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Submitted by svensson on


What is the exact difference between [b]effective[/b] and [b]efficient[/b]? Those concepts are mentioned pretty often at ManagerTools (effective having a positive touch to it, which efficient doesn't), but I haven't been able to find a good definition here (yes, I [b]did[/b] search the forums before posting). Maybe there is an obvious answer not known to those of us who aren't native speakers of English, so please share with us!

maura's picture
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Efficient tends to mean getting something done with the least wasted effort possible. eg, if my car can drive 100 miles on 3 gallons of gas, it is more efficient than a car that takes 4 gallons of gas to go the same distance.

Effective, on the other hand, is more about getting the right results. If my car can only turn right, it won't be effective at getting me where I need to go, despite its better gas mileage.

celing's picture

Maura is right. Efficiency means to do things right. Effectiveness means to do the right things.

rwwh's picture
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Both are positive, just not for the same kind of work.

Efficient is to do things in a minimal amount of time. Useful for production work.

Effective means with good effects, with intended results. This is more applicable to decision making and influencing others [good timing, with this weeks podcast topic...]. You do not strictly want to save time on these.

Convoluted example of the distinction: You can make and communicate a decision efficiently. Just tell everybody you decided like X, and that it will be like that (use role power). Such a decision may not have the intended effect because people may not take it seriously or start a revolt. In that case it may have been efficient but it was not effective.

An example for a knowledge worker (programmer): someone can code up a bubblesort algorithm at 50 lines-of-C per hour. Very efficient. It would be much more effective to code up a single call to a good library sorting routine.

WillDuke's picture
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I like what everyone says, but I prefer simpler analogies. :)

Efficient - mowed the lawn in 30 minutes (used to take 45)
Effective - mowed the right lawn.

You could very efficiently mow your neighbor's lawn, but that's not effective.
You could meander through your own lawn, making you effective, but not efficient.

bflynn's picture

Will, I may use that someday in the future. I think more people will identify with it.

In the past, I tended to use analogies about rowing a boat because it required balance. If one side rows efficiently, but the other side doesn't, the boat goes in circles and no one is effective. It seems to work, but its overly complex.


karaikudy's picture
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[img][quote]Maura is right. Efficiency means to do things right. Effectiveness means to do the right things.[/quote]
I would go with this meaning for day to day things relating to execution.

WillDuke's picture
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I thought about this last night, and I'm sure I'm regurgitating something either M&M said, or maybe David Allen.

You probably already have a nice long list of things to do. If you focused on getting those things done, ignoring distractions, and completed some, that would be efficient.

When you prioritize that list, then you begin to be effective.

Completing the right 1 thing might be more "effective" than getting everything else on the list checked off.

So, with lawn mowing, I could put my head down and mow the whole neighborhood. I could ignore the distractions (the neighbors yelling, my wife telling me to go to work or wash dishes) and I could very efficiently mow. But that wouldn't be effective. :)

ccleveland's picture

I think efficiency is a component of effectiveness. A person is still not very effective if he or she meanders through the "right" lawn.

It seems to me that efficiency is to effectiveness as speed is to velocity. Speed is just distance traveled over time. Velocity is speed in a specified direction.


terrih's picture

Can I refine the lawn analogy? Mowing the lawn in less time is efficiency.

But if you mow right through the flowerbeds instead of mowing around them, just because "straight lines are more efficient," you have sacrificed effectiveness for efficiency.

rwwh's picture
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I like the lawn mowing example, but it lacks the definition of a goal. Without a clear goal you can not define what is effective.

If you are trying to make up for an earlier argument with your neighbour, mowing his lawn may be a lot more effective than mowing your own at 7 am on Sunday morning.....

tomas's picture

Effectiveness: Did you achieve the desired result?
Effective: What resources were consumed/effort required in doing so.

When comparing options you need to balance the two, but will generally prefer options that are more efficient given the same level of effectiveness.

You can come up with any number of examples. For example an advertising campaign is effective if it increases sales, but a viral marketing campaign requiring very little effort might would be more efficient than employing hundreds of sales people, assuming the increase in sales were the same for each option.

Conversely, viral marketing might be an efficient use of resources, but a big expensive Superbowl ad might be more effective if results in a bigger increase in sales. Deciding which one is better will depend on the situation.

cruss's picture
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If I remember correctly, M&M related this as a distinction between workers and managers.

Individual Contributers (worker bees) need to be efficient. In GTD terms they need to "crank the widget" as fast as they can without loosing quality.

Managers (or Supervisors, Team leads, etc) need to be effective, and making their teams effective. They have to worry that the RIGHT widgets being cranked, when they need cranking, and when to reevaluate the cranking process.

Individuals should be making input into the effectiveness discussion (O3s, weekly meetings) but the Manager has to set the plan and make sure it's being executed effectively.

Bamsematt's picture

First: Sorry all non-Scandinavians - The below will only take up time for you should you read it.

Svensson - I guess from your name and the spelling with two ss that you're Swedish. So am I. If you have a way of saying "effective" and "efficient" in Swedish or in any Scandinavian language I'd be very happy.
These two words don't translate very well without saying a full sentence and that's often not effective... :-)

The ones I have worked out are:
effective - verkningsfull
efficient - effektiv

Any inputs from other Scandinavians?


svensson's picture
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First of all thanks to everyone for your insights and replies. To summarise the discussion:
[*]Effectiveness is about doing the right things in order to achieve long-term goals (priorities etc).
[*]Efficiency is about doing things as quickly as possible, but not until we really know what to do (i.d. depending on strategic goals etc).[/list:u]
This applies to all areas of action, be it lawn-mowing or posting in a forum (first decide, what you want to post, then learn BBCode quickly...)

svensson's picture
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[quote="exxazz"]Svensson - I guess from your name and the spelling with two ss that you're Swedish.[/quote]
Spot on. Hej på dig! However, currently I live in Germany.

[quote="exxazz"]If you have a way of saying "effective" and "efficient" in Swedish or in any Scandinavian language I'd be very happy.
These two words don't translate very well without saying a full sentence and that's often not effective... :-)[/quote]
Yes, I've thought quite a bit about that. By the was it's the same problem in German. However, sometimes it's more effective to say a full sentence and be properly understood. To be briefer but misunderstood would be efficient...
[quote="exxazz"]The ones I have worked out are:
effective - verkningsfull
efficient - effektiv[/quote]
Makes sense. Perhaps efficient could also be translated with "produktiv". Any native German speakers around who could give me a hint regarding German usage? Then I could try to match that with Swedish...

All the best


stephenbooth_uk's picture

[quote="svensson"]However, sometimes it's more effective to say a full sentence and be properly understood. To be briefer but misunderstood would be efficient...[/quote]

"Efficient gets [b]a[/b] message across, effective gets [b]the[/b] message across."?

On the original point (efficient vs effective) I think this can be related to the TCQ triangle in project management. TCQ stands for Time, Cost and Quality (i.e. fitness for purpose), you can have the optimum of at most two of these. If you want something done quickly then you have to throw more resources at it and/or accept a lower quality, if you want want to cut costs you have to allow more time (due to using less/cheaper (less skilled) resources) and/or accept a lower quality and if you want to improve quality then you have to spend more on resources (more/better (more skilled) resources) and/or allow longer. This was once summed up beautifully in the phrase "Quick, cheap, good; pick two.".

Efficient will tend to focus on Time and Cost whilst effective will tend to focus on quality.


Mark's picture
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Sorry this has taken me so long. I regret my absence.

The summary isn't quite right, but I respect that language may be playing a role.

Where I would suggest a SLIGHT change in the summary is that one can be entirely efficient while doing the wrong thing. Eficiency is NOT dependent upon the right goal AT ALL.

And, we do NOT make a distinction between workers and managers, in that workers tend to need to be efficient, and managers need to be effective. BOTH groups need to be both. BOTH NEED BOTH.

That said, the COST for organizations of managers being ineffective is desvastating - because managers and leaders mobilize people around them to move in the same direction. If the direction is WRONG, there is a GREAT WASTE.

One of the reasons we focus on effectiveness in general is because it is SO MUCH HARDER and SO RARELY TAUGHT. Most teaching and learning is about efficiency. Almost everything we get out of computers is about efficiency. Again, nothing wrong with speed...but if the race is close, it's an advantage to not waste energy.

Most managers are not terribly good at being effective. We believe an hour on THAT is better than an hour on an improved process (when you think process improvement, think efficiency, unless the process's goal is changing).

Effectiveness is one of the reasons we recommend one on ones. If you are not doing them now, no amount of efficiency in other areas will get you the performance gains that one on ones will - they are a bet on EFECTIVENESS, not efficiency.

Good to be back.