internet era evolution of the abstract. You’ll often see a bullet list of talking points in the top corner of website articles as a result. To say nothing of the 140-character Twitter limit.
Shortcuts are best employed by those who have a firm grasp of the underlying fundamentals of what is being cut. Those who fully understand the long way around are the best judges of whether or not you are on the winning side of your shortcut’s tradeoffs and that what you sacrifice for speed doesn’t negate the gains. Shortcuts can be a powerful tool and often something we employ without even thinking about it. It even seems that humans are hard-wired to seek them out, just as when we move our bodies, we naturally make a bee-line for our target destination. But it is when they become a necessary strategic choice that we need to wake up our conscious and be mindful of any consequences.