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How Efficient Are You?

The "efficiency vs effectiveness" debate from the perspective of a young social entrepreneur!

By Seven JPublished 3 years ago 3 min read
When I spent time living and volunteering in Nepal, one of the most important things we had to do was work with and for the local community in a way that suited them - without their specific needs and context taken into account, there would be no point in working more efficiently. We wouldn't have been effective.

Spoiler: you aren’t, and that’s good.

Everyone has those little things that absolutely grind their gears; things that make us angrier than they should. For me, they tend to be things that could indirectly negatively impact what decisions we make (“indirectly” because that usually means we think we understand something that we actually don’t, making changing that thing really difficult), and the biggest one for me at the moment is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

If you ask a factory manager what a production line should be, they would probably answer “Efficient!” That’s because it’s an automated process, with each individual part operating one specific function to create an outcome more quickly.

Well, here’s my gripe: humans are not efficient. We aren’t machines. We aren’t processes. And that’s good, because that tends to be how we add the most value to our personal and professional lives.

So, when someone says to me “Let’s do X this way, because it’ll be more efficient.” part of me wants to explode. Specifically, I feel that way when “X” is about a task requiring teamwork.

Here’s a better example: if three team members need to have a meeting to get something done, but have clashing schedules, one person might say “Let’s have a video call instead, later tonight, because it’ll be more efficient”, I would probably disagree.

“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things.”—Peter Drucker

In that situation, what we should be asking is “What can we do that will make an effective meeting, despite having clashing schedules." If, that evening, one team member wanted to leave because they were going out that night, they wouldn’t be focused on the meeting. If you’re like myself, and you need an ANNOYING amount of sleep, you might be too tired by 8 PM to input all that much into a meeting. Maybe someone has just had a really long day. Regardless of the issue, they all decrease commitment, creativity, and ability; in other words, the meeting would be totally ineffective, and therefore pointless.

When focusing on people, instead of processes, the best outcome is much more likely to come from asking how effective we could be, and avoid trying to make everything efficient. I imagine a person who tries to make everything more efficient to be like the little monkey who sits in your head banging the cymbals together, but instead of sitting, they’re running around frantically, and instead of cymbals, they’re trying to hammer down everything in sight.

In other words, you don’t know what you’re actually trying to achieve. You would be too busy trying to make things better in ways that won’t work no matter what, as opposed to trying to figure out what could actually improve a situation.

The reason it annoys me so much is because, without an understanding of that difference, we tend to try to force things that don’t really work in our favour and overlook the things that might actually work or help. In my earlier example, one thing might better fit into your time schedule, and therefore look like a more productive process. However, because that process overlooks the individual human conditions and context, it breaks. We can be so confident that we understand what makes us more efficient, but overlook the details that will actually create the most output (effectiveness as a human being).

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”—Stephen Covey

In short, when talking about people, what you’re really looking for is effectiveness, not efficiency. Asking ourselves whether we’re trying to make something more effective or more efficient in a situation can help us to take a step back and decide what factors, like needing sleep (effectiveness) or decreasing redundancy (efficiency), are going to best impact the situation. In other words, take Covey’s advice and get the things done which actually matter.

I remain, Seven


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