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On Being Efficient or Effective


By steve - Posted on 08 June 2010

"What's the difference between ignorance and apathy? I don't know and I don't care."
--Anonymous

Is it better to be efficient or effective?

Let's start with some definitions (from Webster's):

Efficient:
1 : being or involving the immediate agent in producing an effect
2 : productive of desired effects; especially : productive without waste

Effective:
1 a : producing a decided, decisive, or desired effect
1 b : impressive, striking
2 : ready for service or action
3 : actual
4 : being in effect : operative
5 : of a rate of interest equal to the rate of simple interest that yields the same amount when the interest is paid once at the end of the interest period as a quoted rate of interest does when calculated at compound interest over the same period

I'm talking about "efficient" in the sense of "productive without waste" or "bang for the buck". I'm talking about "effective" in the sense of "producing a desired effect" or "getting the right thing done".

It is fairly easy to be efficient. You look at your processes and how money and time are being spent, then work to optimize everything. This is an important process, but it often gets to the point where apparent efficiencies win out over logic. I've been in meetings before where staff have been asked to reduce the number of paper clips, staples, and pens being used (a possible few dollars savings per year vs. using expensive face-to-face time to discuss it)! While it may seem like a good idea to eliminate free coffee and start charging $.25 per cup, your savings there will be offset by the hours of complaining that people will do about losing a benefit.

Email is a great example of efficiency at work. If you can type, you can easily send and receive about 100 messages in an hour--there's no way you could do that with paper correspondence. The problem is that, for most people in most situations, reading and writing are not the same as doing. Maybe that hour should have been spent writing code?

It is a lot harder to be effective. That often means doing the hard things and it almost always means doing them well. It means thinking about what needs to be done, setting priorities, and getting stuff done. It also means applying the proper level of attention and the proper level of quality as you go.

So, if you have to choose, choose being effective. That is where you'll make a difference.

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