There Is Surely Nothing Quite So Useless as Doing with Great Efficiency What Should Not Be Done At All

Peter Drucker? Gore Vidal? Professor Giddings? Jesse H. Shera? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I belong to an organization which is expending an inordinate effort perfecting the execution of a task that is peripheral to its mission. A famous management guru spoke about the pointlessness of efficiently performing a function that should not be done at all. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1963 Peter Drucker published an article titled “Managing for Business Effectiveness” in the “Harvard Business Review”, and he discussed the troublesome error of misallocation. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But every analysis of actual allocation of resources and efforts in business that I have ever seen or made showed clearly that the bulk of time, work, attention, and money first goes to “problems” rather than to opportunities, and, secondly, to areas where even extraordinarily successful performance will have minimal impact on results.

What is the major problem? It is fundamentally the confusion between effectiveness and efficiency that stands between doing the right things and doing things right. There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




An entertaining precursor barb aimed at administrators appeared in “The Journal of Education” in 1907: 2

It is a worldwide complaint. Teaching was never so hard in the last fifty years as now. Professor Giddings thinks it may be due to “administration,” which he defines as a “systematic way of doing things that need not be done at all.”

In 1908 a variant of the saying above appeared in the periodical “School Board Journal”: 3

Some wit has defined administration as doing extremely well what should not be done at all.

In 1964 a streamlined version of Drucker’s cogent remark was printed in “The Evening Standard” newspaper of Uniontown, Pennsylvania. The word “surely” was removed, and the phrasing was slightly altered: 4

Nothing is quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.
—Peter F. Drucker

In 1968 Evan Esar published “20,000 Quips and Quotes” which included the following thematically related joke: 5

The compulsive neurotic never puts off till tomorrow, not even the things that shouldn’t be done at all.

In 1975 novelist, playwright, and political commentator Gore Vidal appeared on BBC One, and he discussed his decision in the 1950s to start writing for television to earn money. The definition of “commercialism” he presented was reminiscent of the insight attributed to Professor Giddings: 6

I had never seen a television play and I decided that this was the way to make a living. From there, I went to the stage and to the movies. So I spent ten years in which the only prose I wrote was essays. I think it was then I gave my definition, which I think I have stolen from somebody, but I now claim as my own, of commercialism as ‘doing well that which should not be done at all’, I learned how to do that in order to make myself financially independent so that I would never again have to worry about making a living.

In 1982 an article in “American Libraries” revealed that prominent librarian Jesse H. Shera had employed a version of the saying: 7

Marvin Scilken of the Orange (N.J.) Public Library described a recent note from Shera, verifying that he was indeed the author of the phrase, “Library efficiency frequently consists of doing very well what need not be done at all.”

In 1991 the syndicated columnist L. M. Boyd printed a streamlined instance of the Drucker adage without the words “surely” and “great”: 8

How long has it been, if ever, since you itemized things you still do that you no longer need to do? “There’s nothing so useless,” said management expert Peter Drucker, “as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

In 1995 a columnist in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania printed another variant of the quotation ascribed to Drucker: 9

I like Peter Drucker’s line: “Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.”

In 2000 “The Times Book of Quotations”, a reference compiled by the London newspaper, included an entry for Vidal’s remark: 10

Vidal, Gore (1925- ) US writer, critic and poet
Commercialism is doing well that which should not be done at all.
Listener (1975)

In 2014 the website of “Inc.” published “18 Quotes to Boost Your Productivity Right Now” which included the variant attributed to Drucker in 1995 that was given previously. 11

In conclusion, Peter Drucker should be credited with the expression he wrote in 1963. Gore Vidal’s 1975 statement was probably derived, in part, from earlier statements.

Image Notes: Picture of stopwatches from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jeffrey Graf of Indiana University for accessing the scans of “The Listener”. In addition, thanks to discussant Robert Sullivan who pointed to the 1982 citation and to the volunteer editors of Wikipedia.)

Notes:

  1. 1963 May, Harvard Business Review, Managing for Business Effectiveness by Peter F. Drucker, Harvard Business Publishing, Boston, Massachusetts. (Online archive at hbr.org; accessed February 6, 2017) link
  2. 1907 April 4, The Journal of Education, Woman School Teachers II by William McAndrew (New York City), Start Page 372, Quote Page 372, Column 2, New England Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1908 March, School Board Journal, Volume 36, Number 3, Some Elements of Success and Failure in Professional School Administration by Supt. F. W. Else, Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Published by Wm. Geo. Bruce, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1964 November 18, The Evening Standard, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 15, Column 1, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Neurotic, Quote Page 547, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1975 August 7, The Listener, Issue 2418, Gore Vidal: on success, legends and reality, From ‘Success Story’ (BBC 1), Start Page 167, London, England. (Gale Cengage)
  7. 1982 April, American Libraries, Volume 13, Number 4, In the News: Jesse H. Shera: 1903-1982, Profession loses revered educator and visionary, Quote Page 220, Published by American Library Association. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1991 July 2, Daily Sitka Sentinel, L. M. Boyd (Syndicated), Quote Page 7, Column 1 and 2, Sitka, Alaska. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1995 October 22, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Scene: In Bucks and Montgomery Counties by Edgar Williams, Quote Page BC3, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Topic: Commercialism, Quote Page 144, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper)
  11. Website: Inc.com, Article title: 18 Quotes to Boost Your Productivity Right Now, Article author: John Brandon (Contributing editor), Date on website: September 26, 2014, Website description: Inc.BrandView – Thought leadership for business owners, (Accessed inc.com on January 24, 2017) link