Understanding Effectiveness

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Mark LundegrenWe all know the perils of being merely efficient. It’s not hard to think of an example of ourselves acting quickly or even expertly, only to find that our actions were not ideal for a situation. For this reason, the goal of effectiveness is generally a better one than simple efficiency, if we want to maximize the value of our efforts.

This fairly uncomplicated idea of course begs us to understand the nature of effectiveness, and I encounter people and groups all the time who struggle with this important concept. But as is the case with many complex phenomena, there is a simple way to think about effectiveness that can unlock our ability to both understand and achieve it. And this ability is true regardless of whether we are considering the effectiveness of  groups and organizations or ourselves and others.

To demystify effectiveness and make the concept immediately clearer and more actionable, we need only consider three variables: 1) a need or want, 2) time, and 3) cost. All three variables are pretty straightforward, and there is no nuanced understanding of these words required. More than likely, how you intuitively understand needs and wants, time, and cost are adequate for unlocking new effectiveness in your life and work. The trick is thinking about these things together and the ways in which they naturally inter-relate.

As part of this new perspective, we simultaneously learn to better differentiate between needs and wants, and tasks. This important distinction lies at the heart of the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, and can be used to promote transformative impacts in our lives and organizations.

An Effective Formula

Needs and wants are something we all know well. For organizations, needs and wants will typically be the aims of specific stakeholders – whether clients, employees, investors,  regulators,  or the general public. In our personal lives, they will be our own underlying goals, or those of someone in our life.

By time, I simply mean its passing, or elapsed time. No Einsteinian physics required here. And cost means expenses of various kinds other than time, including both financial and non-financial costs. Opportunity costs – the pain or expense of not doing something preferable – can be included, as long as we understand that these costs are often related to elapsed time.

So let’s put our three variables together to create a simple effectiveness formula: effectiveness is the time and cost required to satisfy a need or want. This definition implies that if we learn to satisfy a need or want in less time and/or at a lower cost, we or our organization become more effective. I said this would be simple, and perhaps you can see how this basic set of ideas clarifies the concept of effectiveness and can lead to new pragmatism and impact in our work and lives.

As suggested before, our definition of effectiveness also allows us to define efficiency and understand how it contrasts with effectiveness. Using our model, efficiency can be said to be consideration of the time and cost  to complete a task, while effectiveness is the span of endeavor required to satisfy a need or want. Nice and simple, huh?

The chart below may help you to internalize and consider this definition and our discussion so far.

Functional Effectiveness

Steps To New Effectiveness

In both my personal and professional experience, this explanation of efficiency and effectiveness frequently leads to near immediate “ah-ha” moments and insights for many people and organizations, especially ones consciously seeking to become more effective in one domain or another.

In a sense, this natural relationship between wants and needs, tasks, time, and costs is obvious. But many of us struggle to see and apply this basic set of ideas, notably while understanding the importance of effectiveness and seeking new levels of it. And perhaps many more of us do not struggle with effectiveness when we should. We may live and work caught in an efficiency trap, where we focus unduly on task completion, or even in an inefficiency trap, where we live or work fatalistically and do not seek ongoing improvement in our lives and skills.

To deepen and make more lasting your understanding of natural effectiveness, I would encourage you to select a particular need or want that comes to mind and take some time to list the steps it takes to satisfy it today. Then, roughly estimate and map out the time and cost of each step, using the format in the graph above. When finished with this short exercise, you may immediately have new insights into your effectiveness or that of your organization.

If you are mathematically inclined, you probably understand already that effectiveness in satisfying any need or want can be measured numerically by the area of the shaded items in your time and expense graph. In any case, you should keep in mind that satisfying a need or want in less time and at a lower cost – with less shaded area in the above cost vs. time graph – translates into greater effectiveness in the real world.

Toward Even Greater Effectiveness

A few more ideas about effectiveness and the process of maximizing it in your life or organization over time…

First, using my logic, you can see that the basic goal in effectiveness improvement is to move both time and cost toward zero – so that steps ideally happen immediately and without cost. This idea may seem fanciful, but is actually a realistic goal in many cases and underlies important practices within the Lean and Six Sigma process improvement methods. In fact, existing steps often can be eliminated entirely, either via new process attentiveness or by examining needs and wants more deeply.

This idea brings up a second additional point about effectiveness: it is not always essential that you or your organization satisfy needs and wants 100 percent. Indeed, in life our needs and wants are rarely, if ever, completely satisfied for long. This is in part because we can and often do imagine even greater satisfaction – if erroneously at times. It is also in part because the satisfaction of one need or want naturally prompts new needs and wants in us, reducing immediate feelings of satisfaction. Such is the congenital but consequently progressive nature of human life.

As people and organizations routinely do, it is entirely rational to “satisfice” (to do something less than 100%) in the work of meeting of needs and want , especially when we can observe that further efforts toward greater satisfaction results in rapidly diminishing benefits versus costs to us. For example, consider the amount of dust or clutter in your home (or in a client’s business – leaving aside clean rooms and surgical areas) and this idea of seeking only reasonable satisfaction should become all too clear. And it should re-cast all strident forms of perfectionism as less than optimally effective, regardless of the situation.  Because of this – and both for the mathematically inclined and disinclined – cost and time reduction efforts always should be directed toward adequate satisfaction of a want or need, rather than absolute satisfaction. Consider this an important qualification of my original definition of effectiveness.

There is a third and final point I want to make about effectiveness. It involves another, more fundamental, and often more important way of improving our effectiveness (and of making satisfaction costs and time go to zero). This method is more strategic and involves re-considering needs or wants in their essence – specifically, by thinking through whether you or your organization really wish to serve each need or want that is in your current scope of focus. In other words, the approach involves stepping back from our current aims and goals, and consciously considering and selecting the needs and wants we want to include in our sphere of endeavor.

The idea of reconsidering our dedication to particular needs or wants may initially appear impractical or difficult, but this approach is exactly where some of our greatest opportunities for transformed personal and group effectiveness actually lie. I cannot count the number of times, in the midst of my work with individuals and groups, that whole areas of endeavor have been fundamentally recast or stopped outright, leading to enormous impacts and improvements in personal and organizational functioning.

This larger strategic approach to progressive effectiveness, involving the conscious selection of the needs and wants we wish to serve, can take time and always will evolve, but is a critical focus and outcome of my Natural Strategy method, and an essential but often overlooked complement to all process effectiveness efforts. As such, I would urge you to consider this last idea about effectiveness  and the needs and wants you serve today (including your assumptions about their finality) as carefully as you can.

Your Next Steps

I hope this discussion of effectiveness proves valuable for you. Whether in your life or work, I would encourage you to ensure adequate focus on the needs and wants you currently serve, those you might dedicate yourself to instead, and in both cases how these needs and wants differ from tasks.

As you become more conscious of your ability and options to either serve or set aside various needs and wants, you can concurrently examine existing and potential ways of acting toward them, and the ways in which you might progressively reduce time and expense in your actions. In both ways, you can become far more effective in your life and work, often circularly freeing yourself and others to consider and attend to still newer and perhaps more valuable goals and aims.

Whatever personal or organizational lessons you take away from Understanding Effectiveness, I’d enjoy hearing about them, especially as you begin to make use of these important ideas within my overall Natural Strategy strategy method.

Health & best wishes,


Tell others about Mark and the transformative Natural Strategy method!

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