During a recent training session, I was helping a team brainstorm some ways to improve their team working agreements. One topic that came up was efficiency. This led to an engaging discussion about effectiveness versus efficiency—and what it really means to be efficient.

We started by exploring the definitions of each word.

  • Effectiveadj. successful in producing a desired or intended result
    • syn. successful, valuable
  • Efficientadj. achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense
    • syn. orderliness, well planned

We often hear managers say, “We need our teams to be more efficient.” By that, they usually mean that their resources are being fully utilized—in other words, everyone is keeping busy. Of course, no one wants to sit idle with nothing to do… it feels good to be busy. But being busy for the sake of being busy misses the point. People want to make meaningful contributions, but oftentimes they need to redirect their efforts to achieve effective output.

One example of being efficient rather than effective is when each team member works his or her own backlog items in a sprint. This can lead to too much work in progress, silos of knowledge, duplicate work, and limited communication. Although everyone is working efficiently with minimal wasted effort or expense, the value of their combined efforts cannot be recognized until each person completes their backlog items—which is not very effective.

We continued our discussion by brainstorming ways the team could become more effective, including focusing on business outcomes, pair programming, mob programming, swarming work items, and prioritizing the work to be done.

After the discussion, the team realized that they wanted and needed to be more effective. Although increased effectiveness would likely lead to more efficiency, that would no longer be the primary objective. To achieve this desired effectiveness, they decided to try pair programming, which resulted in increased institutional knowledge across the entire team, improved quality of outcomes, and a more value-focused delivery. Effectiveness over efficiency!

Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco.

This article was ‘mob blogged’ by Diana Williams, Ben Kopel, and Kurt Crowley.