In the last century management’s overwhelming focus was efficiency. An industrial mindset influenced our definition of effectiveness to be driven largely by delivering more for less.
The influence was straight forward. The efficiency of a machine is how well it turns inputs into its fixed outputs. If a machine’s quality is stable (a risky but common assumption), then a focus on efficiency works as a proxy for effectiveness. Effectiveness slipped from sight in a period of unmet consumer demand, long growth and expanding global markets. We focused our organisations almost solely on efficiency. When changes in effectiveness were required, they came in the form of new disruptive innovators and innovations that rewrote the quality definition and a focus on efficiency resumed.
Human effectiveness cannot be defined as simply as that of a machine. Our traditional industrial machines turn simple inputs through process steps into fixed outputs. Humans can be reduced to that work too. For many organisations it became the goal of human work to make it fixed, repetitive and predictable. It is not a surprise that they discovered that the quality of this repetitive work was rarely stable.
Humans are capable of more than machine work. We are also capable of turning complex and diverse inputs into a simple open-ended output, like an action, a decision, a sentence, a service, a piece of knowledge or a song. Suddenly we can’t assume that inputs are consistent, quality is stable and that outputs are known. Our proxy has broken down and we need to return to a more direct focus on effectiveness.
The last decade has seen the slow rise of effectiveness as a management challenge and management grappling with new skills:
- quality movements, continuous improvement and other disciplines have revisited the assumption around stable quality and even stretched to query whether the predetermined output matches what customers need
- customer experience, design and similar disciplines have begun to look at the potential to shape new and better effectiveness of our products and experiences.
- increasing focus on disruptive innovation has raised the challenge of why the traditional model must break and new strategy models query the narrow focus on efficiency vs other ways to achieve greater effectiveness (see Blue Ocean Strategy, Roger Martin, etc)
- realisations about the shifting nature of work has caused many to reflect on whether efficiency is the best or at least only model for connected knowledge workers or any other role.
- consumers questioning the need, quality, sustainability, morality, environmental and social impact of the products of industrial machine models
- examining new models of leadership, organisation and development of people that encourage the development of true human effectiveness and realise untapped human potential.
- rearguard actions to find ever more efficient machines (robots, big data, management algorithms, etc) that can replace humans in increasingly complex roles and work.
Responsive organisations recognise that the proxy of efficiency for effectiveness is fundamentally broken. The skills of efficiency remain relevant but they can no longer replace a focus on effectiveness.
The rise of effectiveness is on us. Our challenge is to adapt our approaches to work to make the most of our opportunities, not just to minimise our waste.