Words Mean Things: Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

Effective and efficient are commonly heard in a business meeting when talking about people and process. The words are overloaded and misused. Let's dig in.

1 min read

Originally published in 2012 on the old site, AgileManiac, and on VersionOne’s blog. Check out more Words Mean Things blogs.

As we continue to explore words and their impact on conversations and behaviors, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up a set of words that generally makes me twitchy if one is emphasized more than the other — the words are Efficient and Effective.  

Let’s first look at the definitions of both: 

adj. Successful in producing a desired or intended result.

adj. (esp. of a system or machine) Achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense. (of a person) Working in a well-organized and competent way.

Many people talk about and use both these words — in fact, with some folks, these words are their Drinking Game words (every time they say it, you drink).  If your role focuses more on management, you probably sprinkle the word “efficient” quite often during a conversation.  If your role is focused more on quality or product management, then you probably say “effective” throughout the day.   If what you do or build is largely commoditized or well-established, you may focus on how efficiently you get things done.  If what you build is suffering in the market (either a lot of support or lack of sales), the word you probably talk about a lot more is effectiveness.

In all these cases, the context of the person or the product dictates our focus on either efficiency or effectiveness.  This seems relatively harmless, but problems creep in when we might focus on one thing more than the other.  If we focus too much on achieving maximum productivity, we may tend to miss critical details or skirt over an essential step in ensuring quality.  If we focus solely on effectiveness, we may see overengineering, gold plating, and an opportunity pass us by.

I’ve read several blogs lately about having efficient daily stand-ups or retrospectives, with no mention of ensuring effectiveness.  Since these meetings are about creating a team and continuously improving, effectiveness should be a vital part of the discussion.  In these situations, you could argue that efficiency would help drive effectiveness.  For example, sticking to the 15-minute rule around stand-ups is meant to be a time box boundary to help team members ensure their message’s effectiveness.

Agile and Lean principles have elements of both effectiveness (delivering value) and efficiency (minimizing waste).  If you are an efficiency junky, don’t forget effectiveness.  And if you tend to be an effectiveness aficionado, don’t forget that in today’s market landscape — things have to be done efficiently.  These words should be used together, and when we discuss doing something better, we should understand how the improvement impacts effectiveness and efficiency.

So the next time we are innovating around our process, let’s be sure the conversation includes doing things effectively while doing it efficiently.

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