Agile Coach Mocks Prioritizing Efficiency over Effectiveness
An Agile advocate delivered an unpredictable and thought-provoking presentation at 2022’s GOTO Amsterdam conference. Again and again, he emphasized the point that it’s ultimately more important for an organization to be effective than it is to be merely efficient. Along the way he’d delivered some practical principles to keep managers focused on the right things, by sharing his own experiences and examples, along with insights and real-world strategies for improving a workplace.
But it turned out to be a very lively presentation with several surprises — and there was a big plot twist at the very end.
Is Agile Inefficient?
The speaker was Klaus Bucka-Lassen — born and raised in Denmark, but now living in Zurich. After working as a developer, 12 years ago he became an Agile trainer/coach and consultant for major companies (including Scrum Inc.).
In his presentation, Bucka-Lassen posed the question: “Is Agile inefficient?” But he began by warning his audience that “for everybody who joined today to hear some Agile bashing because you hate it? Sorry, that’s not going to happen, because I don’t really think it’s inefficient. I just lured you in, as clickbait.”
He began by presenting his riff on a popular book about the Scrum development methodology, “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time.”
Bucka-Lassen presented his own parody:
“Who’s read this book?” he asked. “Usually I see some hands up there — of people that really didn’t pay all that much attention.”
But he was making a point. Bucka-Lassen said he’s always hated the real book’s original title “because it only speaks to efficiency. It only speaks to, ‘Let’s improve things so we can deliver more’…. But you don’t make sure that you’re delivering the right stuff.”
After all, efficiency could mean just being fast — but in the wrong direction — while effectiveness means actually delivering what the customer needs. The word “efficiency” isn’t a customer-facing word, one of Bucka-Lassen’s slides pointed out, arguing instead that it’s “looking inwards, defining and optimizing processes.”
“Where is the customer when we talk about efficiency? Nowhere.”
Bucka-Lassen argued that Scrum and Agile are mainly about effectiveness — and “it’s dangerous if your organization focuses mainly on efficiency.”
Effectiveness, Bucka-Lassen said, is the opposite — looking outwards, to what the market (and our customers) actually want and need andare willing to pay for. It’s the difference between “doing the right things” versus “doing things right,” one slide stated. Or, as Bucka-Lassen said later in his presentation, “Efficiency is about how we do stuff, and effectiveness is the what.”
Later he presented a cartoon of a leaking boat, arguing that Mr. Efficiency shouts to the people with buckets to work faster — while Mr. Effectiveness tells them to find the leak in the boat and plug it up.
Right Ladder, Wrong Building
Bucka-Lassen shared an appropriate quote from management expert Peter Drucker. “There’s nothing quite as useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” And it’s a point underscored with another quote from another management guru, Stephen R. Covey: “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”
But Bucka-Lassen then presented his own real-world cautionary examples — starting with a 2014 Forbes analysis of Blockbuster video — and why it went bankrupt.
“The irony is that Blockbuster failed because its leadership had built a well-oiled operational machine,” Forbes had written. Blockbuster “was a very tight network that could execute with extreme efficiency, but poorly suited to let in new information.”
Bucka-Lassen pointed out, for example, that Blockbuster once actually passed on a chance to purchase Netflix.
And he also had some fun remembering phone company executives who’d failed to pivot after the arrival of Apple’s iPhone — starting with a video clip of Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer laughing incredulously at its $500 price and lack of a built-in keyboard.
Toward the end of his talk, Bucka-Lassen shared warning signs that your company is too focused on efficiency. One is a hyper-focus on budgets and cost-cutting — rather than on continuous funding: “They’re trying to force you to produce the same, but with less input.”
This is another example, he said, of looking inward rather than outward, toward customers. “There will not be any innovation, or anything like that. It shows there’s a focus on costs rather than value — the value you produce.”
The second warning sign? A company that’s run by process people (rather than product people). Focusing on process and automating is all good, Bucka-Lassen said. “But if you forget to look behind — what does the market actually want? — then you might miss the window of the market. And it doesn’t matter how efficiently you can produce.”
He also believes a hyper-focus on specialization is “probably a sign that your organization is focusing on efficiency rather than effectiveness. Or at least in that order — first efficiency, then effectiveness.” (An example: if a company’s culture precludes cross-training, trapping everyone in tightly-defined roles.)
Bucka-Lassen cautioned his audience to avoid companies exhibiting these warning signs — “or ‘smell,’ as we in software development often like to call it.”
The Fate of Bad Companies
A question came from the audience. “Should we just run when we see those smells?” And Bucka-Lassen answered with a quote from Jeff Sutherland, co-creator of Scrum: “If everybody left bad companies — we wouldn’t have bad companies anymore!”
The questioner responded, “Come on, that’s ridiculous! So you just want us to run?”
“Yes!” Bucka-Lassen said. “As fast as you can!”
But the audience member — also an Agile coach — wasn’t placated. Soon they’d risen from the audience to take the stage, demanded the clicker — and plugged in their own laptop presentation.
“I also am a proponent for effectiveness,” says this new figure. “But I want to fight!”
And then they launched into a counter-presentation — arguing that there’s an alternative.
“I want to change this world that just focuses on efficiency.” he said. “Or, if we can’t win … at least I want to contain this efficiency thinking, so it doesn’t affect or disturb the environment that we are trying to build.”
It turns out it was all part of the show. The speaker was Bucka-Lassen’s brother — Dirk Bucka-Lassen. And he closed the talk with a series of “hacks” to help transform companies focused only on efficiency.
For companies following a classic corporate budget-and-cost-cutting approach, Dirk said he tries to steer them away from “big bang” reporting to more Agile-like reports focusing on impacts being made — that is, towards “effectiveness-oriented measurements.”
For example, one company considering cutting their live operators was shown the number of phone calls that didn’t go through when their operators were cut. “That allowed us to change the dialogue from an efficiency focus to a more ‘effective’ focus.”
Dirk also had experiences with companies obsessed with specialization. (He actually worked at a larger company where only one person knew how to print PDFs.) The solution? Shadow that specialist for a few run-throughs — until there’s a second trained worker to reduce your dependency. Not only does this reduce that single dependency — it also creates a relationship.
Dirk describes this approach as finding an “adapter” between an efficiency-oriented world and the larger land of effectiveness.
In the end, Dirk acknowledged that he mostly agreed with his brother Klaus that effectiveness is more important than efficiency. But for workers trapped at an efficiency-focused company, Dirk ultimately advocated a different solution — or at least, a two-pronged response. “If you are struggling with this in your companies,” he said, “I would say persevere for some time.
“Because you can always decide to run away later.”
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