Coping with initiative overload

This article originally appeared in Business Standard.

Companies can’t do without projects but a well-managed portfolio of initiatives can help them make better and faster decisions

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The company cure for initiative overloadThis weekly meeting took up 300,000 hours a year

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Organization

Initiative overload is an ailment that permeates nearly every large company. In our work, we come across this malady in companies across different sectors, sizes, and in entirely different business contexts, for example, growth versus turnaround.

The impact is debilitating across all such situations: not just directly on the firms results but also over time, and more perniciously, on the motivation and attitude of key executives. Think about it: your first day on a new job and you discovered that several initiatives affecting your unit were already under way. Over time your colleagues and superiors likely launched still more, and you might sponsor a few yourself. In this situation, executives are like swimmers buffeted by cross-currents coming from every direction. The result is a kind of fragmentation and you don’t have enough time to do anything well. Fortunately, initiative overload isn’t fatal. You may not escape it but you can learn to manage it.

Here’s a practical set of guidelines to prevent it when possible and mitigate its effects when not.

Managing your time

Guideline No. 1: Create a personal-time feedback loop. Review where you spend your time with data to determine the fit between time spent and your strategic priorities and then adjust your time allocation if necessary. This may sound daunting (and it is indeed not easy) but top executives follow such a procedure rigorously. I’ve got a spreadsheet, it has got a budget my time for the year, Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, told the Wall Street Journal. I give the budget allocation to my administrative assistants, they lay it all out and then anybody who asks for time, they say, Steve, this is in budget, it’s not in budget, how do you want us to handle it? A senior business leader in India has his executive assistant keep a rigorous track of time spent across different issues, people and departments and assesses the number at the end of every month to dial up or dial down his acceptance rate for new requests in subsequent months.

Lack of a personal-time feedback loop leads to a predictable result: People stay busy but don’t necessarily spend their time in the right way or on the right initiatives. The figure leadership team agenda and time usage shows the situation at one company we studied. About 80 per cent of the leadership team’s time went to issues that accounted for less than 20 per cent of the company’s value.

Guideline No. 2: Carefully define your responsibilities for each initiative. Understand what the expectations are and spell out how success will be defined and measured, both for the initiative and for yourself. Make sure that all this is documented in a project charter and in your personal deliverables. Figure out the resources you will need (both people and budget) to get the work done, and be sure you and your team are comfortable with the allocations.

Sometimes an organizational approach can help. When an IT services company embarked on an ambitious multiyear growth plan, the company defined KRAs for each central role. These KRAs were comprehensive and included documenting the role, a list of direct reports, critical organizational interfaces and each key initiative. It summarized goals and milestones the person in the role would be held accountable for, and listed the performance indicators that the various initiatives would track. Spelling it all out helped the individuals involved manage their time and helped the company keep its challenging plan on target.

Managing your involvement

Guideline No. 3: Delegate. Create freedom within a framework, so that you can balance the demands of initiatives with the requirements of your regular job. Everybody tries to delegate part of their work, but many people find that they then must micromanage the delegated tasks. The key to successful delegation is to establish a crystal-clear framework within which your direct reports can make certain decisions, and ensure that you see only decisions that fall outside of that framework.

Don’t forget the organizational imperative for good decisions: If you can establish clear decision processes and roles, you will speed any initiative on its way.

Guideline No. 4: Understand the what, who, how and when of critical decisions. This will enable you and your team to pace the work appropriately with the right people involved, drive the right level of detail at the right point in time and manage key stakeholders along the way.

Many companies initiatives get bogged down in the same way: They involve too many people, and no one is clear about his or her role. Specifying those roles helps everyone contribute more effectively.

At an Indian consumer goods client that we worked with, of the top 25 executives, 20 were assigned to more than eight initiatives each and, in many of these instances, it was not clear whether they were expected to provide inputs, review progress, make decisions, or be in some other role. Unsurprisingly, these initiatives came to be seen as a drag on people’s time and energy.

Guideline No. 5: Transparency and open communication. Be realistic about the effort you are putting in, the progress you are making and the impact you are having. If you need more time, ask for it. If you need more people, fight for them. If you need more budget, find places to get it. At the same time, be a good citizen in the opposite direction and give back if you can you have to make deposits if you want to make withdrawals.

Initiatives can overwhelm any executive, turning a great job into a dismal one. Companies can’t do without projects any more than they can do without meetings. But a well-managed portfolio of initiatives and thoughtful engagement with them on the part of each participant can help any company make better, faster decisions and thereby boost its performance.

Nikhil Prasad Ojha: Partner, New Delhi, & leader, Strategy practice, India, Bain & Company

Jenny Davis-Peccoud: Partner, London, & Leader, Organization practice, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, Bain & Company

Michael Mankins: Partner, San Francisco, & Leader, Organization practice, the Americas, Bain & Company