Effective Teams are not Efficient

Your favourite football team is playing a game. The goalkeeper rarely has a need to move, let alone touch the ball – the rest of the team plays in the other half of the field. Players are calm, focused, and while the opposing players run like crazy to then just miss the ball … our players just seem to be where they need to be when they need to be there… without much visible movement or effort.
That’s an effective team. Obviously, we win.

Imagine another football team. Everyone seems keen to make an effort. They run, they sweat, they swear. Sometimes, they get the ball, and they surely move it around a lot. You think they’d be a lot happier if everyone had a ball, that would keep them even busier – and maybe happier. Everyone in that team is delivering a lot of work, putting a lot of effort in, creating a lot of “output”, during the 90 minutes. The players are well trained, they look great, they move fast… They are very efficient runners. They are very efficient ball movers (if they get it – hence your thought about giving them more balls). They lose. This is an ineffective team.

Effective teams are not efficient. Or, more precisely, effective teams don’t make efficient use of their players.

Effective teams make sure that the work moves fast. Not the workers.

Imagine your favourite orchestra, jazz or rock band. Some of the most beautiful, touching, sensational moments of music involve very few players, are solos or duets – when most of the players are not playing. Are they still being paid? Would you want them to leave the stage and join another band for the time their piece gives them a break?

That depends on how predictable your game is.

In a classical orchestra, playing a classical symphony, when the drummer is only needed in the fourth movement (classical music doesn’t have a lot of drums, in case you did not notice), then – theoretically – they could join the stage after movement number three. They could do some other work somewhere else in the meantime, which would be a more efficient use of their time. Most conductors and orchestra leaders I know would still prefer them to be there, on stage – because they are part of the team. And the team shows up together to do the work.

In more flexible, improvised, spontaneous kinds of bands – think jazz – it’s fairly unthinkable that someone is part of the band and not with the band. (Obviously, as this is art we are talking about, even the unthinkable is quite possible … ) The score is not decided in advance so everyone has to be there to create it together. A lot of work in today’s organisations is like that. We have goals and strategy and purpose, but not necessarily a detailed plan. Teams figure out what to do while they work – and that’s great, that’s where creativity and innovation come from.

And that is not efficient. It does not need to be.

In fact, focusing on efficiency will kill effective creation of value.

If efficiency (aka resource utilisation) had a place in a team …
• Football teams would play with eleven balls
• In a good football game (when the whole rest of the team is in the other half of the field) the goal keeper would keep another team’s goal instead
• Musicians would always all play at the same time
• Team members would spend more time doing their own work instead of working with each other.
Really effective teams
• Play with only one ball at a time
• Solve one problem, run one experiment or implement one feature at a time
• …

Why does this matter?

Many organisations in today’s less predictable world want to be “more agile”. They are looking for resilience, innovation, want to foster creativity and collaboration.

Leaders and managers in many of those organisations are used to managing the capacity of their people in a simple way: they optimise for 100% “resource utilisation”. I’m putting the term in quotation marks because I don’t particularly like to call people resources. There must be some management school somewhere that teaches this principle. It works well for very few problems, machines included: assume your car was constructed with the intention of using all the gearwheels (or any other parts) equally all the time – wouldn’t that be a nightmare?

The effectiveness of most systems depends on the inefficient usage of its parts. The less predictable or regular the internal operation of the system is, the more this is the case.

What is the difference?

Your car can go very efficiently in the wrong direction, and that is not effective. A single thing like a car can be efficient and effective – especially when it is a highly predictable machine – an organic entity with multiple independent agents can’t. Or, to be more precise: you can’t make efficient use of all parts when you want the whole to be effective. The parts need to be available to help each other.


I remember a key conversation with the head of a 1000 people IT support organisation many years ago, about the configuration of a new capacity planning system. To make an informed suggestion, I asked what he wanted to achieve with the system. He replied, “my job is to make sure that all of my people are 100% planned in projects.” I paused a moment and asked, “Let me rephrase that… you are leading an IT service organisation for thousands of users. And your primary goal in your capacity planning is that when any of those users calls you, no one will be available to take the call?”

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