Companies are driven by profits to be highly efficient. It is important to do as much as possible using the least amount of time, money, and resources. For that reason, there is pressure in most corporate cultures to be efficient. The problem is that being efficient is often accomplished at the expense of effectiveness. The truth is that effectiveness is far more important than efficiency.
According to diffen.com, effectiveness is about doing the right task, completing activities and achieving goals. Efficiency is about doing things in an optimal way, for example doing it the fastest or in the least expensive way. We all need to be efficient, but efficiency is at its best when it contributes to effectiveness.
In his book, The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker explains,
“Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results.”
Comparing Effectiveness vs Efficiency
The Productivity Example of Agile Programmers
This concept of effectiveness before efficiency comes from a sub-section of Agile computer programmers (also: check out our Agile Results articles on how to implement this for yourself and our Scrum content for teams). The short version is that Agile programming is a process of rapid software development, where you use multiple iterations and prototypes to push through an application at breakneck speed. With such an emphasis on speed, it’s no surprise that most Agile programmers are all about efficiency. But a small group of them have recognized that it is often better to be effective rather than efficient.
1. The Real Problem of Efficiency
The main problem with placing efficiency before effectiveness is that some people end up wanting to do things fast/perfectly, before they’ve even started doing them at all. This of course, creates some problems. You’ll often see people procrastinate, try to perfect some tiny detail, or take a long time to get things started when they’re trying to be efficient before being effective (there some irony there, I know). What happens is this: they’ll start doing something, realize that their chosen path is “too slow” and then switch to another process… and another, and another – the net effect is inefficiency, and ineffectiveness.
Sometimes, it’s better to just dive in and do something the slow but proven way rather than to try to make it more effective at the get-go. Another common symptom is where people are stuck in a never-ending learning loop, absorbing and compiling information to do things highly effectively, rather than trying them out first.
Let’s look at some of the ways to overcome this tendency, and how to strike a balance between both – effectiveness and efficiency (or as my primary school maths teacher put it, “speed and accuracy”).
2. The Real Goal of Efficiency
There is a difference between busyness and productivity. For example, a person might be very efficient in stacking boxes. Maybe someone can stack 1,000 boxes per hour. They are doing things right. However, if the mission of the organization is to unstack and categorize boxes, then all that efficiency is wasted on the wrong activity. One person might do more in less time, but what is the true value if they are doing the wrong things?
The real goal of efficiency is to be efficient at doing the right things.
How To Be Both Efficient and Effective
1. Get Something Done Then Improve It
As mentioned above, the biggest problem with putting efficiency before effectiveness is that most people never get started on the task – they simply end up looking for better and better ways to do it, and never go anywhere.
A better approach is to learn while doing, and iterate. This is the idea that you can’t write down a kitchen recipe until you’ve tried and experimented with it. Try it first, write it down, refine, and refine, and refine until you have it right (efficient). There is no way you can understand everything about a task or process until you’ve tried it.
Now there is an exception to this – certain people have the capability to run simulations in their mind that correlate 1:1 with the real world. I’m certainly not one of those people, and I suspect that if you are, you would already be working amongst geniuses in a secret government facility somewhere.
2. Find The Balance Between Effectiveness and Efficiency
Obviously the name of this blog is Asian Efficiency – we love doing things better and faster but there are also times where getting to the outcome is more important than doing it the most optimal way.
A good balance between effectiveness and efficiency is this: when you’re doing something for the first time (say learning a new skill), go about it the way that people who have already done it recommend first – and once you’ve tried it their way, then you can go back and try to find or tweak a more efficient way. This is why the majority of our Productivity Academy would post in our Slack channel asking for feedback from other members.
To give an example, there are lot of people who try to learn online marketing. And what they do is that they keep reading and reading and reading and looking for “better ways” (i.e., efficiency), when really they should just try one way first, examine the results, and then improve upon it.
3. Stop Procrastinating
Common examples where you might procrastinate and get analysis paralysis:
- Which productivity software is the best suited for you – just pick one and try it for a week
- A personal project that’s intimidating – just start on one tiny task and don’t stress about doing it effectively
- Making standard operating procedures (documentation) and systems before you’ve ever tried doing it
And there are many cases where this can pop up. Anytime you do something for the first time, go for it and don’t stress about doing it efficiently. When I first learned rowing, I didn’t care about being efficient. I just wanted to row and get good at it. Once I liked it and kept doing it, then I wanted to learn to be a more efficient rower.
Use this approach for anything in life and you’ll be fine. Doing it, imperfect, is better than never getting started (for most things in life).
Next Actions – Do This for Both Efficiency and Effectiveness
- If you’re stuck on something in your life where you don’t seem to be making progress, try it the non-efficient-but-effective way first.
- Once you’ve given that a go, refine and refine – until you can do it efficiently.
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