Is centralisation really more efficient?

This is a work in progress, as I’m collecting examples and data. Follow along by subscribing. Send me examples and arguments via email or twitter.

Businesses tend to grow as they add more areas of action to their structure. They do this because of economics of scale. And because we tend to believe that centralising efforts is a way to make them more efficient.

Governments tend to grow as they take on more and more regulations to oversee. They do this because regulations require inspectors, and arbiters, of all the edge cases that pop up over time. And because we tend to believe that centralising efforts is a way to make them more efficient.

This is such a pervasive idea that it’s hard to even describe where it starts. In most human collaboration, it seems to be a common truth that centralising efforts lead to more efficiency. My hypothesis is that this might not be true.

My idea

My hypothesis is that it is not efficiency, but control, that increases with centralisation. And we simply conflate the two, because it seems like a natural combination. Whenever we’re collaborating in small groups, like making dinner together, it’s simply a mess until someone takes the role as the chef.

I believe that works because a central authority can determine what the other actors should do by dictating the intended outcome. This is not efficient however. Because translating the central authority’s intended outcome to the actors comes at the cost of a lot of trial and error. And more interestingly: people trying to game the rules.

This is command and control. Not efficiency.

What is efficient and how it works is beyond the scope of this work. However I believe Yuval Harari is not far off when he speaks of stories as the thing that allows humans to collaborate in large groups. However I think it’s not any stories. But rather knowledge, an understanding of how the group does something, and a shared goal, an understanding of what the group is trying to achieve, that create effective collaboration.

What I’m doing to test the idea

So how can we test this idea? I can’t currently think of an experiment that would show this clearly. But I suspect that if I look for examples of organisation centralising to solve problems, I will not find any efficiency increases, only an increase of control.

This post will grow as I add examples. Please help out by sending me examples of organisations, large and small, that are centralising. You can reach me on email and on twitter.

Examples of centralisation left to check

The EU – not explored

Google M&A

Apple M&A – should be an interesting example, since their strategy is vertical integration of the production chain.

Examples of centralisation

A framework for managing focus on side projects

You probably have a few side projects or ideas you’ve been poking at, but not quite finishing. They tend to pile up, don’t they?

In my last yearly review I realised that I’ve started a lot more projects than I’ve completed in the last few years. And I still have a long list of projects I’d like to work on some day. But when do you start a new project, if the last one still isn’t finished?

Recently I read a tweet that reminded me of the excellent book: Show your work. And how that book actually has a solution for this problem.

You can start a new project, after you show the work you did on the last one.

Regardless of how far I came in the process, or how “finished” a project ends up being. As long as I publish what I did, or what I learned, that’s the end of it.

I can restart the work, or continue on the same idea at a later point. But that is a new project. And I get to chose which new project I want to work on.

This framework not only creates a lot more opportunities for me to start projects I’m exciting about, it also gives me incentive to stop projects I’m no longer inspired by.

Show your work, throw away all the old todos, and start something new.

Practical mindful productivity

Picture a perfect leisurely Sunday morning: You wake up. Think about your breakfast or brunch. Get up, get ready, and then go enjoy it.

Now picture every stressful morning: You wake up. You’re thinking about the 15 things you need to do that day. You’re brushing your teeth while listening to a podcast and get stressed about a call you have to make later.

What’s the difference between these two days? For a long time I’ve tried all sorts of experiments to figure out how I can live in a majority of calm Sunday mornings. Because I don’t think it’s time off is what I’m really looking for. I think it’s the calm, clear, mindful way to go about a day.

Based on that thoughts I naturally started my experiments around mindfulness. I started meditating daily. While it helps but was not the magic ingredient. I did cold showers, daily pages, journalling… Name any mindfulness strategy, I probably tried it.

The experiments that worked best for me were:

media fasting, not taking in any media input at all except music.

single tasking, meaning you limit yourself to doing one thing at a time.

Both of them are impractical though, and even with all that effort my success rate was still less than my 80% goal.

I had started giving up on this idea, thinking that maybe I was just too hard on myself, maybe I should accept that most days are not filled with clarity and get on with it, when I saw this clip on youtube:

It’s Andrew Huberman, of Huberman Labs fame, talking about resetting your dopamine in the mornings. And something clicked for me. Be warned however, this is a productivity porn video.

What Huberman is saying in this video is that by explicitly setting a single goal for yourself in the morning, and then achieving that goal, you’ve started the day by practicing rewarding yourself for doing work. And I think there’s a deep truth to take from this.

Dopamine, which I’ve written about before, is a neuro transmitter that gives you drive in the form of anticipation, and a rewarding sense of achievement when you’ve done something. It’s the reason you can’t stop scrolling dumb stuff on the internet, because each new small discovery gives you a little dopamine hit.

What Huberman is saying in this video is that in the morning you are naturally a bit dopamine low, and your mind will be craving stimulation. If you give it that with social media, or news, you’ve just set your mind up for short term quick wins of consumption.

This matters because our brains adapt to repetition. The mechanics of brain plasticity mean that anything we do get’s easier with each time we do it.

So getting a dopamine kick from consumption in the morning is training our brains to seek distraction, to seek stress.

Instead if we set a goal and achieve it, like making our beds, putting away our clothes before getting breakfast, whatever it is, we’re training our brains to get rewarded by conscious action. To seek clear goals.

This effect is probably quite small day to day, but large over decades. After 20 years of morning news, you will probably find it really hard to start a day without a jolt of worry and anger.

But I believe this also works on a psychological level.

When we start the day with consumption, or reacting to events, we’re getting into the autopilot mode of living. We’re reacting to events, maybe a little behind schedule, a little short on time, thinking about the 17 things we need to do before lunch. We’re in the anxious closed mode, or system 0, depending on which schools of thought you like.

If we instead start with extremely specific goals, even though they’re small, we are putting ourselves in the active mode of living. We’re proactive about spending our time. We act instead of react. We’re in the relaxed open mode, or system 1.

This mode is, I believe, the “calm Sunday morning” lifestyle I’ve been chasing for the last 20 years.

When we are in the relaxed and open state, we’re also more present. Because we’re focused on the specific short term goal of what we’re doing. We’re not daydreaming about that time we made a friend uncomfortable, or the stressful meeting planned for later.

I think there’s one more layer to this worth thinking about. When we are overwhelmed and react, we’re constantly letting ourselves down. We’re beating ourselves up with thoughts like “I should do X more” “I really should do Y today”.

When we’re completing specific tasks, we’re basically setting short deadlines with ourselves and keeping them. So we’re building self reliance. We’re showing ourselves that we can get things done.

Instead of reminding ourselves that we’re not going to the gym more. We made the bed. Had a coffee. Read the keeping-up-with-newsletter. Called the landlord. We’re building up a chain of small successes.

I’m not sure I’m explaining this well. But I think I’ve found a key to live a more focused, mindful, and calm life.

The method is really simple:

Before you start doing things in the morning, tell yourself what you will do, and then only do that. Keep it simple enough that you can’t fail. And be specific, intentional, about what you’re doing.

Delegate or Do It Right?

Have you ever thought “It’ll be faster if I do it myself, I’ll do it the right way the first time”? Or maybe you’ve recognised this thought appearing in your managers mind when you asked too many questions?

I think this idea is a obstacle to delegating effectively. We instinctively feel that we can do it correctly ourselves. But someone else might need a few tries, or the result might not even be as good.

I think this thought is a self delusion. The truth is that the process of doing the work often defines the intended result. We’re exploring just as much as executing. We know what “good enough” is when we see it.

Whenever this thought appears in our minds, we probably haven’t defined the outcome well enough. If I can’t instruct someone to do it, I probably don’t know what needs to be done.

Improve your thinking with a Cognitive Behavioral Journal

I strive to be less wrong, and I think I’ve discovered a tool that makes the process a bit more measurable.

I recently finished The Coddling of the American Mind, an interesting book I’ll post about later. In the Coddling the authors outline the general process of how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works, and it was much simpler than I had thought.

This surprised me because while I’ve never participated in CBT, I studied Cognitive Psychology in collage. Which I guess just contrasts the difference between learning about something, and experiencing that something.

So I started using it to consciously improve my thinking. It’s a very simple practice, and I encourage you to try it as you read:

  1. Identify when you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, write down which thoughts are anxiety inducing or overwhelming.
    Example: I had a blood clot recently and I’m afraid it’s limiting my lifestyle permanently.

  2. Think about what emotions underlie your anxiety or overwhelm, write it down. There’s always some emotion behind the thoughts. Always.
    Ex: I’m afraid of being Limited.

  3. Write down a score of how strong that emotion is between 0 and 100. Ex: 80

  4. Identify any common cognitive distortions that are present in your current thinking.
    Ex: Overgeneralization.

  5. Now restate the original thoughts without those cognitive distortions.
    Ex: I will have to learn how to live with the ramifications of a blood clot. As far as I know, I’ll just be on weak blood thinners for life. I can still do anything I want.

  6. Finally put down a new score of how strong the emotional impact is now, after you restated the thought.
    Ex: 20.

That’s it.

Repeating this 6 step process should make a noticeable difference in how one reacts to emotional triggers.

More importantly, to me, it’s a measurable way to improve my own thought process. I can revisit my journal and consciously learn from the errors I make. Practically see how often I find specific mistakes in my thinking, and how should be thinking. Practicing more accurate ways of thought instead of unknowingly repeat the same mistakes.

If this interests you, try it! And let me know what your experience was.

How to work with remote employees

I ran a remote agency a few years ago, but I didn’t understand how difficult remote work was to manage until I spent a few years as a consultant.

Most of the companies I’ve worked with in the last few years would have profited from a remote work structure. But a lack of information about how they could work remote made it difficult for them. I only realised this the other day while talking to a Project Manager I know. He shared several fears about managing remote work that didn’t have any obvious solutions.

This got me thinking, maybe most information online today is aimed at remote workers, and not remote managers?

So here is my first attempt at trying to share what I’ve learned managing remote workers over the past 10 years.

We are all remote

This is the most important insight I’ve had about remote work. At any office people are coming and going at different hours. Picking up kids or running a quick errand during lunch. Just try to book a meeting at the end of a work day and see how your mailbox fills up with counter proposals!

Every organisation is already remote. Not in the sense that your colleagues are sitting on a beach in a different timezone, but in the sense that you are not always in the same building at the same time.

That’s why a remote work process will help you communicate more effectively.

Remote communication is more effective

If people are not in the same room. You need to start writing things down, in a clear, chronological, and distributed manner. This allows people to work at different hours from yours, but it also cuts down the follow ups and syncing between people. As an added benefit it also makes it easier to track how things are progressing, and what has worked or not before.

It does require a bit more effort from the communicator. So naturally we are all a bit sceptical about this at first, we’re busy people. But writing down decisions and meeting notes publicly makes communication much more effective for all receivers. Including you. Which makes writing it down publicly a net benefit for everyone, not in the future, but right now.

Imagine having less email to deal with and fewer meetings. That’s the side effect of writing things down.

Remote meetings are much more effective

Meetings are important. Really important. Despite that we all dread seeing our calendars fill up. Deep down we know that a lot of those meetings, while important, are not very important for us.

If someone is not in the same office as you, meetings need to be held via a phone or video call, and these are magic.

Again it takes some effort to get everyone set up for issue-free video meetings (I’ll explain how in the next part) but when you have issue free video meetings there are a lot of benefits. No more need to book a room, find the damn room, get the projector working, wait for everyone to get coffee, etc etc. Instead you’re left talking about what needs to be talked about, and can even take notes while you do it. Without hiding behind a screen.

Remote tools are really the only option today

Last but not least I want to talk about tools. Most of us already use remote tools. But we rarely think about it.

Tools like Slack, Word, Excel, DropBox, GitHub… you name it. Pretty much every digital tool stores its information in the cloud. Which makes it a remote work friendly.

If you are still bouncing files back and forth in email threads, shame on you. Not only is it bad from a security perspective, but versioning is nearly impossible, and mistakes are very easy to make.

Stop sending files, use a remote tool. Most apps already do this.

That’s it, you are now managing remotely

Of course there are a lot more things to say about how to manage people working remotely. But get these things in order and you’ve covered all the basics. With a proper process for remote meetings, public decisions, and tools you are already remote.

It no longer matters where you work, and you can start getting more done with colleagues who might not share your exact office hours. Enjoy!

Extra — curious about how to handle remote meetings? this is how:

I’ve met a lot of people complaining about conference calls and video meetings. But most problems I’ve seen are not related to the tools or tech. They mostly work fine. The problems are most often related to people being uncomfortable or unused to the format.

Here’s how I have held literally hundreds of solid remote meetings:

  1. Video. Seeing someone makes it a lot easier to stay focused and to listen. Always use video. I recommend Zoom. It’s excellent.

  2. Headsets. Almost every bad remote meeting I’ve been part of has had a small group of people shouting into a cheap laptop. The problem is microphones on laptops aren’t very good, and those conference call mikes are usually worse. Everyone received a headset with their phone. Get everyone to plug in with their own headset and you will be surprised at how much better the sound quality is. Added benefit: no more echo.

  3. Agenda. Have one before the meeting, follow it, remote meetings actually make faffing about harder. Enjoy the time saved.

  4. Speak in turns. In face to face meetings the person a lot of people talk over each other. In video meetings two people can’t speak at the same time, which is a good thing. Use the video calling softwares “raise hand” function, or chat, to let the other participants know you want to speak next. Then hand it over to the next speaker. It might feel a bit stiff, but damn the meetings get productive.

  5. Save the video. Most meeting software offers this, Zoom actually auto generates a transcript for you when you save the meeting. This is a great way of letting people who could not attend get up to speed. And you can refer back to a meeting without having to try to remember it. Costs practically nothing, will cut down the amount of unnecessary meetings by half, at least.

There you go, my 5 steps to a great remote meeting. Try it out, be adamant about the rules, and you will love it.

How does Focus work?

If you’re interested in personal performance like me, no doubt you’ve read a lot about focus and energy management the last few years. New Studies claim that focus and willpower is like a tank of gas that runs dry if you use it to much during the day. Other New Studies shows that meditation (the practice of focusing and refocusing for short periods of time) increases focus.

So which is it? How does focus work? I think their both right.

Focus seems to work very much like a muscle, if you deliberately practice it, you can focus deeper and with more control (i.e. it gets easier to start and stop focusing). But it also seems to work a lot like endurance, the more time you spend focused, the less mental energy you’ll have at the end of the day.

Which is why I try to focus deliberately, constantly nudging myself when I get distracted, and take resting very seriously. You can’t work with perfect focus forever. You might be able to effect how much you can focus, but always be aware of your limits. When I step beyond my limits, I get annoyed, cranky, feel frustrated about not getting anywhere, and spend even more energy that I don’t have. It’s a slippery slope.

How do you manage your focus?

Define and execute – managing my energy like a resource

I’ve used the Getting Things Done method of organising my tasks and projects for years. While I admit that it has, more than once, become a distracting hobby of optimisation instead of helping, it has also freed up a lot of mental energy.

In my work I’m constantly switching between creative problem solving and mechanically grinding something out. Normally I just do a task from start to finish, but quite often it’s hard to start being creative when I’m already in a grinding out mindset.

The great people at Basecamp has an idea to solve this issue, they call it a Hill Chart, and it represents how well defined a task is and how far along execution it is. This could really help with picking the right thing to work on depending on mood and energy levels.


To apply this strategy in my GTD setup I’ve created a new context I call Definition, which has two tags Define and Execute. I label all my tasks with one of these, and depending on which state I’m in I sort my tasks accordingly. I’ve only been doing this for a week so far, but I really enjoy the difference.

What do you think? Any better tips on how to manage your energy?

Wake up and stop wasting time

Sometimes you just need a swift kick in the ass. Sometimes, you need some brutal truth:

You need to have one of those moments where you stop justifying time-wasters. Where you stop justifying playing small. Where you stop justifying spending time with the wrong people. Where you stop doing business with the wrong people. Where you stop being immature with your money and your relationships.

So how to we do this? This is how:

Research has clearly shown that the avoidance of failure undermines intrinsic motivation. Put bluntly, if you’re trying to avoid failure, you’re focused on the wrong things. And you can’t win long-term in life this way.

Stop avoiding failure. Stop focusing on the outcomes, but instead focus on the work itself. If you’re interested, this is the research referenced.

How to achieving something

You have dreams right? Things you want to do, stuff you want to create or complete? We all do. But then life gets in the way. Maybe we’re finding it hard to find the time? Maybe we keep getting interrupted? Maybe we’re just to afraid to act.

The truth is that’s all bullshit. The reason you haven’t achieved what you’re dreaming about is that is requires growth, and growth hurts. Specifically it hurts your ego. In this fantastic article, Amy Hoy pokes you right in the ego and tells it like it is.

If you want to make something of your skills, yourself, your life…the worst truth is better than the best lie. Reality is your friend. Your ego, on the other hand, is your worst enemy. When you fail to give your ego what it wants, it throws a tantrum and makes you hurt. That’s the only way the ego knows to communicate: caresses…and punches.

— Amy Hoy

…So what’s your dream again?