Productivity, Like Water, Finds its Level

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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 InternationalAbout 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.