What is Duplication of Effort (and 3 Ways to Avoid It)

What is Duplication of Effort (and 3 Ways to Avoid It)

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Duplication of effort is one of the buzzwords you will hear in the corridors of many corporations. Project managers, business managers, MBAs are always concerned about it. But what is duplication of effort, exactly? In short, it means doing things twice, but there are many gradients of this duplication. We should spend some time to explain what duplication of effort really is, and this post is about that.

What is Duplication of Effort?

Before we can answer this question, we should ask ourselves “what is effort?”. We can think of effort as work in general, performing a task that requires your strength or concentration to get a result. Effort is about getting things done.

Intuitively, duplication of effort is doing the same effort twice (or more). Note that it is only the effort that is duplicated, not the outcome. To clarify this, we can have two examples: manufacturing and business analysis.

Imagine you have a manufacturing production line where workers assemble car parts, say the headlights. If you have one worker, he will be able to assemble headlights on 10 cars in an hour. add one more worker. Now you have two workers, each working on 10 cars in an hour for a total of 20 cars in an hour. They do the same thing, so technically you have duplicated company’s efforts on headlights assembly, but you also have duplicated the outcome. Hence, the amount of effort per unit of result stays the same – in this case 6 man/minutes per car.

Turning to a different situation, imagine your company wants to expand its operations from the US to Europe. As a director of the company – you would need a clear plan and some economic analysis to see if that is a good move. Sally, one of your reports is already working with her team to produce such analysis – they run some mathematical model, get some market information from Gartner, and put a lot of effort to create a wonderful PowerPoint presentation. John, another of your reports, also anticipates the desire to expand to Europe, so he also embarks on a similar initiative. In the end, you receive two presentations about the same thing – effort is duplicated, outcome is not. This is a duplication of effort.

So, in short, whenever you duplicate your effort or work without duplicating the outcome, you have a duplication of effort.

Not all Duplications of Effort are Created Equal

The difference between the manufacturing and the business analysis case may be stark, but in reality, things are generally more blurred. In fact, our example goes from 0% of duplication of effort (manufacturing), to 100% of duplication of effort (business analysis). Instead, duplication of effort we see in real life is somewhere in between.

Take again the example of the business analysis. True, you essentially got two similar presentations, but it is unlikely that both Sally and John came to the same conclusions to the penny. Most likely, they will come to similar conclusions and most of their presentations will be interchangeable, but there will be some insight that is only in Sally’s presentation, and other insight that is only in John’s.

Let’s say that 80% of John’s idea are reported in the Sally’s presentation, but there is a 20% that is new, and that Sally did not consider – and the same is true the other way around. This means that Sally and John have worked each 100% of the time, and the 80% of their time was spent on duplicated effort, while 20% was good effort. So, you could have had one person working 100% (say 5 days in a week) and another work only for the other 20% (1 day in a week).

Obviously, it is much harder to tell how much overlap there is in percentage terms. And this reasoning has also a fallacy – it assumes John can deliver it is 20% right away. Instead, to come to his 20% of valuable insight, most probably John needed to work on the full analysis – the remaining 80%. If he did not, that 20% may have not materialized.

From this we can clearly see that it is not always easy to identify or remove duplication of effort, and that things are generally complex and ambiguous. If we keep that in mind, we can move on to some examples and common solutions to the problem of duplicating our efforts.

Examples of Duplication of Effort in the Corporate World

Generally, corporation does not bother much about duplication of effort at individual level. In fact, good managers who oversee the day-to-day activities can ensure their team works proficiently, so it is safe to assume the duplication of effort at this level can be ignored. It can happen, such as when a senior colleague trains a junior one and they do the same thing together, but nothing to worry too much about.

Cross-Departmental Duplication of Effort

The real deal on duplication of efforts comes with cross-departmental overlap of tasks and responsibility. As the company grows bigger, it is harder to coordinate all its effort and it is likely that you will have two or more departments doing the same thing at the same time.

Things get obvious when you work with a divisional structure, common in large conglomerates. Think about General Electric and its various divisions, from aviation to capital to appliances. Each division pursues different markets and have different goals, and so it has its Profit & Loss statement. In a structure of this type, it is common for each division to buy things and resources how they please within their balance sheet and income statement. This means each division can potentially buy the same things as another division.

For example, you may have an HR department in every division that processes payrolls – a single HR department pooled among all divisions would be much efficient and would save the company’s some money overall. In the case of GE, they have already moved toward this direction for HR, but this is not true for all large companies.

A similar twist can happen with production facilities of cheap and bulky goods. If you produce some good, generally a commodity, that is so inexpensive that shipping it to the other side of the world would be anti-economical, you may end up having two production facilities in two parts of the world – one with unsold inventory and one pushed to its limit. You have some duplication of effort, but in this case, the inventory of one plant cannot support the strain on the other because of logistical concerns.

How to Avoid Duplication of Effort

Not all Duplication of Effort is Bad

At this point, people tend to ask, “okay I got it, so how do I make sure I have no duplication of effort?”. Yet, the first thing you should do is to identify which duplication of effort is actually bad for your company. Superficially you may think that all duplication of effort is bad for your business, but this is not always the case.

To understand which duplication of effort is bad, you need to carefully analyze the outcomes of each duplicated effort. We are not talking only about direct outcomes, but also about indirect outcomes.

Here again we can borrow the Sally and John’s example on the business analysis. Here we know for certain that 80% of John’s effort is duplicated, and that doing so brings only a 20% improvement. So now the question is different: how much do you value that extra 20%? Chances are, in this specific case you value it a lot – because it can give you precious insight before entering European market, that can save you a lot of money down the road. In other words, it is probably better to get this 20% more insight at the expense of “wasting” 80% of John’s time on this project.

It is all about tradeoffs

Obviously, things are never that clear and we need to make a lot of assumptions. Nonetheless, it is a general rule that duplication of effort gives you some degree of flexibility. If each division has its HR department, each department will adapt to its division, and the division will have more flexibility to pursue its market opportunities within its market segment. Duplication of effort tend to be a cost we pay for this flexibility and speed.

It is clear that it is all about tradeoffs. You need to weight things carefully: some duplication tends to give you more flexibility, but at a higher cost. Do you value this flexibility? Or do you need to cut costs as little as possible? You are the only one who can answer these questions. Furthermore, note that duplication of effort is not necessarily the only way to achieve flexibility.

With this in mind, we can turn to some methods to reduce the duplication of effort.

Measure What Matters

The key to reduce duplicated effort is to first identify it. This may seem trivial in theory, but in practice it is not. There are many nuances on the activities a company does, especially for large companies, and things are never black or white.

No specific suggestion can apply to all situations and all companies, but some generic suggestions can. The first one is to measure everything with clear metrics. If you know perfectly where you are going, you will know if you are going there on a straight path or looping yourself over the same things.

Those metrics should apply not only to the company, but also to departments and even to teams and individuals. By propagating objectives in this way through the company, you will soon realize if you are setting the same objective for many different teams. On the other hand, if all objectives are met successfully, you do not need to worry particularly about any duplication of effort that may exists. In other words, you need to worry about duplication of effort only if things are getting bad.

Liaison Roles

Or, to say it another way “talk, talk, talk”. If some effort is duplicated it means two people (or teams, or units) are doing the same thing. In order for them to realize that, they need to see that the other is doing the same thing. They need to speak with one another. This may also seem trivial, but we all know that sometimes in corporation we see some turf and people entrenched in their positions or roles.

Therefore, put a good deal of effort ensuring people across the organization speak with one another. A good way to do that is with liaison roles, formally assigning someone in the organizational chart to communicate with a peer from another department or business unit. Normally, liaison roles are added on top of “normal” duties, and you need to do that in pairing – if business unit A must peak with unit B, you need someone from unit A and someone from unit B as well.

This will ensure duplication of effort will surface, and hopefully managers will report it up through the organization so that it can be addressed. A good practice is to have liaison roles relatively low in the organization, even not in managerial positions. However, if you want them to be effective at detecting and notifying duplication of effort, you need to provide them with a direct channel to do so to someone who can act on it, such as the COO. If you don’t, and let them go through their manager, chances are some notifications will never raise to the top because of turf wars between departments. On the other hand, an open culture will be less subjected to this type of risk.

Set up a recharging structure

This is a popular one in many organizations, as a compromise between autonomy and efficiency. The idea is that you want each business unit to be independent and quick to react to market, while not giving it too much independence to create duplication of effort.

So, many corporations set up an internal recharge mechanism. First, you need to identify some services that can be shared across business units – HR, IT, Purchasing and so on. Then, you move those services in a centralized unit, generally the HQ, and you allow them to provide services to all the other units, at a cost. It is like each unit is buying services from a third-party company, except they are buying from within the corporation. Of course, they do not pay cash, they pay with a bigger share of their profits to the head quarter.

The beauty of this mechanism is that HQ can provide a standardized service offering, thus creating some efficiencies, reducing duplication of effort. Each unit can then buy this service, which should be appropriate most of the time, or buy something from the market (or doing it within the unit) if the HQ’s service does not fit their need. The advantage is that only units that have needs fully served by the HQ’s offering will duplicate effort, not all the unit.

Another even bigger advantage is that HQ will know which units are moving away from the centralized service (because they are not paying it anymore). Hence, they can investigate what is the reason and, if relevant, make some changes to the centralized service so that it can serve the units that are drifting away, while improving also for the others.

The concept of this structure is fairly simple, but executing it requires some leg work from the internal accounting and tax teams. Nonetheless, it is worth trying.

Duplication of Effort in Summary

To wrap everything as simple as possible, duplication of effort happens when two people do the same thing so that you end up with two results that are identical, so one is basically worthless. In reality, results are never identical – but rather similar – and so duplication of effort is never at 100% (not everything is duplicated).

In corporations, duplication is more common among divisions and business units rather than people. If you want to avoid it, you should set up clear metrics to identify what needs to be accomplished, create liaison roles so that people can talk with one another across departments, and provide some services from HQ to the various business units, while giving them the freedom to opt-out if they need a different service.

Duplication of effort is an important concept for managers, so you should spend some time understanding it. Getting the concept is easy, but being able to identify it clearly takes time. Another important tool you may need is Referent Power, and you may want to check out this article about it.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded ICTShore.com with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

Alessandro Maggio



Project Management