Fear is Behind the Costliest Tradeoff

Fear is Behind the Costliest Tradeoffs

There’s a wicked problem in many organizations. Well, there are probably many wicked problems, but I’m thinking about one problem in particular, because we see it so often and also because it can have horrific long-term impact. The problem is that fear – real or perceived – tends to result in people saying ‘yes’ to far more than they know is achievable. 

A Common Scenario

During an all-hands meeting, the senior leader paints a clear picture of the vision and success as well as the company’s new strategic priorities. They may even communicate their intention to support tradeoffs that would further these priorities. It’s a clear, exciting start to an important mission.   

Action follows as teams incorporate the new priorities into their plans. Time goes by and status updates give little indication of anything being very different.  However, one thing that rarely gets discussed is, “How did we make space for the new work in the same timeframe?” or, “Was anything deprioritized to make way for the new priorities?” 

The unfortunate reality in many cases is that tradeoffs have not been made and teams are planning to execute upon the new priorities in addition to what they were originally planning.   

The result? Teams that were already working beyond their capacity are pushed further and spread even more thin. Managers press people to get both the new and previous work done. People become burnt out. Everything is rushed, corners are cut, and inevitably, quality suffers.   

Not making tradeoff decisions can be one of the costliest tradeoffs of all, made at the expense of your customers and employees. 

Not making tradeoff decisions and deferring lower priority work IS also considered making a tradeoff, but it’s your customers and employees who are paying the price. They have immediate impact in the form of more delays. Over time, these behaviors have significant impact on people with matters of low employee morale and engagement as well as significant turnover. They also have an adverse impact on our products like technical debt, quality problems and customer dissatisfaction. Can your company afford to lose more customers and employees? 

The capability of making tradeoff decisions is a business survival imperative… 

I believe that making tradeoff decisions is one of the most (if not THE most) important capabilities for organizations. There is so much going on in every company and in every industry that I don’t see how anyone can succeed without continuously making tradeoffs. 

Saying ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to work of lower importance is the greatest lever leaders have for enabling execution of strategic priorities. 

 …and your company (or group or team) probably doesn’t have this capability. 

We work with many companies. There isn’t one that I’ve run into that has the capability of making tradeoffs company-wide and most groups and teams within them struggle with it.   

It’s Usually not a Lack of Skills or Ability

There are a wide range of practices, processes, and skills that enable prioritizing and making tradeoff decisions. Managers usually know how to do these things and if not, there are plenty of experts and companies (like ours) to help. Despite this, tradeoffs still don’t happen as much as they should. Teams and managers don’t say ‘no’ or ‘not now.’ Instead, they say ‘yes’ to far more than they can possibly do, setting the stage for the problems above.

Why does this happen? 

Fear Prevents Tradeoffs from Being Made

Even well-trained teams with skillful managers may not be capable of making the decision to defer work. The most common reasons center around fear: 

  • The fear of looking bad or appearing like you can’t get the job done. 

  • The fear of repercussions for not getting it all done. 

  • The fear of confronting people or presenting what may seem like ‘bad news’ to stakeholders and more senior leaders. 

These fears can be so powerful that against better judgment and even being given explicit permission by their leaders, managers may still be unwilling to discuss tradeoffs, much less execute them. 

What’s needed? 

Leaders need to get involved to overcome such fears. They need to take specific actions to invalidate them and design environments where people don’t feel these fears. Voicing support – while great – is not enough. Until people have a real  experience that contradicts their fears, and that experience is repeated a number of times, the fear will still prevail.    

We will explore this topic further in future posts, but let us know: What’s your opinion? What have you seen in your organizations?