How "Right-sizing" Companies are Sacrificing Innovation

We know companies tend to continue their existing trends until something changes. But what if that external force is not a sudden shock but a gradual erosion? What if the company starts losing its most valuable asset - its people - through layoffs?

A medium-sized ferry with "BCFerries" written on the side sits at it's dock.
A BC Ferry at the Swartz Bay terminal near Sidney, BC. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

We're all passively aware of the idea that "a company in motion tends to stay in motion." It's a variation of Newton's first law of motion, which states that an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an external force. The idea is that a company that has been performing well and delivering value to its customers will continue to do so unless something drastic happens to disrupt its momentum.

But what if that external force is not a sudden shock but a gradual erosion? What if the company starts losing its most valuable asset - its people - through layoffs? And what if those layoffs are not seen as a sign of trouble but as proof of efficiency?

The Zuckerberg Year of Efficiency: A Trap

That's what seems to be happening in many sectors of the tech industry today. As competition intensifies and the pullout of the pandemic continues, many companies are resorting to cutting costs by reducing their headcount. They believe that this is necessary to streamline their operations, focus on their core competencies, and improve their profitability. They also argue that this will not affect their ability to innovate and serve their customers because they are only letting go of redundant or underperforming employees.

But, is this really true? Or, are they setting themselves up for a long-term decline?

Vancouver in the downtown east side circa 2016. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

The Perilous Path of Cutting Headcount

The evidence suggests that layoffs have negative consequences for companies beyond the short-term savings. Research has shown that layoffs generally don't increase financial performance or stock price of the company beyond one or two quarters. Instead, they often result in negative outcomes such as future voluntary turnover; loss of skills, learning, productivity, and innovation; lowered employee morale; and brand reputational risks.

Often, companies that prioritize the reduction of costs and headcount inadvertently stifle creativity and innovation. This naturally begs the question: Despite the abundance of convincing research suggesting that layoffs will not position a company to lead its market segment in the future, why do executives persistently embrace this strategy?

Perhaps it is because the allure of immediate financial savings is too strong to resist. Or perhaps it is because it is easier to quickly trim expenses than it is to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions that foster creativity and innovation. But whatever the reason, the results are often the same: Companies that take the short-sighted path of cost-cutting and downsizing tend to find themselves struggling to keep pace with their more innovative competitors.

The Unseen Consequences of Broad and Indiscriminate Layoffs

As companies resort to broad layoffs, they inadvertently communicate a disconcerting message to their workforce. It seems as though the value of their contributions doesn't matter, irrespective of the quality or extent of their performance. This startling revelation breeds palpable fear and uncertainty among the remaining employees. Does their performance even matter?

Are they, too, just replaceable cogs in the corporate machine, regardless of their dedication and achievements?

Moreover, such sweeping layoffs have a more insidious effect than mere fear. They dismantle the intricate social ties and networks that were painstakingly built over time. These are the very networks that facilitate knowledge sharing and problem-solving—two crucial components in the engine of corporate productivity and growth.

Executives are engaging in a disconcerting practice where they remove entire business lines and lay off corresponding teams while simultaneously re-hiring the same skillsets in another line of business. This perplexing trend sends a clear message to each employee: their personal success is not connected to the value of their contributions.

Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain Station circa 2016. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

The Innovation Imperative: Lessons from Failing Companies

Yet, there is a hefty price tag attached to this erosion of diversity and the spectrum of viewpoints. Is it not this very mosaic of perspectives that serves as the pulsating heart of innovation? Now that the ability to innovate is less of a luxury and more of a lifeline, can corporations truly justify siphoning off their lifeforce?

For instance, a study of one Fortune 500 tech firm done by Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School discovered that after the firm cut its staff by 15%, the number of new inventions it produced fell 24%, and continued over many months. In addition, layoffs can rupture ties between salespeople and customers, which can affect customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Layoffs can also reduce a company's ability to flexibly assign resources and take advantage of changes in the market. We can see this happening right now as companies who last year were making huge layoffs are now rapidly trying to rehire many similar roles to take advantage of the AI movement. I know from my network that many companies lost months in their progress toward AI adoption due to their layoff strategy.

Are all layoffs fundamentally detrimental? Not necessarily. The potential for benefit exists, particularly when companies utilize layoffs to remove low performers that could be depressing teams. This, however, should be part of an ongoing evaluation and performance framework, rather than a knee-jerk response to transient market conditions.

Indeed, investors may sometimes interpret layoffs as a positive development under the assumption that they will target underachievers. But these large layoffs often remove whole teams and occur quickly, gathering up high performers at the same time. This says nothing of high performers who may exit voluntarily in the wake of their colleagues' departure, and the intangible assets such as culture or reputation that furnish companies with a competitive advantage.

Layoffs can sometimes be a strategic move, but they should never be a reflexive response to market fluctuations.
The text on the back of a MTA's passengers jacket reads "DOES IT EVEN MATTER", visible through a train door.
MTA underground in New York circa 2017. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Redefining Success: Beyond Profit Margins and Headcounts

Is success merely a matter of numbers, a game of profit margins and headcounts? This perspective is not only narrow but potentially destructive. Let's interrogate the criteria we use to measure success in the corporate world and question whether they truly capture the full spectrum of a company's value.

It's time to look beyond the traditional figures that dominate our definition of corporate success. Profit margins and headcounts are a part of the story, yes, but not the whole story. To focus solely on these aspects is to miss the forest for the trees. The question is not whether a company can squeeze out a few extra percentage points of profitability or whether it can operate with a leaner workforce. But rather, the more pertinent question is, can this company innovate? Can it adapt? Can it inspire and lead, not just in its market sector but in the broader corporate landscape?

These are the metrics of success that truly matter. They are less tangible, harder to quantify, but ultimately more meaningful than simple financial figures. And they are the factors that will separate the companies that survive and thrive from those that are left behind in the relentless march of progress.

The true measure of a company's success isn't found in its ledger but in its ability to innovate, adapt, and inspire.

Instead of focusing exclusively on cost-cutting and headcount reduction, companies would be wise to invest in creativity, innovation, and human capital. Rather than seeing employees as a cost to be minimized, they should be viewed as the lifeblood of the organization, the force that drives innovation and propels the company forward. By investing in their employees, companies not only boost morale and productivity but also foster a culture of innovation that can lead to breakthroughs and competitive advantages.

Reformation in how success is measured is overdue. It is time to redefine what it means to be a successful company, to look beyond mere profit margins and headcounts, and recognize the true drivers of corporate success. The companies that understand this and adapt will be the ones leading the way in the business landscape of the future.

Stanley Park in Vancouver, BC circa 2016. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Why Creativity is the Lifeblood of a Thriving Company

When companies focus solely on the bottom line, dismissing creativity as a frivolous afterthought, they may experience temporary financial gains. However, without the influx of fresh ideas and perspectives, their products, services, and solutions become stale and outdated. The result? They are quickly outpaced by more innovative competitors.

Furthermore, creativity fosters a culture of continuous learning and improvement. Employees who are encouraged to think creatively are more likely to take calculated risks, challenge the status quo, and seek out novel ideas.

Creative thinking and continuous learning should not be seen as buzzwords, but as critical elements of effective business strategy.

It is high time companies rethink their approach towards achieving operational efficiency and financial success. Prioritizing creativity and continuous improvement not only fosters a positive work environment but also prepares the organization to face future challenges with resilience and adaptability.

I know this article is bound to create some feedback, and I'd love to hear it! Feel free to reply in a comment or directly to myself via email or message. I'm always open to fresh perspectives and want to hear yours. Likewise, if you found this article helpful, please forward it to a friend. It helps grow my audience, which incentivizes me to keep writing into the void.

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