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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #14 - Organizational Overload

By Glenn Lyday - February 2013

Organizational Overload

Despite what you might think, your employees don’t actually enjoy sleeping underneath their cubes at night. Your colleagues, and please don’t take offense to this, would probably rather be home watching American Idol with their families than be stuck in the office with you. And, even though your boss is the one that created this deadline, he likely doesn’t enjoy torturing you into working through the entire weekend. Likely.

And yet, here you all are. In the office. With your colleagues. On a Friday night. Slaving away on a presentation that will probably never be looked at, for a product that will probably go nowhere. But still, the work has to get done. And for many organizations — and possibly yours — that pile of work only continues to grow. You have 177 initiatives running simultaneously (make that 178 if you include the initiative to maintain the spreadsheet to track the other 177 initiatives), many of which are likely in direct conflict with one another. You may have grown used to it, but the fact remains that you are dealing with “organizational overload,” and the worst part of all…it is leading your organization to make some really bad decisions.

To be clear, I am not just talking about individual “busy-ness” — when you have the tendency to take on too much because you have a hard time saying no, or your particular personality type gets overloaded easily, or because you have a horrible micro-managing boss. I’m also not talking about the rush of activity during specific time-sensitive events. Every organization has board meetings, product releases, customer presentations, meetings with investors, or variations on these that will cause folks to scramble for a stretch of time. You can work to reduce the stress of these situations, but you will not be able to get rid of that stress entirely.

No, the problem I’m referring to is an ongoing burden that affects the entire organization. I’ve worked with several clients recently that continue to struggle with organizational overload. Most are well funded, with good products, bright and talented employees, even leadership teams that seem to have it together. But, these organizations are exhausted, and they can’t seem to say no to save their lives. It’s as if they are walking through the buffet-line of business decisions, constantly slopping more items onto their plates, never taking a moment to step back and realize that this might be why their pants don’t fit right. A client recently put it best, he said, “we’re just too busy around here to get any work done!”

Create Clarity
One of the best ways to cure yourself of overload is to create clarity for your organization. At The Table Group, we spend a lot of time working with executive teams on exactly this, and we are consistently surprised at how frequently teams are not aligned on answers to some basic questions about their business. Why do we exist? How do we behave? What do we do? What’s most important, right now? How will we succeed? Who will do what? The answers to these Six Critical Questions (from Pat Lencioni’s latest book, The Advantage) should provide the filter through which all significant decisions are made.

What happens after those questions are answered is even more critical. Now you’ve got to stick to it. Put a stake in the ground. Make the answers to those questions public to your employees. Put the answers in front of your leadership team at your weekly staff meeting, talk about them repeatedly with your employees, sing the answers in the shower, whatever it takes for it to sink in with you and your organization. Then eventually, throughout the organization, in every meeting or even casual discussion, employees and leaders should be able to ask, “Is this decision/project/initiative in line with who we are and the direction we are heading?” If you answer ‘no’ on anything, kill it immediately or decide what needs to happen in order to turn that answer to a ‘yes.’

Look Back
At this point, you will likely still have skeptics. You should fire those people. I’m kidding. But, there will be members of the leadership team or others within the organization who firmly believe you still must continue down every path in order to give yourselves the greatest chance of success. Folks that say “but, our customers demanded we make a 17th variety of dog food” or “of course it made sense for us to open that office in Baghdad.”

But, truly healthy organizations are really honest with themselves, even about the mistakes they’ve made in the past. Even the smartest, most successful leadership teams can look back and find a handful of bad ideas they’ve had, or bad decisions they’ve made. Done individually or in factions, this can come across as second-guessing and a lack of buy-in or commitment amongst team members. But, if done as a team, you should be comfortable, even compelled, to correct smaller mistakes before they become big mistakes.

So, try this at your next staff meeting with your entire team: take a look back over the past year and have everyone point out a project that you should not have taken on, an initiative that you should not have launched, a decision you added that you should have subtracted. By taking a look back, leadership teams are forced to have a more critical eye towards the decisions they’ve made, allowing them to make better decisions in the future. With the clarity you’ve created by answering the Six Critical Questions, it is easy to determine if those past decisions are measuring up.

Look Forward
Now comes the hard part. Look forward as a leadership team and ask yourselves, “What should we get rid of? What should we stop doing in order to ensure we succeed at the things we really need to do?” I encourage my clients to get into the habit, the discipline of saying ‘no’ to something. Great organizations are able to do this, and do it well. Intel famously made an enormous decision back in the mid-80s to get out of the memory chip business — the majority of its revenue at the time — and double-down on microprocessors. How do you think that worked out? Under Jack Welch, GE was forced into the discipline of ‘saying no’ to any business in which they could not be a market leader. It’s so easy to say ‘yes,’ particularly in an organizational culture where everything seems important. But, healthy organizations know the power of no, and are constantly evaluating their decision-making against the clarity that they’ve established.

What’s most important is how well you’re able to stick with it. Great organizations are able to avoid overload over time by maintaining the discipline to have these honest conversations amongst the leadership team. Not just when you see someone sleeping underneath his or her cube, or when the office is packed on a Sunday afternoon. But rather, having those conversations consistently, over time. Great decisions depend on it.