More With Less

More With Less

Your company needs to do more with less. This is especially true in economic downturns, during which layoffs may leave you short-handed and the pressure to cut costs is high. Your organization’s ‘addiction to more’ may be the biggest obstacle to getting more out of your teams. 

“Your organization’s ‘addiction to more’ may be the biggest obstacle to actually getting more out of your teams.”

In two previous articles, we looked at the problem of being ‘Addicted to More’, which was the first look at this chronic condition. The conversation continued with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Tradeoff Decisions in an Org that is ‘Addicted to More’. The addiction is a major problem plaguing many companies (all the ones I know of anyway).  

Being addicted to more is a condition in which what seems to be most important – more important than just about anything else – is getting more done. More. More. More. Or as the case may be more often than not, the perception of getting more done. In such places, the pressure to get more done exceeds any other pressure or motivation, evidenced by conditions of team over commitment, overworked and demotivated people, and the like. Impacts of ‘addiction to more’ are far reaching – from employee turnover to dissatisfied customers to getting far less done, even though your teams are more capable. 

“Impacts of ‘addiction to more’ are far reaching – from employee turnover to dissatisfied customers to getting far less done, even though your teams are more capable.”

Downturns usually mean layoffs. 

Economic downturns make the ‘more’ problem worse – way worse. With downturns comes pressure to cut costs. Cost takeout strategies (or cost reduction projects masquerading as cost takeout strategies) seem to be the default responses to such situations. (Aside: these are usually the lazy leaders’ response to downturns because they are misunderstood and poorly executed on multiple levels, but that may be another post). For this one, I am basically referring to layoffs. Big, chunky, cross-company layoffs. 

Positioned as streamlining, downsizing, or some other MBA-washed term, companies lay people off to cut costs. They still have the same list of things to do. Of the many problems inherited by the people remaining after the axe has fallen, this is one of the worst.  

Short-handed. 

Imagine being on a team of nine that is committed to two or three times as much work as they can possibly get done by a particular date. Now, get rid of 2-3 people. In some sports, this is called ‘playing short-handed.’ Scoring (let alone winning) while short-handed is considered a pretty magnificent feat. One big difference is that sports people seem to understand the implications of playing short-handed: it’s usually done to penalize people for foul play or the like, it’s temporary, and there is a minimum team size below which teams are not allowed to play. In business, it’s a normal course of action, it’s permanent, and there are no real minimums – the survivors must pick up the ball without reprieve and – the big problem with this is that there is little or no adjustment to expectations.  

Picking up the ball. 

Back to the point – you’ve laid off a lot of people. How often are expectations of the remaining people adjusted? We work with a lot of companies – big ones mostly – and the unfortunate answer in our experience is ‘not often.’ Manager response is often silence, or a helpless shrug and disheartened ‘we can’t defer anything – we just need to get it all done.’ The list of commitments stays the same – it’s the same list that was already far more than what the teams could do before the layoffs. I really dislike doing math, but the math student in my head dusts off the solar calculator for a moment…. 

“Hmm let’s see…We are committed to 300 things, but all our historical data shows that we are not likely to get more than 100 done in the timeframe expected. And that was before the layoff. We just lost 10% of our team. We were vastly overcommitted before, but now we’re just completely under water.” 

What’s a manager to do? 

If like me, you believe a manager’s responsibility is to do things like set expectations well, adjust plans when constraints and situations change, provide accurate information to leaders and teams so that we can make decisions and design environments that allow our people to get the best work done, improve continuously. To maximize customer and business outcomes, then you might pay attention to math and make some adjustments: seek to scrutinize the priorities and come up with the plan that maximizes the likely flow of value – first and foremost by deferring lowest-value (replace the word ‘value’ with ‘importance’ as needed) stuff.  

But, we can’t do that! 

I know, I know – ‘it’s all important,’ ‘we need it all,’ (insert any other victim statement here) – I didn’t say ‘low value stuff,’ I said, ‘lowest value stuff.’ Whether there is low value stuff or not (future post maybe) there is always a lowest. If you do this, you will be sharing reality with your stakeholders, so that people aren’t making decisions that are fraught with risk. 

Hope IS the strategy for organizations that are ‘addicted to more’. 

If your org is ‘addicted to more’, this doesn’t happen – it’s nearly blasphemy to admit that the team can’t get everything done in the expected timeframe. No, the more-addicted org just wants…more. Despite good process, responsible project management, responsible leadership, desire to deliver better product and value to customers, our org just wants ‘more.’ Anything that sounds like ‘less’ is a mark of inadequacy and incompetence. Rather than expose the need for tradeoff, expectation adjustment, and just generally good planning, the manager in the org addicted to ‘more’ keeps quiet, reaffirms that the team’s just got to get it all done, and (to their stakeholders) that the team will get it all done. Or so they hope – because ‘hope’ is the strategy in the organization addicted to ’more’. 

‘More’ is actually less. 

The irony of ‘addiction to more’ is that the addiction is not truly to get more, it is to get commitment to more. The ‘fix’ is the manager saying, ‘the team will get it all done,’ not the actual work getting done. I know this because it has been proven in many kinds of work (from product development to manufacturing) that over commitment slows things down – it results in getting less than when you allow focus. So, committing to more is promising more, but getting less. Thus, it can’t be that the addiction is for getting more – but rather for promising/committing to more. That’s why this is a management problem to solve. 

“So, committing to more is promising more, but getting less.”

Succeeding in a downturn – commitment to realization, more stuff to more value? 

The way out can be simple, but it will not be easy. You do need to get more with less, but that won’t happen without change. If you want to break the ‘addiction to more,’ one approach will be to enable certain shifts in both language and in how success is measured: 

  1. Shift the conversation (and how success is measured) from ‘more stuff’ to ‘more [value/impact/outcomes]’.  

  2. Commit to realization – If you are a leader, you value actual achievement and realization more than commitment to it. In too many orgs, we see the main discussions and interest around the plan – not the actual results. When you treat the plan and status updates as what’s important, that is what people will optimize. 

  3. Simplify and align success and objectives. Part of the reason that teams and managers are compelled to commit to everything is because there are many priorities and objectives that come from different sources. Simplifying objectives and goal setting as well as alignment and prioritization are key here. 

Though these sound simple, they can be difficult to do. There are many tactics, practices, and tricks to introducing and improving these things. Even more difficult will be making this change beyond your sphere of control. The key is to make the shift in whatever sphere of control that you have, while working to influence others. 

OKRs as an enabler to break the addiction. 

I don’t generally tout specific frameworks or practices so that we can have options to choose the frameworks or practices that help us become better. Then, we can keep focus on getting better and having greater impact versus being focused on the framework. However, the OKR framework has been gaining traction in recent years, and OKR initiatives done well (which may not be how they are commonly done) embody much of what I’m proposing here – a limited number of simple, clear, aligned objectives that further the top strategic priorities. These can provide powerful support for the sorts of prioritization decisions you will have to make. More on how OKRs can be used specifically may turn up in a future post.