An Efficient and Effective Lesson from Games

15 08 2009

A few weeks ago I was noticing how my students were playing chess.  Many of the younger students spend many moves to achieve what experienced players would have done in just a few moves.  For example, one young student could not set up a standard end game checkmate. The student called check and moved the pieces around the board for 20 moves and was called a draw by the umpire. One boy in a similar situation accidentally achieved the checkmate but took many needless moves.  This got me thinking about the difference between effectiveness and efficiency in game play. 

Effective choice: Accomplishing a task decisively but with possible excess of time, material, and/or effort.
Efficient choice: Accomplishing a task with precision, economically with little or no excess of time, material and/or effort.


One day I used this illustration to explain the difference to the students.  Imagine that there is a fly on the wall and I wanted to kill it.  I dramatically took out an imaginary rocket launcher to blast the bug.  I would definitely kill the bug but I would knock down the wall and the building in the process.   I related the fact that it is not necessary to capture all the pieces in chess like Pac Man gobbling up points.  In fact, capturing pieces can waste time if it does not help achieve the goal of checkmate.  Destroying a wall to kill a fly might be very effective but not at all efficient.

Another example I gave the class is how to solve a large maze (in our part of the country we have human sized corn mazes during October).  An effective method to solve a large maze is the right-hand-rule algorithm.  This is where the player keeps his hand on one of the walls and goes wherever it leads and eventually escapes.  (Many recent maze makers in trying to circumvent this algorithm have constructed loops and false trails leading to other false trails.)  The point is that players may use the only algorithm they know and though being effective is not very efficient, fun or elegant.

In my problem solving classes I have an imaginary tool box for the problem solving tools. When students do not know the various tools they invariably use trial and error as if harder tasks could be solved if only I had a larger hammer.

In chess, as well as in other games I strongly suggest having more than one reason for every move.  This serves at least two purposes: one is that the opponent will not know which reason to respond to and two, so that the move will accomplish more than one goal.  Having more than one reason for every move practices subterfuge as will as the strategy of economy.                    

In solving jigsaw puzzles with my 2nd grade class, I took this opportunity to discuss the same issue.  Solving jigsaw puzzles is a wonderful metaphor of strategic thinking.  When asked how to solve a jigsaw puzzle I often get the answer “one piece at a time”.  So I take one piece out of the box and then fished the box for a matching piece.  This method may work but is not very efficient. 

After much discussion the class came to this pretty efficient method:

1.  Dump pieces our and turn them all face up on the table.

2.  Sort the pieces by edges and inside pieces.

3.  Locate the corners and construct the frame of the puzzle.

4.  Sort inside pieces by color and design.  Use the picture as a guide to have the finished product in mind.

5.  Switch modes of thinking constantly by:

Finding pieces to go in a particular space and look for a space for a particular piece.

Looking for unique pieces and for similar pieces that can be categorized.

Often I give my 6th grade gifted students math problems that have an easily found “effective” number crunching method and a not so easy to be found but elegant “efficient” method Some students in a rush will start the number crunching method and give up after getting lost in the arithmetic. But others stand back from the problem and take the time to find the more elegant method.


This all reminds me of Sun Tzu’s comments in the Art of Strategy

 “Those who are skilled in executing a strategy bend the strategy of others without conflict: Uproot the fortifications of others without attacking and absorb the organizations of others without prolonged operations.”

 The other side of the issue is that efficiency can replace effectiveness.  Players can be so possessed with being efficient and multitasking that the quality of the activity is endangered.  A recent news report covered how youths can multi task on the computer but to the expense of quality understanding.

 So what is the difference between Effective and Efficient?

Being efficient means producing results with little wasted effort.  It’s the ability to carry out actions quickly. However, by so doing, you may not necessarily be achieving effectiveness. Effectiveness allows you to accomplish the worthwhile goals you’ve chosen.

Simply: Efficient is doing things right, while Effective is doing right things.

Being efficient means you spend less time on something, you spend less money on something or you spend less effort (or number of workers) on something.

Being effective means you do your job well. In other words, the output (finished product) is of high quality.

  • Effectiveness is about “doing the right things”.
    It is about maximising value, creating the right outputs, knowing what needs to be done.
  • Efficiency is about “doing things right“.
    It is about minimising cost, using the right processes and inputs, knowing how to do things.

Success comes from getting them both right — getting the right balance between the two.



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