“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” ~ Michael Porter
Recently, I decided to take out some time to jot down all the initiatives that our young organization is working on. It seemed like a never-ending list. In our quest to “fire on all cylinders”, I began wondering if we were trying to do too much and letting complexity creep in.
My guess is that many of you will relate to this. Over time, in most organizations, initiatives keep piling up. A lot of you are in the midst of working on your annual operating plans. Chances are that you will soon be grappling with lots of new initiatives that will emerge from the planning exercise and how to get it all done.
While we recognize the obvious importance of prioritizing and focusing, the reality is that in spite of elegant two by two prioritization matrices, the catalogue keeps on getting longer. New projects get layered onto existing ones, creating an unwieldy workload that takes a severe toll on employees.
The damage is apparent: soaring costs, declining quality and diminished productivity. Perhaps the most serious impact can be felt in terms of employee exhaustion, demoralisation and burnout. A sharp drop in engagement or a spike in turnover could be a signal that your organisation is experiencing an overload problem.
In their article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen illustrate the impacts of such an overload:
In our survey of more than 1,000 workers in the IT division of TOMO, our pseudonym for a Fortune 500 company generally viewed as a good employer and a decent corporate citizen, 41% of the division’s professionals and 61% of its managers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that there is “not enough time to get your job done.” Escalating work demands and the exhaustion they produce surfaced repeatedly…. We heard story after story of health concerns tied to overload….
So, this week, my message focuses on how leaders can fix initiative overload. What are some of the root causes behind this problem? And what steps can companies take to address this insidious issue?
In their Harvard Business Review article on the topic, Rose Hollister and Michael Watkins offer a great example of how one company dealt with initiative overload:
At one Fortune 500 retail company, internal studies showed that store managers had more duties than they could accomplish in a standard workweek. Instead of moderating the demands of the job, their bosses expected them to prioritize and juggle. Yet with business results faltering and customer service scores declining, the senior executive team realized that a new approach was needed.
A special task force found that more than 90 separate initiatives had been deployed across the company in the past six months. Store managers were expected to absorb and act on all of these, ranging from training and customer service to IT and product launch. Armed with a clear picture of the situation on the ground, senior leaders kickstarted changes to limit new initiatives and protect store managers from unsustainable work demands.
Initiative overload can be found, in one form or another, at nearly every large company. As a Decision Insights article published by Bain & Company points out:
Your first day on the job, you probably discovered that several initiatives affecting your unit were already under way. Over time, your colleagues and superiors likely launched still more, and you might have sponsored a few yourself. In this situation, people are like swimmers buffeted by cross currents coming from every direction. The result is a kind of fragmentation, meaning that you don’t have enough time to do anything well or enough bandwidth to absorb what you need to absorb.
A number of causes can exacerbate initiative overload. Do any of the following ring a bell?
- Lack of awareness. Executive leadership may genuinely be unaware of the volume of initiatives and their consequent impact on managers and employees. Most organisations lack the mechanisms (and the will!) to track these metrics.
- Political quid pro quo. Organisational politics can play a role in initiative overload. The thinking at the top is frequently along the lines of, “I’ll support your project if you support mine”. Initiatives helmed by senior leaders often morph into signifiers of prestige and influence – hence, shutting them down can cause hurt egos and ruffled feathers.
- Collaboration for its own sake. In his HBR paper on collaboration overload, Michael Mankins explains that an excess of meetings, emails and other workplace interactions doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Rather, it indicates a deeper cultural issue:
On its face, more collaboration is a laudable goal. After all, two heads are almost always better than one. But left unchecked, calls for greater collaboration can lead to a culture of “collaboration for collaboration’s sake,” undermining productivity.
- Band-aid mindset. Instead of fixing a major problem at its root, a business may instead launch several “band-aid” measures designed to limit the damage. This can cause a proliferation of initiatives with limited effectiveness.
- Absence of sunset process. Some companies lack a formal sunset process, a crucial mechanism for stopping initiatives. Without a concrete way to determine a suitable end date, projects drag on long after they have outlived their usefulness.
- Functional isolation. Leaders tend to have a clear view of their own function but a limited understanding of others. The HBR piece mentioned above elaborates:
Because functions and units often set their priorities and launch initiatives in isolation, they may not understand the impact on neighboring functions and units. Suppose, for example, that an organization consists of five units. If each one undertakes three initiatives, each of which requires some resources from two other units, then frontline managers in each unit are effectively juggling nine initiatives.
Luckily, initiative overload is a fixable problem – although it does demand a disciplined approach and the willingness to implement some key changes. Here are six ways in which you can address the unending proliferation of projects.
1. Get a true picture of initiative load.
Company initiatives demand hundreds of employee hours, yet are seldom held to the standard of capital investments. This needs to change. As Mankins notes:
By requiring that concrete business cases be developed for all initiatives…an organization can slow the growth of new initiatives and winnow the existing set of initiatives to those that demonstrate clear benefits in excess of their organizational cost.
Evaluate all ongoing initiatives in terms of resource allocation, strategic alignment and value-add. Examine the trade-offs being made in terms of human capital versus business impact. Projects that require heavy time and budget commitments from employees yet lack the requisite results are prime candidates for sunsetting.
2. Cultivate open dialogue to set priorities.
Build a cross-functional leadership team to integrate insights and identify priorities collaboratively. Transparency is key here: leaders must exchange frank insights with one another as well as seek out (and accept) the views of employees. As the authors of the HBR article note:
Priorities can’t be set in a vacuum. Senior leaders…must also be receptive to constructive feedback from bottom-up conversations, and too often they just don’t want to hear about what people can’t do. In such an atmosphere, employees are afraid to voice concerns about workload or to admit having limits, because of the risk to their careers, so they keep mum. And without that input, leaders lack a full view of demands across the enterprise and can’t prioritize accordingly.
3. Establish a sunset process.
Building in sunset clauses enables the organisation to phase out obsolete initiatives and create space for fresh ideas. Additionally, the company could require each initiative to reapply for resources on an annual basis. Only projects that are able to demonstrate a positive impact would qualify for continuation.
4. De-link ending from failure.
The top-down message from leadership should be clear: concluding an initiative does not signal failure or absence of merit. A project may have had great results in the past; yet has now come to its natural end. Share the rationale behind cutting down, i.e. there are only so many initiatives the company can have at any given time.
5. Set a fixed “time bank” for meetings.
Mankins suggests a helpful way to cut collaboration-related overload. Reduce unnecessary meetings and liberate unproductive time by creating a zero-based time bank, from which all new meetings will need to be funded.
To start, determine the total amount of time currently dedicated to meetings by level in your organization. Then place a ceiling on that total. Now, for every new meeting an executive requests to schedule, ask (or require) him or her to remove some other meeting of equivalent (or greater) time.
6. Assess new projects rigorously.
Prevention is always better than cure. To ensure a more sustainable workload going forward, answer the following questions before launching a new project:
- What is the desired impact of the initiative? Is there data to support this claim?
- What resources are needed (people, time, budget)?
- Besides the function owning the initiative, which other departments will be called on for support?
- How much time will employees need to commit across different stages (launch, adoption, implementation)?
- How does the investment compare with the potential benefit? Is this a trade-off we are willing to make?
- If we choose to do this, what won’t we be able to do?
By focusing on fewer projects with greater impact, organisations are able to reap rich dividends – without burdening employees with unrealistic expectations and time commitments. Curbing initiative scatter requires discipline and making tough choices. Doing so, however, will allow your business to function more strategically, retain top talent (who generally suffer most under initiative overload), and enable employees to deliver their most valuable work.