Stuck in the Middle: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Tradeoff Decisions in an Org that is ‘Addicted to More’​

Many managers face a conflict that encourages them to do something that’s not in the best interests of their company, its customers, and its employees. 

In a previous post, ‘Addicted to More’, I shared thoughts about a problem many organizations suffer from – the condition of being compelled to do more – at any cost, without consideration for other things (like value, impact, or the like).  In this post I share a real example of how the ‘addiction to more’ takes effect in an organization and begin to explore ways out.

A True Story

A few months ago, in a company dealing with the ‘addiction to more,’ a colleague of mine observed an amazing thing.  

A senior level manager, Pat, had multiple teams in their group and recognized that the teams needed to make some kind of tradeoff. The teams were signed up for much more work than they could accomplish over the next few months in even a best-case scenario. Pat did what a good manager and leader should: 

  • Quantified and clarified the problem with good measures of past capacity and results, compared that to the amount of work they were signed up for. There was little doubt they were significantly overcommitted. 

  • Prioritized the work by assessing the value/importance of the work to which they were committed. 

  • Identified several options to make tradeoffs, focusing on highest value work, allowing teams to do quality work, and not burn people out. Not to mention, get more throughput than if they had kept the full commitment.  

Pat went to the Vice President to get support for one of these options to defer low value work, focus on high value work, and ensure sustainable pace for the team. Pat had the story straight, data to back it, and the confidence and support from the teams (not to mention their training and experience) that this was a good thing to do.  

If I were that VP, I would have been thinking: “Finally! A manager that shows courage and the intent to do quality work for customers, inspire their teams, get more value for the customers and business, and take initiative to come up with options.” This is exactly the kind of behavior that will allow this company to break out of the endless slog of ‘more’ they are stuck in. 

Did the VP respond with appreciation? Engage with this manager to choose the best of the options? Help the manager to challenge their own assumptions and identify even more options?  That’s not what this leader did. Instead, the VP’s response was (highly paraphrased): 

 “Your peers aren’t complaining about having too much to do. They’re getting it done. Why can’t your teams get it done, too?”  – VP

I can only imagine that Pat was crushed. I would be – if I had done this work with my teams to come up with good options to get more value, identified and quantified a real problem that everyone’s dealing with, and had the courage to bring this up with the VP, and stand for what was right and would get the results that our company’s leaders claim they want. Instead, the VP (who also decides Pat’s review & comp) shut Pat down with the response above which questioned Pat’s & the team’s capability, Pat’s judgement and character.   

Leaders’ actions in response to courageous acts of their people are the ink that unwritten rules in your organization are written in. They perpetuate fear and the ‘addiction to more.’   

This is Likely Your Problem Too

Many of your managers may be stuck in a conflict they can’t escape: do what’s right for their teams and their company, or do what will keep them safe.   

The Middle Manager Conflict Scenario  

Your teams have too much to do. They are committed to far more work than they can get done. You know it, the teams know it, and the data shows it. They’re committed to so much that no one refutes it – despite debates about how we measure an estimate.   Unfortunately, it’s not discussed. What should you do?

What’s Right (The Good)  

Generally, a good approach would be to scrutinize their priorities and make good tradeoff decisions so that teams can focus and get as much of the highest-value stuff done as possible. This is because committing to too much:

  • wastes significant time

  • lowers quality

  • demoralizes people

  • ultimately results in getting less done and providing less value

What’s Safe (The Bad) 

You could disregard the problem and keep the commitment to do it all. Add to it when even more comes in. Don’t expose the problem or need to focus and make decisions to defer some things. Because, exposing that your teams have too much to do: 

  • gives the appearance that your team can’t get the job done – to leadership, peers, and others 

  • gives the appearance that you can’t get the job done – to leadership, peers, and others 

  • can be viewed as a sign of weakness and maybe even incompetence 

What Makes the Choice Easy (The Ugly) 

 There are some ugly conditions in your organization that make the decision really easy: 

  • Your bonus is decided by your boss – who cares about how much we get done on time 

  • Most of the problems from overcommitting will take a while to show up, and will be very difficult to trace to me or my team 

  • No one else is talking about overcommitment openly or making significant tradeoffs 

  • Senior leaders seem to only want ‘more.’ They are talking about ‘execution’ and ‘making it happen’ and the like – not ‘focusing on the top priorities and deferring the bottom ones’  

The Decision  

Given all this, the decision is clear. Put the blinders on. Bury your head. Hope it will all work out. If you do this, then: 

  • You won’t look bad to your managers, peers, or others 

  • Your team won’t appear inferior to the other teams 

  • You’ll be marching to the beat of the same drum as others 

 “Theirs was not to make reply, theirs not to question why, theirs but to do and die” – Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade 

The Unfortunate Consequences of This Decision

  • Quality will decrease resulting in increased technical debt (but not immediately) 

  • Employee morale will decrease leading to poor employee engagement, and ultimately higher attrition (but not immediately) 

  • The teams won’t get it all done anyway. In fact, they will probably get less done than they would have if they had focused (but no one will know)  

Fortunately, you are not accountable or responsible for these consequences – right? That’s why it was an easy decision to make.  

Responsibility  

Solving this problem requires concerted work on many levels. This points to potentials paths out of the mess that are straightforward to understand, but trickier to implement. One such path is ‘simply’ addressing overcommitment whenever it occurs.  All three of the conditions below are required to make this work: 

  1. Teams need to learn about this problem, be transparent about capacity and the amount of work they’re signed up to do.

  2. Managers need to learn about and acknowledge the problem, help teams come up with options to defer while maximizing value delivery, and either make decisions or champion the options with those who need to make the decisions. 

  3. More senior leaders need to learn about and acknowledge the problem, make decisions based on the options that they are given, and ensure that this work is encouraged/rewarded – so that it can happen again.

Easy, right? Isn’t that what they should be doing?  Maybe, but #2 and #3 can be notoriously difficult to do in practice – for reasons like the ones shared earlier.  

Sustaining Change 

If we try to use the approach above, there is an important body of work that will be needed: work on the system – the organization itself. You will run into organizational problems that will need to be fixed in time – unwritten rules, goals or measurements that encourage overcommitment, fear and the like. But if it’s important to you and your company, you’ll find a way. And if you do, people will be happier, get better work done, get more of the high value work done sooner, not waste time on low value work, and you’ll probably get ‘more’ done.

We will be exploring this topic further soon – diving further into the problem & its causes, the reasons why it’s so pervasive, the impact, and also the ways we can overcome it. I encourage you to share your experiences and requests!