Putting the Horse before the Cart

The demands on a leader’s time are infinite but his/her time is finite. The ability to maximise finite time is essential for both personal and professional success. Leaders should aspire to be both effective and efficient in executing their responsibilities. It is, however, important to know the difference between these terms because some leaders don’t. This knowledge prevents such leaders from putting the cart before the horse.

Effectiveness is defined as doing the right thing; while efficiency defined as doing things right. It is possible to be efficient but not effective. You can be doing things right but doing the wrong things right. Efficiency focuses on performance but effectiveness is focused on priorities. You need to know your priorities first before taking action.  This prevents wasting both time and energy on tackling the wrong things. Effectiveness requires both careful thought and sufficient time to determine what the appropriate priorities should be at any given time.

Due to the demand for results, leaders sometimes, in the haste to appear efficient, take impulsive actions without due diligence producing disastrous results.

According to the late management guru, Peter Drucker, the effective leader asks, “What needs to be done versus what do I want to do?” Focusing on what needs to be done helps clarify your priorities from distractions. There are a lot of things on a leader’s plate, but in order for him to be successful, he needs to isolate the critical from the frivolous. I read a long time ago that you can’t chase two rabbits at the same time because you end up catching none. Effectiveness enables you to decide which rabbit to chase and efficiency helps you catch the chosen rabbit.

Drucker, in his June 2004 Harvard Business Review article, stated that “I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time. Hence, after asking what needs to be done, the effective executive sets priorities and sticks to them. Other tasks, no matter how important or appealing, are postponed. However, after completing the original top-priority task, the executive resets priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original (to do) list. He asks, ‘what needs to be done now?’ This generally results in new and different priorities”.

It is important for you as a leader to know that doing things right is not as important as doing the right things.

7 replies on “Putting the Horse before the Cart”

very timely article…ur mail came in as i pondered how to approach a number of tasks on my to-do list @ the office this morning…

what needs to be done now vs what can be done later….instructive

Once again, well said… Effectiveness vs efficiency, time to strike a balance. Food for thot.

So true Ola, I am not so sure it is as easy in the very complex and ever changing environments we work in, target driven bureaucracy gone mad I call it. How does one prioritise when the system is not set up to do this.

One last question and it does not necessarily have anything to do with this post but how does one maintain personal integrity when faced with making difficult decisions?

Sis Adelaide. I agree that there will be obstacles against being effective and efficient but it is important to fight to tackle the main things first at work despite the distractions and opposition. The result of not doing so will only add to the current dissatisfaction with the status quo.

It takes some degree of creativity to get around the stifling organisational culture and system that hinder our effectiveness and efficiency. Looking at best practices in other industries could provide insights and helpful lessons to deal with the challenges in one’s situation.

Also getting bosses’ buy-in is paramount for any successful change in the system. This requires creative presentation of the potential solutions which will result in a win-win result for you and your superiors as well as subordinates. This requires deep thinking which takes time. The last option to find alternative employment if there seems to be no possibility of any improvement and the level of frustration becomes unbearable.

I plan to tackle the question you posed about personal integrity and decision making in the next few weeks as a blog post rather than a comment. I will like to ponder the issue further before responding to it.

I was late in reading this but I have read it at a time when I am re-thinking my projects and trying to do things more effectively.

Before I make any decisions, I am asking myself, what do I do now? How am I going to do it?


I like the frankness of the article. Thing is, at some point won’t handling only one thing at a time seem a bit ineffective? There has to be a way of handling several tasks at once without turning out mediocre results. Or is that what is called delegation? Hmm…

I guess my focus will be doing the right things…whatever it takes.

Please share your comments on this post

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.