We’ve never felt so busy at work, and never been less engaged.
90% of people say they expect to find a substantial degree of joy at work, yet only 37% report that they do.
Many of our organisations remain afflicted by:
- Initiative-itis: The condition of mistaking busyness for productivity
- Vanity Projects: Things that only got pushed through because of seniority, overly generous funding or organisational arrogance.
- Zombie Projects: Things that look good on paper but don’t actually solve anyone’s problem – whilst costing a lot of (usually someone else’s) money.
All three are the result of ill defined objectives or poor impact evaluation.
Part of the issue is that there’s too much change in the wrong places. This is anti-productivity – when the organisation appears to be doing lots of good things but is actually achieving very little.
Change overload happens because every major department is trying to ‘make a name’ for themselves, adding layer upon layer of new initiatives.
Prioritisation , if it as done at all, is often done in silo. “We’re going to do these five or these 10 or these 20 initiatives.” As if anyone is good at 20 things.
With a surfeit of ideas, and the subsequent organisational complexity, a form of inertia sets in.
Two things can happen:
- Leaders literally don’t know where to start. So they don’t.
- With limited bandwidth to absorb all the change, people get burned out by everything coming towards them. People want to support these initiatives, there are simply too many of them to pay attention to.
Problem Definition As An Initiative Killer
Earlier this week I was with a colleague explaining the importance of problem definition. By way of example I dug out the notes of a session we had done over two years ago and was shocked to see how many problems we’d not yet begun to tackle.
It was a reminder to me that although we’ve got better at saying no to things, there’s still a journey to go on. Whilst we have got much better at circling around fewer problems we have to recognise that people are hardwired to seek out new things rather than spend time on purposeful contemplation and questioning.
The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the deeper you can go into them.
Do Fewer Things, Better
I can receive upwards of 30 new opportunities every week. I’ve tried to stick to a very simple way of prioritising.
1. Decide on what matters the most.
2. Say no to everything else.
If I can’t decide, between 1 and 2 I file it for a week then move it to 2.
No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.
The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.
If you focus on 8 or more priorities you will make some progress in all of them but will struggle to be game-changing in any of them.
Taming Initiative Overload
Initiativitis is not to be laughed at.
It means decreased employee engagement.
It means lost productivity.
It means people leaving for other jobs.
The first step to taming overload is to align people with the organisations stated strategy – that should kill off pretty much 50% of initiatives.
The second step is to ask people for a problem statement. Actually writing down the problem helps everyone better understand the complexity. It can be short too. We should be able to summarise the problem in fewer than 140 characters. Anything longer and people start going into the solution.
Finally , consider establishing a ‘change group’ in your organisation to keep track of the amount of ideas flying around. At Bromford we meet weekly as a kind of air traffic control centre, trying to make sure that existing initiatives are safely landed before we launch a load of new ones up into the sky.
Building a culture around problem definition, and saying no to distractions might not sound as sexy as innovation and ideation – but in truth they go hand in hand.