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Weekly Blog #71 - Why thinking 'efficiency' with people doesn't work...

This week's blog is about one of the toughest lessons I had to learn as a consultant: thinking 'efficiency' with people doesn't work. Let me explain...

I've recently re-read "7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen R. Covey. In his book, Covey describes the many facets of living a productive and effective life following a principle-centred and character-based approach. Habits like "begin with the end in mind", "put first things first" and "think win-win" do not sound very sophisticated at first, but Covey carries a lot of wisdom and insight through working with hundreds of companies and business leaders and he is more than capable of explaining why these simple habits are so powerful - especially since non of them really work as a stand-alone entity but generate the most impact as a powerful sequence of habits.

Although Covey has written the book quite a few years ago (it was first published in 1988), its contents are as valid as ever if you're in need of a well though-trough lesson on how to take control of your life and navigate through tough decisions, in private as well as in business.


Think Efficiency with Things and Effectiveness with People

Let's try to approach this "top-down"... Here's the key message: While efficiency is something you should typically think of when working within a process to create or manufacture a product or service, it just doesn't work with people. With people, you have to think 'effectiveness'. Why? Well, have you ever tried to solve an argument with your family or friends 'efficiently'? How did your spouse, kids, friends react? Efficiency with people is ineffective. To be clear, we are talking about dealing with people - not managing yourself. There are hundreds of reasons why you personally should try to be both efficient and effective. And there are even more tools and principles that you can use to help you with that. But let's focus on how to work with people for a moment.

In the past, I have often been trying to not only create the leanest possible processes or methods but also making the people do the minimum amount of work that is needed to create a product or finish a task in the most efficient way. And to be perfectly honest, I believe this is a result of never really thinking about the proper differentiation between efficiency and effectiveness - at least not "on the fly". But it is actually not that hard to remember: Effectiveness is about doing the right things. It is defined as the degree to which something (a machine) or someone (a person) is successful in producing the desired result. In other terms: it defines how useful something is. Efficiency is about doing the things right. It is the ability to accomplish something with the least amount of wasted time, money, and effort or competency in performance. It defines how well something is done.

You can compare these concepts to the difference between leadership and management. Leadership is effectiveness and management is efficiency. According to Covey’s theory, leadership should come first and management second, though a certain balance between them is needed to get anything done. Doing well at leadership, asking "What?" and "Why?" and knowing exactly the right things to do, but entirely lacking management - controlling, administration, asking "How?" and "When?', etc. - the final output will be zero.

What does this mean for managing people? In my humble opinion, you have to emphasize on the usefulness of what they are doing and focus on the desire outcome. In consequence, this means that with people fast can turn out to be slow and slow will most likely be fast. You can teach your team how to climb a ladder fast - but if the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, climbing it fast doesn't help. There has to be a combined effort to figure out what the desired outcome is. That's the first step. After that you design whatever process you need to achieve the desired outcome. Begin with the end in mind.

Transactional or transformational?

What is the desired outcome in a private conflict? What is the desired outcome of a business process? What is the goal if you ask someone to do something for you? You can think about these things transactionally: I give you something, you do something for me in return. As quick and efficiently as possible. But this may come with a few risks. The risk of failure due to a lack of qualification or misinformation, the risk of a rejection because you've been pushing someone too hard, the risk of not achieving the desired result because there hasn't been a common understanding of what the outcome should be.

On the other hand, you can approach this in a transformational manner by thinking about the long term goals. Do I push hard now and risk a good (work-)relationship that I could build for the future? Or do I take a step back, look at the overarching desired outcome and adjust the way I'm managing the situation accordingly? Transformational leaders act above and beyond their immediate self-interest. They create a common goal and share their desired outcome. They focus on what is right. They influence, inspire, involve, learn, share, communicate, and give feedback along the way.

What I had to learn...

A process doesn't push back. You can change and adjust it as much as you like. Make it as lean as you wish - limited only by the laws of physics... But you can't push people in the same way. You will burn them - and ultimately burn yourself. For some - me included - that's a tough lesson. Again, you can push yourself as much as you like. Try to be the ever so efficient workaholic. Identify and test your limits. I've been there. I've done that. There's a lot of potential that you will find. You will get to know yourself better. But it comes at a certain cost. You will see that you've been working on the wrong things A LOT - optimising processes that didn't lead to anything. Take notice, reflect, identify and extract the meaning - and learn from it: What's it all for? Where does it lead me? Internalise 'effectiveness' first - only then think 'efficiency'.

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