The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker

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High-Level Thoughts

The best book on getting your most important work done. Read this instead of every other “productivity” book.

Summary Notes

“Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work.”

“Intelligence, imagination, and knowledge are essential resources, but only effectiveness converts them into results. By themselves, they only set limits to what can be attained.”

“There are few things less pleasing to the Lord, and less productive, than an engineering department that rapidly turns out beautiful blueprints for the wrong product. Working on the right things is what makes knowledge work effective.”

“The greatest wisdom not applied to action and behavior is meaningless data.”

“Knowledge work is not defined by quantity. Neither is knowledge work defined by its costs. Knowledge work is defined by its results.”

“The realities of the executive’s situation both demand effectiveness from him and make effectiveness exceedingly difficult to achieve. Indeed, unless executives work at becoming effective, the realities of their situation will push them into futility.”

“If the executive lets the flow of events determine what he does, what he works on, and what he takes seriously, he will fritter himself away “operating.” He may be an excellent man. But he is certain to waste his knowledge and ability and to throw away what little effectiveness he might have achieved.”

“What the executive needs are criteria which enable him to work on the truly important, that is, on contributions and results, even though the criteria are not found in the flow of events.”

“An organization, a social artifact, is very different from a biological organism. Yet it stands under the law that governs the structure and size of animals and plants: The surface goes up with the square of the radius, but the mass grows with the cube. The larger the animal becomes, the more resources have to be devoted to the mass and to the internal tasks, to circulation and information, to the nervous system, and so on. Every part of an amoeba is in constant, direct contact”

“And yet the bigger and apparently more successful an organization gets to be, the more will inside events tend to engage the interests, the energies, and the abilities of the executive to the exclusion of his real tasks and his real effectiveness in the outside.”

“What seems to be wanted is universal genius, and universal genius has always been in scarce supply. The experience of the human race indicates strongly that the only person in abundant supply is the universal incompetent. We will therefore have to staff our organizations with people who at best excel in one of these abilities. And then they are more than likely to lack any but the most modest endowment in the others.”

“If one cannot increase the supply of a resource, one must increase its yield. And effectiveness is the one tool to make the resources of ability and knowledge yield more and better results.”

“Effectiveness, in other words, is a habit; that is, a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned.”

“There is, in other words, no reason why anyone with normal endowment should not acquire competence in any practice. Mastery might well elude him; for this one might need special talents. But what is needed in effectiveness is competence. What is needed are “the scales.” These are essentially five such practices— five such habits of the mind that have to be acquired to be an effective executive:

  1. Effective executives know where their time goes. They work systematically at managing the little of their time that can be brought under their control.
  2. Effective executives focus on outward contribution. They gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They start out with the question, “What results are expected of me?” rather than with the work to be done, let alone with its techniques and tools.
  3. Effective executives build on strengths— their own strengths, the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and on the strengths in the situation, that is, on what they can do. They do not build on weakness.
  4. Effective executives concentrate on the few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
  5. Effective executives, finally, make effective decisions. They know that this is, above all, a matter of system— of the right steps in the right sequence.

Know Thy Time

“Most discussions of the executive’s task start with the advice to plan one’s work. This sounds eminently plausible. The only thing wrong with it is that it rarely works. The plans always remain on paper, always remain good intentions. They seldom turn into achievement.”

“Effective executives, in my observation, do not start with their tasks. They start with their time. And they do not start out with planning. They start by finding out where their time actually goes. Then they attempt to manage their time and to cut back unproductive demands on their time. Finally they consolidate their “discretionary” time into the largest possible continuing units.”

“People— the third limiting resource— one can hire, though one can rarely hire enough good people. But one cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time.”

“To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive, therefore needs to be able to dispose of time in fairly large chunks. To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours.”

“The first step toward executive effectiveness is therefore to record actual time-use.”

“Systematic time management is therefore the next step. One has to find the nonproductive, time-wasting activities and get rid of them if one possibly can. This requires asking oneself a number of diagnostic questions.”

“I have yet to see an executive, regardless of rank or station, who could not consign something like a quarter of the demands on his time to the wastepaper basket without anybody’s noticing their disappearance.”

“Effective executives have learned to ask systematically and without coyness: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?” To ask this question, and to ask it without being afraid of the truth, is a mark of the effective executive.”

“We usually tend to overrate rather than underrate our importance and to conclude that far too many things can only be done by ourselves. Even very effective executives still do a great many unnecessary, unproductive things.”

“My first-grade arithmetic primer asked: “If it takes two ditch-diggers two days to dig a ditch, how long would it take four ditch-diggers?” In first grade, the correct answer is, of course, “one day.” In the kind of work, however, with which executives are concerned, the right answer is probably “four days” if not “forever.””

“Another common time-waster is malorganization. Its symptom is an excess of meetings.”

What Can I Contribute?

“To ask, “What can I contribute?” is to look for the unused potential in the job. And what is considered excellent performance in a good many positions is often but a pale shadow of the job’s full potential of contribution.”

“For every organization needs performance in three major areas: It needs direct results; building of values and their reaffirmation; and building and developing people for tomorrow.”

“The man who asks of himself, “What is the most important contribution I can make to the performance of this organization?” asks in effect, “What self-development do I need? What knowledge and skill do I have to acquire to make the contribution I should be making? What strengths do I have to put to work? What standards do I have to set myself?””

“He always, at the end of his meetings, goes back to the opening statement and relates the final conclusions to the original intent.”

Making Strength Productive

“He knows that one cannot build on weakness. To achieve results, one has to use all the available strengths— the strengths of associates, the strengths of the superior, and one’s own strengths.”

“Whoever tries to place a man or staff an organization to avoid weakness will end up at best with mediocrity.”

“Effective executives know that their subordinates are paid to perform and not to please their superiors.”

“The effective executive therefore first makes sure that the job is well-designed. And if experience tells him otherwise, he does not hunt for genius to do the impossible.”

“The effective executive knows that to get strength one has to put up with weaknesses.”

“It is generally a waste of time to talk to a reader. He only listens after he has read. It is equally a waste of time to submit a voluminous report to a listener. He can only grasp what it is all about through the spoken word.”

“All in all, the effective executive tries to be himself; he does not pretend to be someone else. He looks at his own performance and at his own results and tries to discern a pattern. “What are the things,” he asks, “that I seem to be able to do with relative ease, while they come rather hard to other people?”

First Things First

“If there is any one “secret” of effectiveness, it is concentration. Effective executives do first things first and they do one thing at a time.”

“This is the “secret” of those people who “do so many things” and apparently so many difficult things. They do only one at a time. As a result, they need much less time in the end than the rest of us.”

“Effective executives do not race. They set an easy pace but keep going steadily.”

“Effective executives periodically review their work programs— and those of their associates— and ask: “If we did not already do this, would we go into it now?””

“Above all, the effective executive will slough off an old activity before he starts on a new one.”

“The job is, however, not to set priorities. That is easy. Everybody can do it. The reason why so few executives concentrate is the difficulty of setting “posteriorities”— that is, deciding what tasks not to tackle— and of sticking to the decision.”

“Setting a posteriority is also unpleasant. Every posteriority is somebody else’s top priority. It is much easier to draw up a nice list of top priorities and then to hedge by trying to do “just a little bit” of everything else as well. This makes everybody happy. The only drawback is, of course, that nothing whatever gets done.”

“Concentration— that is, the courage to impose on time and events his own decision as to what really matters and comes first— is the executive’s only hope of becoming the master of time and events instead of their whipping boy.

Elements of Decision Making

“But clear thinking about the boundary conditions is needed also to identify the most dangerous of all possible decisions: the one that might— just might— work if nothing whatever goes wrong.”

“The things one worries about never happen. And objections and difficulties no one thought about suddenly turn out to be almost insurmountable obstacles.”

Effective Decisions

“People inevitably start out with an opinion; to ask them to search for the facts first is even undesirable. They will simply do what everyone is far too prone to do anyhow: look for the facts that fit the conclusion they have already reached. And no one has ever failed to find the facts he is looking for. The good statistician knows this and distrusts all figures— he either knows the fellow who found them or he does not know him; in either case he is suspicious.”

Conclusion: Effectiveness Must Be Learned

Steps to effectiveness:

  1. Recording where the time goes
  2. Focus your vision on contribution
  3. Make your strengths productive and focus on using them
  4. Prioritize the most important things first, not necessarily the most urgent
  5. Take rational action

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