Effectiveness and Efficiency

Fri, April 12, 2013, 09:22 PM under Career

In the professional environment, i.e. at work, I am always seeking personal growth and to be challenged. The result is that my assignments, my work list, my tasks, my goals, my commitments, my [insert whatever word resonates with you] keep growing (in scope and desired impact). Which in turn means I have to keep finding new ways to deliver more value, while not falling into the trap of working more hours. To do that I continuously evaluate both my effectiveness and my efficiency.


The first thing I check is my effectiveness: Am I doing the right things? Am I focusing too much on unimportant things? Am I spending more time doing stuff that is important to my team/org/division/business/company, or am I spending it on stuff that is important to me and that I enjoy doing? Am I valuing activities that maybe I have outgrown and should be delegated to others who are at a stage I have surpassed (in Microsoft speak: is the work I am doing level appropriate or am I still operating at the previous level)?

Notice how the answers to those questions change over time and due to certain events, so I have to remind myself to revisit them frequently. Events that force me to re-examine them are: change of role, change of team/org/etc, change of direction of team/org/etc, re-org, new hires on the team that take on some of the work I did, personal promotion, change of manager... and if none of those events has occurred since the last annual review, I ask myself those at each annual review anyway.

If you think you are not being effective at work, make a list of the stuff that you do and start tracking where your time goes. In parallel, have a discussion with your manager about where they think your time should go. Ultimately your time is finite and hence it is your most precious investment, don't waste it. If your management doesn't value as highly what you spend your time on, then either convince your management, or stop spending your time on it, or find different management: Lead, Follow, or get out of the way!

That's my view on effectiveness. You have to fix that before moving to being efficient, or you may end up being very efficient at stuff that nobody wants you to be doing in the first place. For example, you may be spending your time writing blog posts and becoming better and faster at it all the time. If your manager thinks that is not even part of your job description, you are wasting your time to satisfy your inner desires. Nobody can help you with your effectiveness other than your management chain and your management peers - they are the judges of it.


The second thing I check is my efficiency: Am I doing things right? For me, doing things right means that I deliver the same quality of work faster [than what I used to, and than my peers, and than expected of me]. The result is that I can achieve more [than what I used to, and than my peers, and than expected of me].

Notice how the efficiency goal is a more portable one. If, by whatever criteria, you think you are the best at [insert your own skill here], this can change at two events: because you have new colleagues (who are potentially better than your older ones), and it can change with a change of manager (who has potentially higher expectations). That's about it. Once you are efficient at something, you carry that with you... All you need to really be doing here is, when taking on new kinds of work that you haven't done before, try a few approaches and devise a system so that you can become efficient at this new activity too... Just keep "collecting" stuff that you are efficient at.

If you think you are not being efficient at something, break it down: What are the steps you take to complete that task? How long do you spend on each step? Talk to others about what steps they take, to see if you can optimize some steps away or trade them for better steps, or just learn how to complete a step faster. Have a system for every task you take so that you can have repeatable success.

That's my view on efficiency. You have to fix it so that you can free up time to do more. When you plan a route from A to B - all else being equal - you try to get there as fast as possible so why would you not want to do that with your everyday work?

For example, imagine you are inefficient at processing email: You spend more time than necessary dealing with email, and you still end up with dropped email threads and with slower response times than others. How can you improve? Talk to someone that you think is good at this, understand their system (e.g. here is my email processing system) and come up with one that works for you.

Parting Thoughts

Are you considered, by your colleagues and manager, an effective and efficient person at your workplace? If you are, what would you change if you were asked by your management to do the job of two people? Seriously, think about that! Your immediate reaction may be "that is not possible", but it actually is. You just have to re-assess what things that were previously important will now stop being important, by discussing them with your management and reaching agreement on relative priorities. For example, stuff that was previously on your plate may now have to be delegated or dropped. Where you thought you were efficient, maybe now you have to find an even faster path to completion, perhaps keeping in mind that Perfect is the Enemy of “Good Enough”.

My personal experience (from both observing others and from my own reflection) is that when folks are struggling to keep up at work it is because of two reasons:

  1. They are investing energy in stuff that they enjoy doing which the business regards as having a lower priority than a lot of other things on their plate.
  2. They are completing tasks to a level of higher quality than what is required (due to personal pride) missing the big picture which almost always mandates completing three tasks at good enough quality than knocking only one of them out of the park while the other two come in late or not at all.

There is a lot of content on the web, so I strongly encourage you to use your favorite search engine to read other views on effectiveness and efficiency (Bing, Google).