One of the most common issues that gets in the way of achieving goals is too many projects. As driven leaders aspiring to be the best among our peers, there are always more things to do than money or time allows. But that doesn’t always stop us from trying to sneak as much onto the list as possible. We don’t want to fall behind. Who among us isn’t guilty of that?
Why do we overload our teams?
As educated leaders, it is not our intent to overload our teams. So why does it happen? The primary reason is we are trying to keep up—with peer companies, with technology changes and with customer demands. With the pace of change it is becoming harder. The implication here is that we should be keeping up. But I want to challenge that. If the goal is to surpass others, the approach needed is not to keep up and be similar but to differentiate. We don’t need to do everything everyone else is doing; we need to do what will make us more successful. It starts with a clear strategy.
A test for clear strategy
As Michael Porter groupies know, strategy is about choosing what to do and by default, what not to do. Clear strategy means knowing what should be prioritized. In fact, I often tell clients that a test for clear strategy is the ability to divide everything on your desk into three piles:
- ON strategy: These projects are helping the company achieve their strategic vision and goals. They may not be the most urgent but will move you forward the fastest.
- OFF strategy: These are great ideas for someone but not for you. They may be things competitors are doing, exalted as best practice, or something a particular customer has asked for, but, if they are not consistent with your strategy, say no. Southwest’s on board publication published a brief article about a well-meaning employee who said that customers would appreciate getting served meals on board and they should consider adding them to improve customer satisfaction. Work was underway on building a business case. The CEO stopped the work. As a low-cost airline, their goal was to improve satisfaction and the experience without adding expense and no meals was a conscious strategic decision made years ago.
- Rainy day: The third pile deserves to be reviewed every 6 months. These are the things that you are uncertain about. Either you don’t know enough to categorize them, don’t have enough resources to do them, or it just isn’t the right time.
Too many initiatives
Other causes of too many initiatives are strategic plans in which initiatives are generated by functional area rather than for the entire enterprise. Each manager wants to continue to improve their area—sales, operations, marketing, human resources—and there is a multiplier effect. It is not hard to get to 20 or more projects. The challenge is that many of them require the same resources for implementation such at IT, R&D, or business development. All of the projects get compromised and sub-optimized because there just aren’t adequate resources to support them all in the same time frame. Conversely, if organizations started with a clear strategic vision of the future and generated initiatives at the company level, asking each department what they must do to support those initiatives, there would be fewer total initiatives, more cross-company synergy, and a cleaner allocation of resources with less overload and backlog. Thus, improving the odds of success.
Leaders also need to discriminate between types of projects. With one client, after creating the company-wide growth initiatives, the other ongoing operational initiatives were added to the list. Now we had a very large number of projects, not all of which would drive growth but necessary from an operational point of view. How do you choose? We separated the projects by type —projects done to improve operational infrastructure and necessary for future growth and productivity; projects that were of the highest strategic priority and deserved resource investment; projects that were of strategic importance but would be done with current resources; projects that would impact strategic results but there were no available resources currently. The last group would be re-prioritized as resources allowed. The key here is to not let urgency be the primary driver. Rather, impact should be.
Too much with too little
The challenges of project overload are many and you probably know them well. Trying to do too many things with too little resources means few things work. A lot of effort for little gain. It is much more effective to do fewer, bigger things really well with clear resource prioritization. Typically results are much more significant. The kind of impact that can move the needle. To achieve that kind of culture we need to be sure we are not rewarding projects and people for activities completed but rather for results achieved.
Learn to prioritize
Leadership teams need an effective process in place, linked to their strategy, to identify and prioritize projects, and assign resources accordingly. There should be a requirement to understand the trade-offs in the project—expected results and the expected costs including the human capital one. In other words, what is the expected return? Department managers need to be trained to think about how their role supports the company agenda rather than focus on their department operation in a vacuum. All employees should understand what the company priorities are so they can give that work the attention it deserves. Finally, it requires discipline to stay the strategic course. It is not easy. Constant communication helps, including ongoing discussion of priorities with all levels and the celebration of saying no because it is a step toward success on other projects.