Efficiency – not all it’s cracked up to be

I’m writing this in February. The days are markedly longer, the birds are singing again, and bulbs are pushing their way through the soil. In other words, the year is marching on. Blink a couple more times and it will be the end of the first quarter. It’s time to check your progress against the targets you set last year.

Does that make you uncomfortable in any way? Are you lining up reasons why things might not be on track?

“We’ve just had Christmas. It’s always slow after the shutdown.”

“That Carillion business has made people cautious, but it’ll come right soon.”

“The weather’s been against us. Things will pick-up towards Easter.”

And although there may be a lot of truth in the reasons why, so far, quarter one hasn’t been a complete success, are you sure that these are reasons and not excuses?

Let me explain my thinking.

In the new year, many of us decide to change our ways. We give Dry January a whirl, up the salad intake, sign up for Couch to 5k programmes. And when we go to work, we start trying to improve our efficiency.

Maybe you returned to work on 2nd January, opened a new diary and cleared a backlog of emails. Maybe you swore there would be no more pointless, time-wasting meetings, and maybe you’ve found a better way to track your expenses. Well done. You’re now officially more efficient at getting things done. Give yourself a pat on the back.

But are the improvements you’ve made moving you towards this year’s goals? It’s very easy to assume that because you’re working more efficiently, you’re making progress, and that might not be the case. There is a distinction – and it’s an important one – between efficiency and effectiveness.

Your actions need to be effective more than they need to be efficient, but there is a degree of comfort in prioritising the things that are easy to fix. It’s far simpler to redesign a spreadsheet than it is to bring on board a new account. It’s simpler to switch off your email notifications for an hour each day rather than sort the reason why you’re getting so many messages. We’re humans. We like the gratification of a quick win and a tick on the to-do list, but often have an eye that’s blind to the big issue we’re not addressing.

Take, for example, a hypothetical sales target: increase turnover by £1 million in 2018. Putting it like that, it can be a bit overwhelming. But every target can be broken into stages or smaller goals which work towards the whole. If your ambition is to climb Everest, you don’t pop it onto the to-do list straight off. You start with learning your mountaineering skills on the smaller peaks – Scotland in winter, graduating to the Alps, moving on when you’re ready.

A £1m turnover increase isn’t one single goal, it’s many. It’s an expansion into a new region, a new product developed for an existing customer, it’s a dozen new accounts and a change in your pricing and discount structure. It’s growing your influence in your existing markets and launching new ways to sell. It’s retaining an account that was thinking of moving to a competitor and rebuilding the trading relationship. And each of these goals has stages. That wavering account? Call them. Set up a meeting. Work out a way forward.

Go back to those ‘reasons’. If it’s always slow after the shutdown, why don’t you have an effective plan in place to deal with it? There will be other issues like the Carillion collapse, but while you’re waiting for it to ‘come right’, someone else is being proactive. And guess what? Winter happens every year.

By the end of quarter one, you may well have lapsed back into old inefficient habits. But right now, on the day you’re reading this, do something effective that will move you towards your goals.


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