I was recently reading a post called Just Too Efficient, where the author Tim Bray is noticing how sometimes when things get more efficient, productive, and profitable – they get worse along human dimensions. He starts with a story about 2 workers taking a smoke break and telling a joke. It’s a normal human moment, but one that “best business practices” would say needs to be eliminated for efficiency.
He notices that when we make things more efficient, we tend to take the humanity out of them. I think this is likely because turning things into repeatable processes, flowcharts, and algorithms is how you drive the “waste” out, but those flowcharts will never include human time like telling a simple joke, or just sighing and relating to other people. Those processes too tend to take away decision making authority, and routinize decisions, since – if everyone decided what they wanted to do differently – that would result in non-repeatable outcomes and inefficiency.
Avoid the Extremes: Too Hot / Too Cold
Companies are often trying to “optimize for efficiency” to make a profit, grow the company, and so forth. Efficiency isn’t a bad thing, and while we have to avoid “too hot” – extreme levels of efficiency and no humanity – we also have to avoid “too cold” – which would be large amounts of waste & inefficiency, everyone following their own preferences.
To look at this from a Masonic perspective though, we have to start with this: freemasonry isn’t a profit-maximizing business. But if it’s not a business, what is this thing?
What is Freemasonry For?
We need some mental model of the purpose. This is mine.
Freemasonry is like a pyramid, or a hierarchy of values. Some things are very important, and other things are less the purpose, but more of a foundation that we build upon to reach higher to the purpose of the craft. And so I think of it like a pyramid, with foundational practices supportive of higher-level principles & goals.
This can help us to understand where “business thinking” and efficiency applies, and where it perhaps doesn’t. When we see this pyramid though, we can immediately see that our “org” (a term I mean to include both organization and organism, because we’re both) has a lot to balance with its limited time:
- Ritual quality
- Masonic Education
- Satisfaction with the lodge
- Individual personal relationships
- Overhead of running the fraternity (minutes, bills, committees)
If any of these factors completely falls apart or goes untended for years, you may end up with a failed lodge, or a zombie lodge. Our Masters & Wardens have a lot to manage, and it isn’t just the grumpy past masters.
Efficiency in Business Matters
At the base of the pyramid, Freemasonry has a lot to learn on the front of basic business practices. I’m currently working my way through the book It’s Business Time: Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry, which I may post a review on at a later point, but for now it looks like a great reference for this bottom level of the pyramid.
The business matters of Freemasonry are real, and need attention. They aren’t the point of the fraternity, but you cannot have a peak of a pyramid without the base.
Humanity in Other Matters
To avoid going too far with the business analogy though, it’s important to remember the parts of a lodge that aren’t a business, and how efficiency in those is somewhat of an anti-goal, actively to be avoided.
Consider these examples of “efficiency” at higher levels of the pyramid:
- It would be more efficient of the lodge’s time if we stopped doing degree work and used one-day conferrals to make the largest number of people masons in the smallest amount of time.
- It would be more efficient if our education programs were strictly canned material from other sources (rather than lodge discussions or member research)
- Maybe we should lay out prescribed paths for new masons rather than leaving them to their own devices to explore the craft. After all, this saves them mistakes and gives them a more efficient path.
I hope it is clear that these are actually not good ideas — they are “too hot” because they would deliver higher efficiency at the expense of even more valuable things: the experience of ritual and personal growth & discovery.
Here, we need to be intentionally inefficient because that’s where the humanity lies.
Remember that in the context of freemasonry, the opposite of “efficient” isn’t inefficient, it’s human.
The difference is in having a model in one’s mind of the functions of the lodge which are essential, but not the purpose of the lodge (bills, building, minutes, committees) and the functions of the lodge which are the purpose. (Ritual, fellowship, education, relationships, meaning)
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” sang Leonard Cohen. And there need to be cracks in the surface of work, in the broader organizational fabric that operates the world. Because that’s where the humanity happens. You can be like the people who optimize warehouses and call the gaps “waste”. But that path, followed far enough, leads to a world that we really don’t want to be living in.Tim Bray, quoting Cohen
- “Too Efficient” by Tim Bray
- Masonic Improvement – Zombie Lodges
- It’s Business Time: Adapting a Corporate Path for Freemasonry
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