I Hate Efficiency

It never fails that I’ll be sitting with a team and either someone on the team or a manager turns away from an idea because it isn’t efficient. Instead, that is what they say, but it is not always the reality. I’ve since decided that declaring something as efficient is often misdirection.

Efficiency Is Not Isolated

The phrase, “That’s not efficient,” is incomplete as it never states what improves by that same efficiency. Or, another way to phrase it, efficient at what?

We all work as a part of a system full of intermingled processes that all exist to accomplish a goal. We aren’t explicit about what goals we are attempting to accomplish in these systems, especially not when discussing efficiency.

For example, quite often, I advocate for vertically doing work. That means that when we take on a work item, we take on everything in the back-end and front-end that is needed to complete it. This approach is often labeled as inefficient as people believe it leads to poor design. In this case, I am pushing for working software as a goal, and the others are pushing for building software as a goal. Both goals provide very different lenses for efficiency.

Efficiency Isn’t Convenient

Another common trait in discussions about efficiency is word substitution for convenient or intuitive.

There’s a fairly easy way to find out if that is going on in the conversation. The question, “How do you know,” is never considered when working towards what is intuitive or convenient. We know because it feels easy.

In a very raw example, I’ll use pull requests. Many groups believe it is an effective and efficient technique. Yet, I can remove it entirely while preserving and improving quality. What I propose is by-the-numbers more optimal, but many teams will declare their current pull request process as efficient. The reality is that it is convenient and intuitive.

Efficiency Demands Alternatives

This is a subtle one, but a discussion around efficiency often happens around saying why a group will not change instead of why they should.

I consider this a paradox.

The paradox might be phrased like this, “How can we improve efficiency while staying the same?”

If we believe the pursuit of efficiency is desirable, then we must also come to terms with the idea that there are different ways to do things that are not like what we do today.

Yet, all too often, this is the opposite intent of discussions around efficiency. The unspoken sentence would be, “That isn’t as efficient at staying the same.”

So What Then

Well, after getting past my whining about efficiency, we can look at what we can do. My hit list of things I typically need to bake into teams and groups goes something like this:

  1. Agree on a purpose
  2. Identify desired qualities and attributes of the processes
  3. Ask, how do we know
  4. Attempt ANY change at all

The reality is that I don’t pursue efficiency outright. It often isn’t worth the headache, and most groups aren’t ready for something like that. What I start with is change of any kind. I need this capability to change anything at all if any improvement will take. Or another way to ask is, “How efficient are we at making changes to the way we work?”