Reading a tweet about efficiency and efficacy posted by Tim Ferriss I started to wonder about the difference between these words. I had an idea of how to understand them. But, the worrying dominance of efficiency, made it feel like a good moment to get back to them.
As to be expected, there are varying definitions and understandings of what these words mean. That is, in parts, due to the interchangeability these words have attained in common language. It might be an issue with English as a global language with many people using a language that isn’t their mother tongue. It might also be a question of what seems to be a specialized language for people who favor a pragmatic getting-things-done approach where seeing the result achieved is almost indistinguishable from managing the resources used to create the result.
But in a world in which the availability of resources is important and complicates the ability to achieve a result, it becomes helpful to distinguish these words.
Interestingly, the pandemic brought the difference between efficacy and effectiveness to the foreground. It highlighted a challenge the health sector is constantly confronted with. A possible source of the concepts used there is Peter Drucker’s work and his book “The Effective Executive” where he developed these concepts.
Most often I found efficacy described as the ability to get things done and effectiveness as doing the right thing or doing it well.
It’s an interesting distinction as we’ll often have a question if something can be done or not. That is where efficacy will provide that answer. But knowing that something can be done, is often not enough, what if it would take longer than the time available, or what if it doesn’t achieve the result with the desired quality? That is where effectiveness helps. Once one knows that something can be done, the question becomes how to do it in such a way that it becomes accessible.
Think for example about electric cars. A while ago, people didn’t know if it was feasible and many hesitated. That is until some showed that the concept works. The next step was to see if it could be done in such a way that people would want to buy them. That is where Tesla for example started with cars only a minority would buy, that is, until they learned to do it so well, that they could move to a larger group of customers.
What efficiency means is more widely known as we’ll find ourselves regularly looking for things to happen more smoothly, faster, or some other more. The biggest “more” and thus a focus of efficiency is costs. That is because costs can be so easily measured. Everything else takes more effort and requires data points that need to be found or decided.
What I’m learning here is how for a lot of projects, the starting block is efficacy. When I start something, I often don’t know if it will be possible. I’ll find an answer focusing on efficacy and giving myself a budget of resources, I’ll be willing to invest.
Once I’ve understood how to do it, I’ll be able to focus more on what it means for others and how what I’ve learned to do will become useful to them. I’ll be exploring how to be effective and provide the client with what he would like to have and I’m willing to promise.
The more I repeat these projects, the more I’ll also be able to adapt them, develop a process, and search for a suitable finetuning between my organization and the client’s organization. It’s how I’ll introduce efficiency into the project.
Naturally, the distinction isn’t as clear-cut as I’m describing it. But that’s not the point. It’s having an idea of how to build the learning curve and maybe also put the concept of good enough into an appropriate context.