When Effectiveness Trumps Efficiency

In my last blog post, I discussed a system for eliminating bottlenecks and making startups more efficient (i.e. doing more faster) across every area of the organization. I did not at all delve into the concept of “effectiveness”, as contrasted with that of “efficiency”.

To me, efficiency is all about how you go about getting things done, whereas effectiveness deals with a entirely different subject: what it is that you choose to do.

When I was in high school, I had an exceptional Physics tutor who would constantly tell his students to “work smart, not hard” and “be effective” with our learning methods. He showed us alternative methods of studying and problem solving that were dramatically faster than the popular methods being taught in most schools, as a result his students consistently outperformed others.

This simple truth applies to just about any endeavour- from learning a language, to losing weight, to running a startup. 

With resources usually being scarce in a fast growing startup company, one of the greatest risks that they face is doing the wrong things very well, without knowing that those activities are adding little value to the company.

Becoming effective requires a combination of trial and error, learning from others’ experiences, and most of all critical, often stomach wrenching thinking on the part of the individual or team involved.

Once a month, it would be useful for the founders and team to go through this Q&A exercise aimed at seeking greater effectiveness:

A. Elimination

  1. What activities can we stop doing immediately that will have little impact on our company goals?
  2. Do we need to change expectations of any customers, or fire any customers that are taking advantage of us?
  3. Is everybody working on something critical? If not, why not?
  4. Are we paying for any services that we don’t need?

B. Initiation

  1. Do we need to invest in any new software to help our business?
  2. Should we hire a new team member to fulfill a specific role?
  3. Are we missing a value-adding activity that our peers are doing? What?
  4. Does anybody need to go for training to learn a new skill that will be beneficial?

Every time, try to table a set of action items, starting with at least one, with a definitive deadline to implementation. Performing this exercise would be like taking a consultant’s view of your own organization. And who better to improve a company than those most familiar with it?

Often, improvement stems from reexamining our basic assumptions and turning them inside out to see what we end up with. It’s a well known fact that effective people (and teams) are highly capable of achieving greater results with fewer resources.

As I mentioned earlier on, this way of thinking applies as much to one’s personal life as it does to business. Periodically, we all need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?”.

Martial arts legend Bruce Lee epitomized a person seeking to be effective in everything he did. (His entire martial arts philosophy of Jeet Kun Do was premised on a fluid style that borrowed whatever worked from other disciplines and discarded the rest). Here are two of my favourite quote of his to drive the point home:

"It’s not the daily increase but daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential."


"Defeat is a state of mind. No one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as reality. To me, defeat in anything is merely temporary, and its punishment is but an urge for me to greater effort to achieve my goal. Defeat simply tells me that something is wrong in my doing; it is a path leading to success and truth."

Lessons from Steve Martin’s Life in Comedy


This week I finally picked up Steve Martin’s brilliant memoir, “Born Standing Up”, and devoured the entire book in two sittings. His writing is witty, conversationally fluid, and punctuated with vivid stories that teach and entertain. His story clips along at a delightful pace, starting from when he was a boy working at Disneyland, to being all grown up and the most successful stand-up comedian in the world.

Even though I’m too young to have appreciated Steve Martin at the height of his fame, I found his story riveting, and highly instructive.

"Born Standing Up" is chock-full of lessons that entrepreneurs (and any innovator) can use to better themselves. Here are some of my notes from the book:

1. Start young. He started performing recreationally as a boy and by his mid twenties was a skilled comedian (if not yet a refined one).

2. Improve with repetition. He learned that it’s “easy to be great, but it’s very difficult to be good, all of the time”. Statistically, there will be magical nights when everything clicks beautifully. Manufacturing success night after night takes practice and hard work.

3. Experiment, make mistakes. During years spent on the road, he relentlessly experimented with new jokes and routines, taking risks and facing failures in an effort to create better material and improve his original act.

4. Success comes when you least expect it. After years of working at it and not yet becoming successful, he was resolved to quit the business and “find a real job”, a day before his big break occurred.

5. When you nail it, money pours in quickly. Once he become popular his fame swept the nation and he became rich very quickly. His career in comedy at the height of his fame also only lasted a few short years.

6. The journey is the special part. At pinnacle of his career success, he became uninspired and actually longed for his days on the road where his act was smaller and less scripted. The journey in getting to the top was where he experienced the most creativity and passion in career.

In addition to these powerful lessons, there are many stories shared that made me stop, think, and appreciate his character a little bit more. Here are a few:

- He used to suffer from severe panic attacks as a regularly. At one point, the onset of darkness was enough to bring them on.

- As a traveling comedian on the road, he developed a rule to not try to pick up waitresses in the venues he performed at for six months, but butter them up over that time instead. As he would return to each city many times over the years, his strategy paid off nicely.

- When he started earning millions, he elegantly describes his new position of wealth as “not having to check the prices of things”. I think it’s a great definition.

- At one point in the book, he states very matter of factly, that to him, “comedy is serious”.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the raw passion oozing out of every page. At the end of the book, I was struck by the realization that Steve Martin is far from done. He consistently strives to reinvent himself and push his art further. We all know that after stand-up, he had a very successful career in the movie business. I can’t wait for him to write a sequel.

Living in Turbulent Times


A few days ago I had coffee with a friend of mine who works for a large, successful corporation. 

He mentioned to me that in the challenging business climate, things had gotten tougher and many of his colleagues were no longer as happy with their positions as they used to be. This is a common theme that I’ve noticed all over the place recently. But in the case of my friend, he also mentioned that his dissatisfied colleagues were waiting for “things to calm down” and become more stable before they did anything risky. Then he made a fantastic counterpoint, which I want to share.

The world economy is going through some serious changes right now. Bubbles are forming, currencies are failing, and power is shifting in major ways. Those people who try to shelter themselves from any and all risks are probably going to (a) be waiting a lot longer than they bargained for and (b) miss out on lots of opportunities. Those who are more comfortable coping with risk and forging ahead with their ambitions regardless of this, are more likely to succeed and lead happier lives.
So, perhaps now is a good time to re-examine our tolerance for risk. And buckle up for the next few years—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Nassim Taleb’s Top 10 Life Tips


If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 3 years, you might not yet have heard of Nassim Taleb, famous author of The Black Swan and predictor of of the most recent global financial crisis. 

Taleb is something of an enigma- he was relatively unknown before the economic meltdown of 2008 and a superstar afterward. Still, his writings provoke thoughtful consideration of a number of topics, particularly things that we take for granted. His essay “The Fourth Quadrant: A Map Of The Limits of Of Statistics” was especially interesting (I highly recommend it). One of my favourite quotes from the essay is:

'My classical metaphor: A Turkey is fed for a 1000 days—every days confirms to its statistical department that the human race cares about its welfare “with increased statistical significance”. On the 1001st day, the turkey has a surprise.' - Taleb

Yesterday, going through my Delicious bookmarks I re-read an old Sunday Times (UK) profile of Taleb in which he shared his Top 10 life tips. I’ve added the emphasis to the points I particularly like:

Taleb’s Top Life Tips

1 Scepticism is effortful and costly. It is better to be sceptical about matters of large consequences, and be imperfect, foolish and human in the small and the aesthetic.

Go to parties. You can’t even start to know what you may find on the envelope of serendipity. If you suffer from agoraphobia, send colleagues.
3 It’s not a good idea to take a forecast from someone wearing a tie. If possible, tease people who take themselves and their knowledge too seriously.

4 Wear your best for your execution and stand dignified. Your last recourse against randomness is how you act — if you can’t control outcomes, you can control the elegance of your behaviour. You will always have the last word.
5 Don’t disturb complicated systems that have been around for a very long time. We don’t understand their logic. Don’t pollute the planet. Leave it the way we found it, regardless of scientific ‘evidence’.

Learn to fail with pride — and do so fast and cleanly. Maximise trial and error — by mastering the error part.

Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network. Never take ‘no’ for an answer (conversely, take most ‘yeses’ as ‘most probably’).

8 Don’t read newspapers for the news (just for the gossip and, of course, profiles of authors). The best filter to know if the news matters is if you hear it in cafes, restaurants… or (again) parties.

9 Hard work will get you a professorship or a BMW. You need both work and luck for a Booker, a Nobel or a private jet.

10 Answer e-mails from junior people before more senior ones. Junior people have further to go and tend to remember who slighted them.

P.S: Don’t believe everything the press likes to talk about. Is Taleb a guru, a crank, or at times perhaps both? Check out this counter essay called Taleb’s Black Swan.