Productivity sucks

When I first started CoreMotif I had a lot of stuff going on. I left the corporate job I was in because I wanted to try my own hand at startups and consulting. I was the CTO of a startup at the same time, I was helping other startups get off the ground, I was kicking ass and taking names.

In addition to my CTO role, I was also doing sales, writing contracts, hiring and training developers and doing all the stuff you should do when starting a business. I was also building a consultancy and learning those ropes. I also partnered with other startups to help them off the ground, build solutions and create development processes. My focus was all over the place, I learned a lot, and when I look back at that time in my life, I wasted a lot of hours. How can that be?

CoreMotif is a tiny little consulting business, and as any consultancy is built and operated by the talent of the people working hard every day to deliver value to our customers with integrity. Since we are so few, every minute counts and that’s why both productivity and efficiency is so important to us. For us productivity is easily defined as

Productivity = total units of output / units of input

Spinning the wheels

Measuring productivity is easy. Let’s say you have a 10-meter-long to-do list and you want to know how productive you are so that you can estimate which quarter which year you’ll have completed all the tasks. You simply track how many items you checked off that list per day. That will give you to-do items pr. Day productivity. For me, that ratio sits somewhere around 5 items pr. day. On a good day, I can get 8 items done, while on a slow day I’ll do 3. So, I cover 10 cm of to-do pr. day, meaning that I’ll be done in 100 days.

Comparing oranges to oranges  

Comparing productivity on the other hand is much more difficult. I’ll be the first one to admit that my to-do list items are not standardized and if we, I and you reading this, would compare our to-do list items, we would immediately realize that we each have our own way of breaking tasks down and estimating how much time they take. We even approach things differently. That lack of standardization makes it almost impossible to compare our productivity in a meaningful way. But what if all my items on the to-do list are drinking coffee, looking at YouTube videos and having lunches with my friends? I’m productive, but am I doing the right things?

Bringing out the good stuff

Efficiency on the other hand relates to the quality of our work, which means improving the quality of those units of output, reducing re-work and cost of production. That’s why we always favor the approach that costs our clients the least amount of money while delivering maximum value. So, for us, measuring efficiency is about looking at the effect of the output vs. the units of input.

Efficiency = useful units of output / units of input

So, if we look at blogging as an example, while productivity is good, efficiency is king. Producing hundreds of low quality blog posts each year is not valuable, producing 10 good blog posts each year is always better.

What is quality?

For most people, quality means “top-of-the-line”. A quality car is a luxury car with leather seats, big powerful engine and looks like it’s going 100 km an hour while parked. A quality meal is a 7-course meal, with lobster caught by hand and trained in the art of meditation before being boiled. A hand-raised steak trained in philosophy by the world’s greatest philosophers, bathed in champagne and rare beer daily. Wines that have been stored underground and only poured by virgins… you get my point. For many people exclusivity is often a synonym with quality.

For a person in business however quality means fit-for-purpose. It’s the answer to the question “Can you make it work with the resources you have?” and “will it get us there?”. While I was incredibly productive when I first started out I was not very efficient. I should have left those startups sooner, focused my attention on building CoreMotif and figured what I wanted to be when I grew up sooner. But I had fun, met a lot of cool people and learned a lot so I can’t say I regret having “wasted” that time. The time I wasted just didn’t move me closer to my goals of building a company.

Knowing what to do

Being efficient means that you know what matters and doesn’t matters. It’s about prioritization based on a clear strategy, a vision of a future state and knowing what your customers need and want. Efficiency is about knowing your user, the customer and your coworkers. It’s about recognizing quality when you see it. It’s about coding features with accompanying tests. It’s about delivering what is needed when it’s needed.

That’s why productivity sucks and efficiency doesn’t. I say, always strive for efficiency instead of productivity, your focus should be on quantity and quality at the same time.

Jón Grétar Guðjónsson