Balancing Effectiveness and Efficiency on Your Projects

Effectiveness and efficiency provide a never-ending dilemma for project managers and their team members as well.  Over the years, I have found that balancing these two aspects on my project efforts to be a struggle between the inputs and outputs in the quest for the ultimate “favorable ratio” between the two.  The difference between being efficient and effective is that efficiency refers to how well you do something while effectiveness refers to how useful that “something” actually is.

Let’s take a look at how we define these terms and what they really mean, since they are oftentimes confused with one another. Here are definitions of these two terms from, both of which I like:

Effective (adj.): Adequate to accomplish a purpose; producing the intended or expected result.

Efficient (adj.) Performing or functioning in the best possible manner with the least waste of time and effort.

One personal example that comes to mind is using the self-checkout line at the grocery store.  These self-checkout lines are supposed to be efficient and save both customers and grocery store staff both time and effort during the checkout process.  My experiences with self-checkout span the whole range of possibilities efficient versus effectiveness.  When I am checking out with items marked with easily read bar codes, things usually work fine and my experience is both effective and efficient.

However, when I am trying to check out with an item that has no bar code (such as fruits or vegetables that are priced by weight), the activity requires more time for me to look up what I am buying and then have it weighed by the machine.  This experience isn’t efficient for me as a customer but it could be viewed as efficient and effective for the store if the long-term goal is to have customers check out for themselves in the self-serve lines and the short-term goal is to have me do all the work!

Where things get really interesting is when an item either weighs a lot or weighs too little and violates some constraint in the system.  This means I can’t continue until the store checker intervenes, solves my problem and gets everything working correctly again.  Plus, the checkout machine usually has something to say in that “I am irritated with you, you stupid customer” tone of voice. This experience is not efficient in the short-term and not effective in the long run for either the store or for me, the customer.

When I am thinking about efficiency on my projects, I find myself weighing the amount of resources used to achieve a project objective against what was or will be actually accomplished.  The more favorable the ratio of benefits to costs, the greater the efficiency achieved.  Efficiency focuses on the project processes or the “means to an end”, which means you want to “do things right”. On my projects, focusing on efficiency seems like more of a short-term, tactical thing.

In contrast, effectiveness focuses more long-term on a desired objective or end result.   I have heard it said: “Effectiveness is about doing the right things” which isn’t a bad way to think about it.  Funny thing, most projects need to strike a balance between effectiveness and efficiency in order to be successful. Too much emphasis in either direction leads to mismanagement.  You have to be effective and get the job done, but sometimes it costs a bit more or takes a bit longer to achieve a particular objective.  This impacts your efficiency.  You can also impact your effectiveness if you are stingy with resources and don’t get the job done. A balanced approach means that the job gets done and your limited resources are not wasted.

Happy balancing!

Susan Weese

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