By Ginelle Skerritt, December 7, 2020
When More Is Not Better: Overcoming America’s Obsession with Economic Efficiency, Roger Martin, Harvard Business Review, September 29, 2020, 256 pp., $30.66
The middle class is shrinking. Jobs are disappearing. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. Fewer and fewer people control and possess a higher percentage of the available wealth.
After reading When More is not Better by top ranked economist, Roger Martin, I understand the root causes of these phenomena from a new perspective. It isn’t all about greed spiraling out of control as I had imagined even though, undeniably, greed has played a significant role.
If you are anything like me, a book about the economy is not typically what you want to curl up with for a soothing read on a cool night. And with COVID 19 and winter in the mix, we all could use a break from the stress of our designated Zoom squares, protective masks, a 24-hour news cycle and Netflix.
Although learning about the economy is anything but soothing, I recommend that you read the latest book by Robert Martin, once dubbed a “#1 thinker.” You’ll thank your teenaged self for having paid attention in your grade 10 economics class when the teacher taught about Adam Smith and the Bell curve, and you’ll be able to make better sense of what’s happening in today’s economy. That is first of my many favourite things about this book. It’s filled with brilliant, complex economic theories and ideas, balanced with real-life examples that are shared with the warmth and familiarity of my grandma’s wisdom.
This is not a highly technical book. The language is clear and accessible, even if you are not an MBA, mathematician or economist, and yet the analysis and insight is intellectually competent and completely useful to organizational leaders with full-time gigs as soccer moms, like me.
As a senior leader in the non-profit sector the idea of bigger is better and the drive for efficiency has been a daily challenge. As I see it, we have mastered efficiencies as we achieve amazing feats with limited budgets. Lately the talk of mergers, integration and constant striving for growth that notionally “serves the community better,” has been ongoing in the sector. Whether the push in this direction is resulting in successful outcomes remains open for debate. When More is not Better leaves room for us to consider an alternative economic approach to growth, balanced with resiliency.
“Between 1973 and 2018 – productivity grew by 77 percent, growth in wage compensation barely budgeted, growing just 12 percent, or 0.027 percent per year for forty-five years.”
Roger Martin explains that there was a time when more was better and the economy thrived, with only a few people distributed at either end of the bell curve, and a healthy middle class. But sometime in the 70’s the trend began to change, and it has been heading in a dangerous direction ever since. Analyzing the machine metaphor, Martin explains economic phenomenon in practical terms, and shows readers why well-meaning businesses can enact solutions intended to promote efficiency and instead fuel a culture of “gaming” that is a destructive force in the economy. He demonstrates how these practices contribute to the shrinking middle class and are pushing us to the edge of economic precarity as the once fertile and comparatively equitable bell curve view of the economy is increasingly transforming into a Pareto curve.
“Data shows that most of the growth of last few decades is being captured by the wealthy Americans that we are supposed to credit with creating it”
My second favourite thing about this book is the title itself. It is reminiscent of my grandma’s type of wisdom. She was the first economist I knew. She was widowed in her 30s and migrated to Canada in her 50s after successfully raising five children, running two small businesses and always having something in the pot to offer a stranger. She told me stories about life during the Great Depression and the aftermath of the great wars of the 20th century. She experienced rations and queues and learning how to do a lot with very little. Granny would say something very similar to the title – something about “too much of a good thing …” and I forget the rest.
Despite the economic adversity described in its pages, this book manages to create hope and possibility by devoting the final chapters to solutions. Martin focuses fifty percent of the book to describing the problem and fifty percent to the solution. I was tempted to skip ahead to part two, but the stories in part one are filled with such vivid real-life examples, it had me sitting in my car in the parking lot at my son’s soccer practice googling whatever happened to Wells-Fargo and Canada’s own French’s Ketchup—epic stories!
This book, ironically, left me wanting more.
(Ginelle Skerritt is a leader and influencer in the non-profit sector, where she has worked for more than 30 years.)
Other titles reviewed by Ginelle Skerritt
Black Fatigue: Revealing the simple truth that Black folks are tired October 14, 2020