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When More Is Not Better: Overcoming America's Obsession with Economic Efficiency

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American democratic capitalism is in imminent danger. More than forty years ago, a dangerous decline began that has created an unprecedented state of economic disparity. While the rich are getting richer faster than ever, the middle-class family has fallen so far behind it would take three generations to recover – perhaps even longer in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The moment to rethink our economy and embark on a journey to repair our broken system is now.

Roger L. Martin – former Dean of the Rotman School of Management and the world’s #1 management thinker (Thinkers50) – believes the problem is that we view our economy as a machine that can be perfected by pursuing increasing levels of efficiency. In his new book When More Is Not Better, Martin argues that we have relentlessly pursued efficiency at the expense of resilience, turning efficiency into a destructive force that has produced an unequal society and a fragile economy. That fragility makes our economy more vulnerable to shocks and brutally undermines our capacity to deal with catastrophic events like the pandemic.

In the book, Martin reveals the dark side of efficiency, providing evidence, rigorous economic analysis, and insight to demonstrate that our constant effort to make the economic machine more efficient means fewer bigger winners and plenty left behind.

243 pages, Hardcover

Published September 29, 2020

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About the author

Roger L. Martin

15 books166 followers
Roger Martin is the Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School of Management and the Premier’s Chair in Productivity & Competitiveness. From 1998 to 2013, he served as Dean. Previously, he spent 13 years as a Director of Monitor Company, a global strategy consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he served as co-head of the firm for two years.

His research work is in Integrative Thinking, Business Design, Strategy, Corporate Social Responsibility and Country Competitiveness. He writes extensively and is a regular contributor to: Harvard Business Review’s The Conversation blog, the Financial Times’ Judgment Call column, and the Guardian Sustainable Business. He has written 24 Harvard Business Review articles and published 10 books: Getting Beyond Better (with Sally Osberg); Harvard Business Review Press (HBRP, 2015); Playing to Win (with A.G. Lafley) (HBRP, 2013); Fixing the Game (HBRP, 2011); The Design of Business (HBRP, 2009); The Opposable Mind (HBRP, 2007); The Responsibility Virus (Basic Books, 2002); Canada: What It Is, What It Can Be (with Jim Milway, Rotman-UTP Publishing, 2012); and Diaminds (with Mihnea Moldoveanu, University of Toronto Press, 2009), and The Future of the MBA (with Mihnea Moldoveanu, Oxford University Press, 2008). In addition, he co-edited Rotman on Design (with Karen Christensen, Rotman-UTP Publishing, 2013).

In 2013, Roger placed 3rd on the Thinkers50 list, a biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers, moving up from 6th in 2011 and 32nd in 2009. In 2010, he was named one of the 27 most influential designers in the world by Business Week. In 2007 he was named a Business Week 'B-School All-Star' for being one of the 10 most influential business professors in the world. Business Week also named him one of seven 'Innovation Gurus' in 2005.

He serves on a number of public service boards: Skoll Foundation, Canadian Credit Management Foundation, Tennis Canada (past chair), and Bridgespan Group (academic advisory board chair).

A Canadian from Wallenstein, Ontario, Roger received his AB from Harvard College, with a concentration in Economics, in 1979 and his MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1981.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 39 reviews
Profile Image for David Wineberg.
Author 2 books706 followers
July 3, 2020
America’s economy is so rigid it is doomed unless it can allow tweaking. Ideologies such as strictly “free” markets hold back any attempt to make the economy flexible, responsive or resilient. It must be completely one way or the other in the USA and everything must be locked down and tamperproof with rules and laws. This kind of thinking is ripped to shreds in Roger Martin’s When More is not Better, an eloquent and timely look at the decline and fall. It is filled with innovative ideas that are working elsewhere, and plenty of ideas that need serious consideration.

Martin says all models are wrong. They attempt to mimic a natural, complex, dynamic and adaptive system that is tied up in absolutely everything going on on the planet. So naturally, they can’t account for every event, every variable and every happenstance. The result is usually one economist out of thousands being right about the coming year.

Imperfect models and rigid ideologies mean a change from the bell-shaped Gaussian curve to the rather ugly Pareto curve. In the Gaussian, he says, the distribution of wealth, income or production, peaks in the center, and the extremes get or achieve less. In the Pareto curve, the rich 1% are at the very tip on the extreme right, will all the success and no competitors. This is also where the one or two companies that control a market find themselves. Almost everyone else is bunched up against the vertical axis, with lots of competition and little or no revenues. From beer to mobile phones to missiles, monopolists get nearly all the revenues, while all the smaller fish split the rest.

In far too many examples, from corporate concentration and monopolies, to income distribution, the Pareto has replaced the Gaussian, an unstable and unsustainable situation. This has made the US economy ripe for a fall. It doesn’t have the ability to bounce back from external shocks like tariff wars and pandemics. It is instead set in reinforced concrete as the only way for the capitalist world to be. And if it seems to be failing, double-down and make the rules even stricter.

In Martin’s terms, it is a case of balancing efficiency with resilience. In America’s case, it is not so much 50-50 as 100-0 for efficiency over resilience.

Martin’s message is that the economy is not a machine that experts can fine tune for maximum efficiency. But that is precisely how American government, regulatory agencies and business think of it. This kind of thinking permeates the economy. He demonstrates with labor. It is wrong for workers, for the government and for the economy, but the drive to efficiency wins over entrepreneurial activities, innovation and resilience every time. He shows that lower pay is the goal for higher productivity, therefore the outsourcing and offshoring proxy becomes the goal itself. America is seeing the results in its inability to produce the drugs it needs, the defense systems it wants, or to process the natural resources it craves. Most jobs hug minimum wage rates and fewer and fewer formerly middle class jobs provide a decent living. They’ve all been abandoned in the name of efficiency. As I have said elsewhere, it used to be called serfdom. Now it’s called freedom. But enough people have been fooled now that it has the power to destabilize the economy.

An example Martin gives of non-ideological balance is Canada’s Bank Act of 1871. It provided for a complete review every ten years, because things change and no one could predict what the world would be like. The process worked when the finance minister (and later prime minister) Paul Martin refused to allow Canadian banks to merge into too-big-to-fail giants like their counterparts across the border. Banks whined they needed the heft to compete in a global market of swollen American leviathans. Canada said no. Then, in the Financial Crisis of 2008, Canada’s banks needed a total of zero dollars in bailouts. There were no failures. Today, without mergers, the top five supposedly tiny Canadian banks rank in the top ten in the world. And the ten year review of the Bank Act has become a five year event, as both banks and the regulator recognize the need to constantly change as the economy evolves. Compare Canada’s sole banking regulatory body to America’s clutch of unending regulators and congressional committee hearings. Flexibility shows its hand mightily.

Meanwhile, in the USA, the government encourages and even forces mergers. Banks need publicly funded bailouts, and unwieldy laws like Sarbanes-Oxley handcuff them into strict structures, processes and abilities. The result is all kinds of cheating and envelope-pushing as US banks look for end runs around the rules and regulators. For every potential action there is a law or a rule governing it in the USA. The big US banks may dominate, but they are not competitive, nimble or innovative. By law.

The misguided goal of efficiency shows up everywhere. In the stock markets, high-speed trading has meant firms placing their own servers in the exchanges’ facilities, giving them an advantage measured in thousandths of a second to get their orders filled first. It’s not about the value of a company and its shares, it’s about the efficiency of the stock trade itself. Efficiency is also measured in the narrowness of the spread in bid and ask. It used to be measured in eighths of a dollar. Now it is measured in thousandths of a cent. In the USA, this is what economic success looks like. Proxies for efficiency become the actual goals of the business instead of being just proxies. Americans are playing the wrong game.

Martin has solutions for all kinds of other domains too. He proposes 19 initiatives for four groups of actors, from educators to regulators and politicians. For beating back monopolies, hedge funds and private equity firms, he recommends tenure-based voting rights. These already exist in France, where the Florange Act came into being in 2014. It provides more votes per share the longer they are held by the same entity. This means someone who holds a stock for say ten years can easily outvote a hedge fund that only holds them for a few months as it attempts to restructure or bankrupt the target firm. Martin thinks it is a good concept, but needs to go much farther than ten votes per share that Florange provides. He envisions thousands of votes per share. This will refocus the vultures on productive efforts rather than the efficient extraction of dollars from every asset - which is all they do now.

He says so-called slack is not the enemy of efficiency; it is a benefit of people working together. Excising all slack from the workday is unhealthy and rigid. Once again the proxy becomes the goal as companies eliminate bathroom breaks, discourage chance meetings and go so far as to provide subsidized lunches to keep workers in the building instead of socializing downtown. In this case, efficiency prevents creativity.

One of the great things about the book is the ratio of history to solutions. In 99% of economics books I review, history dominates. It goes on forever, page after endless page. Only the final chapter proposes solutions, and after all that history, it is usually a total letdown. In When More is not Better, Martin actually acknowledges this, and provides a nearly 50-50 split between history and solutions. His solutions are innovative, intuitively correct, and eminently doable.

He also stresses that there are no cure-alls. Everything needs the flexibility to adapt, continuously. It needs to start everywhere, with really tiny adjustments that might seem insignificant. A bold new national policy will not work alone; it has to be small steps that add up to big changes. This is refreshingly different, and even hopeful, because it means every government, every company, as well individuals can make this happen. He says to save our precious democratic capitalism, it must.

David Wineberg
Profile Image for Geoff.
963 reviews92 followers
January 9, 2021
David's review is the one to read: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

Very interesting book that states because we treat American democratic capitalist society as a machine with independent parts that can be independently tweaked (and not the interconnected dynamic system it is) we are dooming society either through increasing resource capture by the rich or from collapse from within as the majority loses faith in the system and its institutions.

Writing on January 8, 2021, this is a very poignant thesis.

Loved his insistence that we all work from simplified mental models and that all models are in some ways wrong, implying we should be humble about any individual change we think we should make. And the interesting thing about Martin's book is that is spends as much time discussing potential solutions as it does the problem. And his idea, fitting with his theme that you can't just change one thing and expect the whole system to change, is that it will take many many small changes, policies, tweaks, and nudges across politics, business, education, and citizen participation to set things right.
Profile Image for Book Reader.
330 reviews
September 29, 2020
This book provides numerous ideas on the state of democratic capitalism in America. There is a lot of discussions on the current view of the US economy as a machine as well as the alternative of seeing it as a complex adaptive system.

I like the arguments provided by Roger Martin particularly his comparison of the Gaussian distribution with the Pareto distribution in relation to the economy.

Those who are interested in political economics would appreciate the contents of the book. It would appeal especially for those who are dealing with solving economic problems.

More importantly, a great chunk of the book was dedicated to the solutions to the problems presented in the first few chapters. The author explained in detail what business executives, political leaders, educators, and citizens can do to help.
Profile Image for Brahm.
468 reviews55 followers
December 31, 2020
This book is about the dangers of ruthless optimization, compartmentalization, and the elimination of all slack in complex systems (like: the economy, major organizations and institutions, supply chains, politics, etc.).

Dislikes: Maybe my usual complaint about being broad and not deep, there was only about ~210 pages of content before notes & references. This book felt like Antifragile Lite; Martin discusses fragility and resiliency extensively, using a handful of the same examples as Taleb (maybe coincidence) but less fire in his belly.

Likes: Book was split 40/60 in terms outlining problem and potential solutions, this made for a more productive read. I complained about lack of depth but that's probably a positive, too: many of the people who NEED to read this book (policymakers, senior leaders, etc.) need something brief and easy. The author has spent a lot of time in both America and Canada and draws some interesting comparisons between the two as far as what works and what doesn't. None of the "solutions" are impossible or untried, Martin has highlighted stuff that's already working in different organizations or jurisdictions.

If you can't stand Nassim Taleb but want a good primer on fragility, interconnectedness, non-reductive thinking and "complex adaptive systems" plus a bunch of solutions, I would recommend this book.

Discovered via Neil Pasricha's newsletter, top reads of 2020.
Profile Image for Dave.
113 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2021
This is a book that takes an optimistic look at the future of America.

Roger Martin is one of the best strategy teachers in the world and he brings his teaching ability to his idea that the American economy is a complex system.

He teaches us the power of metaphors, stories, and ideas to create change. He also uses real world, actionable ideas to help show the way to change.
67 reviews
August 31, 2022
Roger Martin is a Canadian academic, so who better to tell Americans how to fix their broken country. Subtitled Over coming America's obsession with economic efficiency, is dissuades the reader from the view that the economy is a machine; a machine that follows mechanical principles and can be taken apart and fixed with ease. It is, rather, like a rain forest, with thousand of interconnected parts that depend on each other, but not necessarily in obvious ways. Key takeaway? Don't confuse a proxy with a result. Wells Fargo tried to manage by proxies, and the staff took the easy way out and cheated, or gamed the system resulting in a $3 billion fine by federal authorities outraged by the millions of fake accounts created at the troubled bank over many years. The accounts were created by bank officers to prove that they were "engaging with the customer". Engaging with your customers is a good thing, but they tried to measure it by counting the amount of accounts the customer had open.

The last four chapters are suggestions to politicians, business leaders and educators of how to change behaviours to make America better.
Profile Image for Flavia.
93 reviews1 follower
September 26, 2020
A great read. With very little background in economics, it wasn't hard at all to keep up. I also thought Martin strikes a good balance between personal and professional tone!
Content-wise, definitely one of the most important books I've read this year.
Profile Image for Amanda.
175 reviews1 follower
September 11, 2021
This is a very accessible book about the economy that provides realistic, actionable recommendations. I don’t agree with all of the arguments, but that’s great! The point is to help the reader engage and challenge their existing models and I think this book provides the grist for some cognitive flexing.

I would recommend to all readers, especially those who are worried about approaching a book about the economy. This book and its author are not speaking down to you which is a nice change from some modern economic tomes.
369 reviews3 followers
November 26, 2021
Important message about the vulnerability of democracy in democratic capitalism in an era where it’s results are exacerbating inequality. Unfortunately the analysis of why we should be concerned are far stronger than the solutions offered. Not that said solutions may not be applicable but that are nowhere near as compelling a reason for the author’s optimism as the case made for the negative outcomes society is moving towards.
Profile Image for Neil Pasricha.
Author 26 books824 followers
August 5, 2021
Do you feel like the whole system is rigged? Like there’s nothing you can do to really get ahead or help affect true change? This is the book to read. It masterfully zooms up into the stratosphere of the entire democratic capitalist system we live in and pulls back the curtain on all the junky, rusted-out parts inside. Roger Martin was Dean of the Rotman School of Management for a good decade and a half and named the world’s #1 management thinker by Thinkers50. I’ve followed his strategy books over the years (Playing To Win, The Opposable Mind) but I think this is his absolute best work. A clear call-to-arms calling shenanigans on, well, nearly everything, and then outlining remarkably refreshing approaches on how to fix it, all filtered into ideas for business execs, political leaders, educators, and citizens. His suggestions feel so ridiculously obvious but (of course) none of them are really happening right now. For example, for educators: Temper the inclination to teach certainty, stop teaching reductionism as if it’s a good thing (his epic takedown of MBAs here is worth the price of admission alone), help students appreciate the power of directly observable data, and elevate the appreciation of qualities (over quantities). Each point is backed by numbers and tightly screwed into lean and logical prose. Incredible.
Profile Image for Atlas.
14 reviews
October 15, 2022
Great introductory book to seeing the economy as a complex, living system. But I’m not new to the topic and was not impressed with the depth of info. There are lots of metaphorical examples used that I feel the author devoted too much space to, and spent too little space on deep content.
195 reviews2 followers
June 13, 2022
Professor Martin posits that the tens of millions of Americans who participate in capitalism at the lowest levels (that is, paid a trivial fraction of CEO compensation, and living just one bad medical diagnosis away from bankruptcy) are politically apathetic. That is, they're not voting, or not voting to correct their situation.

This is obvious: if that many people actually attempted to improve their lives through political action, presumably we'd be in a different situation. Unless he's wrong about apathy, and tens of millions of Americans are just too foolish, or too prone to believe political propaganda, to vote to help themselves (or at least stop voting against their own self-interests); that's a possibility too.

So, the people most in need of government health care, day care, and wage improvements are not driving the political system to act in their favor. I suppose this explains the optimism of social democratic politicians like Senator Sanders, who imagine that once these workers finally do take a stand, the platforms he espouses are obvious winners.

The book's thesis is that a focus on economic efficiency addresses a faulty model, and that in real life, systems perform "better" with less reductionist views about efficiency. Professor Martin also attempts to provide solutions to the problems he describes. I'm less optimistic about incremental solutions and more of the thought that given all the mess he described, a more massive shift in economic and political model is the necessary solution.
Profile Image for Chris Boutté.
Author 8 books150 followers
November 29, 2020
I love behavioral economics, but standard economics is my least favorite subject to read about. With that being said, this book from Roger L. Martin was amazing. Typically, economics is a very confusing subject for me because I wasn't raised in a household where the economy was discussed, and my school system didn't do me any favors either. Fortunately, Martin has a great style of using analogies and metaphors to make the topic much more comprehensible, and I learned more from this book than I have in a lifetime of trying to understand the subject. 

As someone who has become an advocate for democratic socialism over the last few years, Roger L. Martin actually sold me on some ideas for democratic capitalism. He was able to break down why democratic capitalism isn't working due to the fact that we're obsessed with efficiency, but he recognizes that if we'd adapt and look at the system as a whole, we could make democratic capitalism work for everyone. This book gave me hope that even if democratic socialism doesn't come to be, maybe we can repair our current system in the United States.
Profile Image for Howard.
281 reviews18 followers
May 18, 2021
This is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read. Less than half the book is dedicated to the problem. The rest is describing solutions. And the solutions are not theoretical. They are all being done currently somewhere. They are proven.

The main premise here is that the economy should not be treated like a machine. It is more like a complex adaptive natural system. Also, optimizing for efficiency makes the system brittle instead of resilient.

The history of the US economy is one of a Gaussian or Bell curve. Historically we have been focused on moving that entire curve to the right, making everyone better off. Since the 1970s, that curve has become more and more a Pareto curve, increasing the wealth gap in our country. This book shows how we might move that back to a more natural Bell curve that better serves more people.
Profile Image for Christine.
954 reviews12 followers
October 25, 2020
Clear and concise, with achievable action steps, this is a great read. Martin takes readers through the current American system, troubles and all, in an easy to understand way, and gives clear examples of places and people who are doing it differently and better. The second half of the book is taken up with action steps that seem reasonable and possible, and I feel optimistic about chances that they could make a difference. I think if this book became widespread reading for a lot of Americans in this post-election season, real change could at least get started and that would be welcome.

I won a copy of this book through Goodreads Giveaways and am voluntarily leaving this review.
1,357 reviews3 followers
December 7, 2020
Interesting book of the demise of democratic capitalism unless something is done for instance, America’s obsession with efficiency ie. a pitcher’s arm — yes, you’d like that arm for all games but need the pitch count to preserve for longevity.

Joe’s Stone Crabs wonderfully inspiring story incl the maitre’d who has worked there for nearly 50 years working his way up from pot washer

-monopolies are not desirable as competition makes you strive to be better
-previous bell curve to current Pareto curve though don’t necessarily agree on raising the top marginal rate
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Glenn Moonfaize.
17 reviews
January 3, 2021
This started off very good but became weak about 3/4 into it. The chapters on solutions from politicians, educators, and citizens just seemed ineffective. I want information about the big companies harm to the overall well-being of average citizens. It is like capitalism (in any form)seems to be the problem. I agree with the motive to please the stockholders and make profits being harmful.
It should be about what works for the well-being of the community and being able to have flow of money to the whole rather than trying to squeeze and exploit everyone for a few account holders.
106 reviews
September 21, 2021
Roger Martin does a great job of laying out both the problem - how we got here - and solutions to help solve the problems. His premise is that we should not think of the economy as a machine (which needs to work efficiently) but instead consider the economy as a complex natural system. We should think about things holistically and weigh more than just financials.

One idea that resonated with me is to design for adaptability; instead of seeking perfect solutions, we should assume our solutions will need to be tweaked and improved over time.
13 reviews
January 18, 2022
For several years I've been thinking that many of us are so focused on earning a profit we've forgotten that we are part of a community and as part of that community we each have obligations to each other. This book broke open that thought and showed me how focusing only of efficiency (think profit) we've created pareto curves from bell shaped curves. The author shows the clear path from bell shaped curves to pareto and the destructive impact those have on our culture and democracy. Definitely worth reading and happily not so dense that I couldn't understand it.
April 5, 2022
What if there is no perfect solution to our economic problems? This book calls for a rethinking of the economy as a complex adaptive system, not a machine. Developing policies that can solve a societal problem is like prototyping a solution or a software application; it requires reviews and revisions to apply new learnings from experiencing and observing the flaws in action, or to sunset if it does not pass muster. In other words, every solution needs the flexibility to continuously adapt to the changing nature of the problem.
Profile Image for Doc Martin.
29 reviews2 followers
November 16, 2020
Another thought provoking lockdown read into the difference between efficiency and resilience. I totally agree with Martin’s mantra of pursue improvement, not perfection.

‘ Our obsession with economic efficiency has featured too much pressure, too much connectedness, and too much pursuit of perfection, all of which has produced a dangerously unbalanced economy lacking resilience.’

Hopefully with the help this book we all can start to address this imbalance.
Profile Image for Dave.
174 reviews2 followers
September 12, 2021
I have an deep admiration for Roger Martin! His Harvard Business Review articles are always thought provoking and always leave me questioning my deeply held beliefs. This book was no different.
Models in any LOB serve several purposes but we need to view them as adaptive instead of stagnant antiquated platforms. I love the Use Cases Roger Martin mentions throughout the book. This is definitely one I’ll revisit again!
801 reviews3 followers
August 28, 2021
I thought Martin's premise was interesting and compelling - that having efficiency as the ultimate goal has not produced the desired results, and that could lead to social instability. The last section with suggestions for practical applications across various fields was the most interesting and useful part of the book.
Profile Image for Daniel Maurath.
129 reviews1 follower
September 10, 2021
This a lecture that has been padded to fill a book. And it’s a lecture more on systems thinking than it is on the harm of growth and how to solve it. For that I’d recommend Less Is More from Jason Hickel. The padding comes at the end when the author proposes 18 solutions to all the worlds problems, none of which seem effectual or novel.
17 reviews
March 24, 2023
This really should have been an HBR article, not a book. The author uses statistics to make what is a really simple concept (our desire for economic efficiency leads to job losses which leads to wealth inequality) seem complex. The book reads more like a rambling rather than a well-thought-out solution to a problem.
Profile Image for L E.
244 reviews14 followers
October 10, 2020
Thank you to the publisher, author and Goodreads for my free copy of "When More Is Not Better." It was an interesting look into democratic capitalism. I was especially intrigued by the conversations regarding slack in business and even more so by the solutions for educators.
October 15, 2020
Excellent primer on systems thinking. Easy to read with great examples from economics, business, education, and government as complex adaptive systems. When your old reliable models start becoming less useful, it’s time to adopt some new models.
Profile Image for Miguel.
701 reviews59 followers
July 25, 2021
The comparison between sought-after gaussian and generally undesirable pareto trending outcomes was interesting and resonated well. There’s nothing overly revelatory here but the earlier sections were more engaging for this reader.
Profile Image for Benjamin Wann.
Author 3 books2 followers
November 6, 2021
Loved it, practical and informative

The author brings a very well thought out narrative to the challenges our country faces and then spends 50% of the book prescribing practical solutions.Highly recommend.
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