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Mike Rowe on Efficiency versus Effectiveness

Insights from Dirty Jobs

Earlier this week, I listened to Brett McKay’s interview with Mike Rowe. As you’ll learn if you listen to the conversation, following his stint as the host of Dirty Jobs, Rowe has become an advocate for the trades.

In this interview, as in many others, Rowe argues that skilled labor (think: plumbing, welding) can be both satisfying and lucrative, and yet there are still somewhere around three million such jobs left unfilled in this country. He credits this gap largely to a contemporary culture that demonizes blue collar work and preaches the best path is always a college degree, followed, God willing, by a pair of Warby Parker glasses and a job as a social media brand manager.

(I might have added that last part.)

I always find Rowe’s thoughts on shifting American work cultures interesting, but there’s a phrase he often uses in these discussions that has recently begun to draw my attention: efficiency versus effectiveness.

Rowe notes that knowledge work seems obsessed with efficiency, while the skilled trades seem more concerned with effectively solving problems (c.f., his infamous TED talk on sheep castration).

The former can be dehumanizing, while the latter tends to be satisfying.

Stepping away from the immediate context of Rowe’s advocacy, I think he has touched on an important point here that highlights a little-discussed problem rotting the core of the knowledge economy…

The Failure of Techno-Productivism

Those who work with information have become obsessed with what I sometimes call techno-productivism: the idea that introducing technologies that simplify or speed up certain work tasks will necessarily make you or your organization increasingly more productive.

(Note, I use “productive” here in the true economic sense of producing more value per labor hour invested.)

Techno-productivism is intuitive. But it has also been, in my opinion, a failed ideology.

By focusing relentlessly on making specific tasks or operations easier and faster, instead of stepping back and trying to understand how to make an organization as a whole maximally effective, we’ve ended with a knowledge work culture in which people spend the vast majority of their time trying to keep up with the very inboxes, devices and channels that were conceived for the exact opposite purpose — to liberate more time for more valuable efforts.

Instead of striving for the embodied effectiveness of the skilled craftsman, in other words, we’ve ended up a twitching hyperactive mess of unstructured communication.

Rowe hints at an interesting path out of this swamp: stop lionizing efficiency, and start asking the question that has guided craftsmen for millennia: what’s the most effective way for me to accomplish the things that are most important?

(Photo by gato-gato-gato)


Speaking of effectiveness, I want to pitch a kickstarter, initiated by a friend of mine, that just launched this week: Mouse Books. The concept is elegant: important and compelling works of literature delivered in a pocket size printing, roughly the size of an smartphone. When you feel the urge for distraction, instead of pulling out your phone, you can pull out a Mouse book and read something meaningful. This is cat nip for Study Hacks fans. Check it out…

31 thoughts on “Mike Rowe on Efficiency versus Effectiveness”

  1. I hear Tim Ferriss talking about this idea a lot, that what you do is more important than how you do it. In other words, choosing the right activity that produces value is far more effective than completing somewhat relevant tasks efficiently. He also often brings up the notion that busyness and productivity are not synonymous. Busyness is, in fact, a form of laziness derived from a lack of priority or an unwillingness to reason through problems.

    Defining these terms and differentiating them is a first step, but a potent question to consider is: How do we know what is most effective?
    I think the answer should be tailored to suit the individual and their circumstances. Accordingly, we shouldn’t shy away from spending some time now and then to mull over this question. Trying to answer such questions certainly won’t feel productive, but I guess this mental discomfort is part of the price we have to pay if we want to excel.

  2. I worked construction most of my life.
    When smart people asked me what i did i answered i built your roof. Your hvac. Your windows and doors. The place you park your car. The bridge that you drive over.
    And now i have a decent retirement. And i am happy.

    • I’ve worked construction for 40 years and it’s true-there is nothing as fun as building things.I’ve done ships and bridges,factories and hotels,homes and hospitals,and mills and mines.When I was doing the ship, I got my crew t-shirts that quoted Toad of Toad Hall “There is nothing,absolutely nothing,quite so wonderful as simply messing around in boats.”Other foremen were forced to follow suit and you would see guys wearing them as ID for years.Construction may be the last refuge of the lineal thinker,but goddammit it’s fun.

  3. Every time I send or receive an adhoc communication, I try to examine the specific root cause to that communication and try to fix it. If someone is pinging you for urgent requests, its because you didn’t setup a system in place to automate their request. The end goal is to save more time for deep work.

  4. I completely agree.

    This post also reminded me of the very interesting book “The efficiency trap”. The current state of affairs with our use of email is a ‘case and point’ example of an efficiency trap.

    • There is an old adage that efficiency is about doing things right, while effectiveness is about doing right things. I think this contrast illustrates well why the former is prone to rise of ideologies and -isms (e.g. techno-productivism), while the latter is more likely path to fulfillment.

      • Hi! If I may add, I believe it was Peter Drucker who talked about “doing the right things” (effectiveness) and “doing things right” (efficiency) and he went further by saying that it is really about “doing the right things right”. That is, it is important to be both effective AND efficient.

        • So, the ideal is to be both effective (do the right thing) and efficient (do things right). But if not possible, it is better to at least be effective.
          I think the problem is when one keeps searching for the most efficient way of doing something, instead of actually doing it.

  5. Cal,

    Super interesting. I’m going to listen to the Rowe podcast later this week based on your comments here.

    I have a slightly different frame on this topic. I think we are drifting towards glorifying “hacker” culture–in the sense of the word meaning shortcuts and getting somewhere quick quick quick. Like get quick rich. Instead of hacker culture, I believe we should fall back on an older ethic–what I call, “plant, grow, harvest.” You plant the seed, you nurture it, and you harvest (if you want) the fruits of your efforts.

    Since you are an advocate of “deep work,” I would note that deep work is impossible to accomplish with the “hacker” ethic, but falls nicely into place with a plant, grow, harvest mindset.

    Hope you are doing well, and thanks for the always interesting writing.

    • I fully agree with that, I’m 21 and when I talk to my friends here in Brazil and is impressive because here we have a specific word for “hacking”, called “jeitinho” or “Brazilian way”. What this brings is a bunch of small package solutions that do not solve the problem in the bigger picture and as we are talking about productivity, I think that “planting”(planning), “growing”(doing/receiving feedback/improving/ doing it again) and “harvesting” is the way to go if you want to build or nurture anything worth living for.

      • I am also from Brazil and yes, I couldn’t agree with you more. The “jeitinho” can be damaging, sometimes leading to unethical behavior. It is a big problem in our country 🙁

    • Having known some of the original “hackers”, I’d say this isn’t quite capturing what I think you want to capture. They were very much aimed at effectiveness, and efficiency is but a tool used along the way.

      I agree, though, that glorifying the “bodge” and the “bodger” is a poor choice for our long terms. I also agree with you that the better choice is instead the “craft” and the “craftsman”.

  6. I noticed the following:
    Efficiency – concentrates on the situation (present)
    Effectiveness – concentrates on the results (future)

    The results of trades work are judged by reliable product AFTER work is done.
    The results of office work are often judged WHILST it is being done (e.g busyness, number of sent emails/copied papers/meetings, etc.)

  7. There is certainly plenty of money to be made in the trades.

    Having had to do a little of it when I was younger, I found it to be relentlessly tedious and populated by people who were both boring and obnoxious.

  8. See: In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies
    Thomas Peters, Robert H. Waterman
    Harper and Row

  9. Interesting, in the field of education, we’re similarly focused on efficiency over effectiveness. This is a saw I’ve been playing for a long time, as efficiency is not something to apply to human growth and learning. (Though the system does try to apply it to teaching, again, a fool’s focus.)

    Will Richardson at Modern Learners discusses Russell Ackoff’s distinction, as regards education, between our continued insistence on doing the wrong things right rather than risking/trying to do the right things, even if we do them wrong at first.

    “And so we beat on…”

  10. Can this be created for intermediate grade level use…kids will enjoy holding small device like books with awesome text graphic features.
    Third grade teacher in Texas

  11. Reading this article and the comments reminds me of the adage ‘You Reap What You Sow’. An oldie and goodie phrase. A lot of busyness, in my opinion, comes from the current culture of instant gratification. Waiting for it grow and mature is so passe nowadays.

  12. Nice article and I like the concept of techno-productivism, how it’s deemed to simplify the tasks and get the work done more ‘effectively’
    But I disagree to a certain extent that Knowledge work is obsessed only with efficiency because if efficiency doesn’t lead to effective results, there’s no value addition.
    Again, to add on, effectiveness can also be due to luck (being at the right place at the right time) and is very subjective to specific organizations.
    To be truly successful, we need a good correlation between efficiency and effectiveness.


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