The Secret to Being Effective

Our culture, especially our business culture, seems to have an obsession with efficiency.  It’s not that efficiency isn’t a good idea, but it isn’t always the silver bullet it is believed to be.  A focus on efficiency certainly makes sense as an objective if you are creating a machine or a process.

Yet when it comes to human systems a focus on efficiency can actually distract you from your real goal.

Contrary to popular belief, efficiency does not always equal effectiveness.  And unfortunately the cost of an over-reliance and focus on efficiency can actually rob you of being effective.

For example, you can run an efficient meeting from the standpoint of starting and ending on time, as well as covering all the topics on the agenda as planned.  Yet if the goal of the meeting was to make and align on a decision together and the conversations and presentations on the agenda didn’t result in a decision everyone could get behind did your efficiency really matter?

The outcome of human interaction cannot be measured by efficiently following a series of steps. 

A checking the box approach to conversation rarely leads to satisfying interaction, engagement and producing results that really matter.

Working with people is inherently messy and messiness can make you uncomfortable.  It is natural to feel uneasy when you can’t clearly see how you will ever get to the level of clarity and alignment needed to move forward powerfully.  You can feel like you are wasting time and not getting enough done or moving fast enough.

Except that your discomfort with staying in what feels like chaotic conversations long enough to allow clarity to emerge can cost you the very thing you are after – getting the most accomplished with the least amount of energy.

At the end of a recent multi-day meeting participants were asking: “how is it possible we could accomplish more in 4 days than we could in 18 months”?

The answer is the secret to being effective…

Create a clear, compelling and meaningful outcome first, and then focus on doing whatever takes to deliver on that outcome.

This requires that you…

  1. Stay focused on the outcome and flexible with the means.
  2. Are flexible enough to deviate from or change the plan (or agenda) when the plan isn’t producing the outcome as you expected.
  3. Go for meaningful and sufficient progress in everything you do rather than aiming for perfection.

Whether it is a meeting or a project or even a business you must first get crystal clear about what you want to accomplish and why BEFORE you even begin to discuss how.  It can take discipline to stay in the “what” conversation long enough to get clear and create the level of shared understanding required for a group of people to work both efficiently AND effectively together.

There is an incredible pull, like an itch that must be scratched, to want to get immediately into action.  Action is of course essential to accomplishing anything.  However, you can waste a lot of time and energy doing a lot and accomplishing little.  It may feel like you are making progress while you are in action, but that can often be an illusion.  It is what you see when you stop and look at your progress and results that is the real measure of how effective you have been.

There will likely continue to be a constant tension between the desire for efficiency and the need to be effective.  If you can learn to recognize that tension as an opportunity to make sure you and those you are working with are focused on the same outcome, you can actually accomplish both.  Of course it is a good idea to be as efficient as you can, but make sure your drive for efficiency is in service of your goal, rather than at the expense of it.

Talk can be cheap, but meaningful, effective, outcome focused conversation is priceless when it comes to choosing the actions that will actually get you where you want to go.


Enter A Comment

andy ferguson   |   18 July 2012   |   Reply

Susan .. this is really well written and thought out. I really love it.

Keep up the good work.



Susan Mazza   |   20 July 2012   |   Reply

Thanks Andy! Nice to see you

Lisa D.   |   19 July 2012   |   Reply

Love it. I agree we do spend a lot of time looking at efficiency and it’s effectiveness that really matters!

Susan Mazza   |   20 July 2012   |   Reply

Yes it is effectiveness! Thanks for taking the time to comment Lisa

Laurie Acker   |   19 July 2012   |   Reply

My tendency is to drive ahead and get things done. So, this post is a great piece of wisdom for me. I seek clarity often, but possibly I make it more difficult than it needs to be as the inertia is already in motion! Thank you for the wisdom. I think I will sit some tonight, pen and paper in hand…and… “Create a clear, compelling and meaningful outcome.” Looking forward to learning more.

Susan Mazza   |   20 July 2012   |   Reply

Appreciate you sharing your perspective Laurie.

It is ironic how little patience so many people have with the hard work of getting clear given one of the biggest complaints I hear is poor communication!

Please do share any insights you have as you apply this – we will all learn from it!

Kent Julian   |   23 July 2012   |   Reply

Great post as usual, Susan! Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness in the most important roles of our lives is key to success because it creates a vivid picture of the worthwhile goals and objectives to pursue along our road of success.

Susan Mazza   |   24 July 2012   |   Reply

Yes Kent – that “vivid picture of whorthwhile goals” as you so eloquently put it is key to individual as well as team success.

Mario   |   23 July 2012   |   Reply

Hey Susan.
I lead in a church, and you’d be shocked at how mechanical things can get, at the expense of understanding human interaction and the ‘need’ to allow it to be messy and ugly sometimes if it means achieving powerful outcomes.
As such, I’ve just been labelled the “relationship guy” and people blow off my suggestions (largely in line with what you write here).
I shall remain resolute on this approach though, and thank you for the inspiring article. It’s really a breath of fresh air!

Susan Mazza   |   24 July 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your experience Mario. Given the choice between lets just get this done as fast as possible and let’s do this well the first time, expediency all too often rules.

It can definitely take tenacity to keep lifting the focus to what matters most and deal with the hard stuff up front. What if you could use this practice of keeping a clear and compelling outcome front and center to become known as the guy who helps us get clear, stay focused and keep us on track to achieving our goals? That might actually give you the space to do the relationship work that is so very needed to get and stay on track, yet so often skipped in the interest of efficiency. Keep the faith in yourself and in what you know really matters.

2gnoME   |   26 July 2012   |   Reply

That’s a great post Susan! A lot of what you described runs parallel to having a high self-knowledge & awareness. Would you say that’s part of the secret?


Susan Mazza   |   26 July 2012   |   Reply

Thanks @2gnoME (pronounced “to know me”)

When it comes to being effective I definitely think self knowlegde and awareness is fundamental. An important aspect of personal awareness is understanding how the beliefs in our culture can actually become our personal blindspots. “Efficiency rules” is just one of a multitude of beliefs that can keep us stuck both personally as well as organizationally.

Jeff Nugent   |   17 August 2012   |   Reply

“Create a clear, compelling and meaningful outcome first, and then focus on doing whatever takes to deliver on that outcome.”

Thanks Susan, well said. Just as Stephen Covey reminded us so often and so well: “Begin with the end in mind.”
I love that the last paragraph of his obituary in the New York Times said:
In explaining his second recommended habit — Begin with the end in mind — Mr. Covey urged people to consider how they would like to be remembered. “If you carefully consider what you want to be said of you in the funeral experience,” he said, “you will find your definition of success.”
What if each of us took the time to reflect on our lives and write out what we hope would be said of us at our funeral so that, with whatever time we have left, we might focus on the ‘effective and efficient’ achievement of that precise vision?

Susan Mazza   |   20 August 2012   |   Reply

Thanks for your comment Jeff. You remind us all of the power of living each day in service of not only the smaller goals in live by in service our legacy – the one we can choose to leave if we are willing.

Vaughan Houger   |   21 August 2012   |   Reply

Well stated Susan. I also appreciated Jeff’s comments too. I think Peter Drucker talked about doing things really well, but they were the wrong things. It is interesting how many people use the words efficient and effective as synonyms without understanding their very different meanings.

Susan Mazza   |   21 August 2012   |   Reply

Yes Vaughan – these words are often used synonymously. When they are it often points to a blind spot. Thanks for taking the time to comment!