Efficiency vs Effectiveness – it’s time to decide

A popular term I hear A LOT is “this is an ‘AND’ not an ‘OR'”. And what it basically meant was “This thing we want you to do is really important, but not important enough to take you away from your current job. Your current job is still the most important. But this new thing, well, it’s important too, and you will probably get into trouble for not doing it.” Or worse: “Everything is Priority One”. So the terms ‘and’ and ‘Priority One’ are becoming synonymous with feelings of overwhelm and knowing from the start that there is no way it will all be done. In our search for effectiveness and getting outstanding results, something must be done.

Nutella or Marmite? The Choice is Yours

I like to think of my time like Nutella. When it’s spread nice and thick (that is, focused on a single thing) it’s really yummy. Spread it too thin (like over multiple activities – see my earlier post ‘The Dangers of Multitasking‘) it’s not that good. In fact, I would go so far as to say (as would a number of my Nutella fan friends) you may as well not bother. Because when we are spread so thin over so many things, our effectiveness after context switching and the very limited time you can actually spend on each commitment, is close to zero. Or so low you may as well not to have bothered. Yep. Put that toaster away and don’t even get out the jar. There is no point. Either that or get out the Marmite, because that is MUCH better spread thin!

Effectiveness = Value to Customers

And we want to be effective. One thing to remember about Agile practices are they are geared to be effective. Of course they CAN be efficient, but the point to them is to be effective.

The definition of effective: “successful in producing a desired or intended result”

And that result is to deliver value to customers. This *may* mean that people’s time may not be optimised. If you want to see optimisation of time to the extreme, head on through Customs and Immigration at an international airport. They are geared for efficiency.

The definition of efficiency (of a system or machine): “achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense”, and (of a person): “working in a well-organized and competent way”

That is, efficiency of resource/staff utilisation (a part of me dies every time someone refers to people as resources – how about you?). Notice there is no mention of results in the definition of efficiency. When we seek to make change, we are seeking results. The flow of people through Customs and Immigration is of no concern to any Customs department in any country. People will travel anyway. If you’re paying someone for an eight hour shift, you want eight hours of value. Customs and Immigration is geared for efficiency.

Effectiveness = Flow

Conversely when you are optimising for flow, you get better throughput of work, and the customer is kept happy, but it may mean that people are not working for the full eight hours. There may be down time where they may have to wait – but reducing people will risk the flow of work. And risk achieving results. As Dr Jason Fox states in his book How to Lead a Quest: “… it is easy to become deluded by progress. This is where efficiency and productivity are valued more than effectiveness and progress.”

Effectiveness = Time to Think

When you optimise for effectiveness, the cost of some down time is a consideration. This is not a problem for knowledge workers, as it is expected that we spend time ‘sharpening the saw’ (Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). So when we are not producing output, we are furthering our development through networking, reading industry articles, online learning, or a variety of other ways we can get better at what we do. Or we may (read: we really, really should!) be taking time out to think. In The Agile Project Manager, I recalled a time I met Julia Gillard (along with 800 other people at a breakfast) where she reflected on the one thing she would do differently as Prime Minister, and take more time out to think. Because that is where the real difference can be made as a leader. If we are head down, bum up beavering away with constant ‘work’ (the delusion of progress) we are not taking the time out to think. If we do not think, we do not optimise. And if we do not optimise, the everything starts to break down.

Effectiveness AND Efficiency

We all want to be effective AND efficient. And we can be. But we need to choose what is the most important. What are you happy to give a little on to ensure you achieve one? If you are not prepared to give on either, you will probably get neither. It is not a zero sum game however. It is not Harry Potter vs. Voldemort extreme situation. But in favouring one, you will get slightly less of another. In trying for both, you will end up with neither.

Here’s a Tweetable for you: Effective or efficient? If you are not prepared to give on either, you probably get neither.

Time to Decide

What are you choosing? What are you deciding is more important? It’s not about giving up one for another, it’s about prioritising one over another. Knowing the most important thing. As leaders seeking to influence change, this is critical to our success.

Are you an ‘and’ person struggling to achieve anything because you’re trying to do everything? How could getting really clear on your priorities get you better results? For more help on this, check out my book (paperback and digital download): The Agile Project Manager.



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.