World Economic Forum

Four ways to avoid being overloaded at work

Four ways to avoid being overloaded at work

A well-managed portfolio of initiatives can help you (and your organization) make better, faster decisions and boost performance.

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Four ways to avoid being overloaded at work

This article originally appeared on World Economic Forum.

Whether you work at a large multinational, a midsize company, a university or a nonprofit, at some point you will face a common ailment: initiative overload. New to the job? You’ll soon discover that several initiatives affecting your unit are already under way. Yet every month your boss launches another. And whether you're a newbie or a veteran, you might sponsor a few initiatives yourself.

Suddenly, you feel like a swimmer buffeted by currents coming from several directions. You don’t have enough time to do anything well. You don't have the capacity to absorb what you need to absorb, and you are drowning in a sea of activity with little outcome. Fortunately, the situation isn't fatal if you learn how to manage it. Based on our work with clients in many industries and regions, my Bain colleagues and I offer four guidelines to avert overload when possible, or to mitigate its effects when it’s not.

The first is simple: Create a personal-time feedback loop. Review where you spend your time, determine the fit between time spent and your strategic priorities, and adjust your time allocation if necessary. “I've got a spreadsheet, it’s got a budget—my time for the year,” Steve Ballmer told The Wall Street Journal when he was CEO of Microsoft. “I give the budget allocation to my administrative assistants, they lay it all out and then [to] 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?’” Without such a budget, you won't necessarily spend your time on the right initiatives. Be sure to align with your boss on the budget.

Second, carefully define your responsibilities for each initiative that passes the time- management test. Understand what the expectations are, and how success will be defined and measured for both the initiative and yourself. Document this in your personal deliverables or development plan for the year. Then figure out the resources you will need to get the work done, and get senior management’s commitment to provide them. Be sure you and your team agree on allocations and can shed other responsibilities as necessary.

Third, delegate. To manage several initiatives at once, you will need your team’s strong support. The key here is to be crystal clear with your direct reports about which decisions they can make, so you deal only those that truly require your time and attention.

One insurance company, for example, had assigned its head of HR to oversee a number of big initiatives. Yet the company also expected her to make compensation decisions for new hires above a certain level. Because she couldn't do everything, the insurer ended up with a hiring bottleneck. The HR executive worked with her boss and peers to reset the decision process. She established the compensation framework for senior hires and delegated individual decisions to the managers involved, giving her more time to work on her initiatives.

Finally, establish clear decision processes and roles. Understanding the what, who, how and when of critical decisions and actions will enable you and your team to pace the work appropriately with the right people. A bad decision process will suck enormous amounts of time out of your day. At an Indian consumer goods company we worked with, of the top 25 executives, 20 were assigned to more than 8 initiatives each, and it was rarely clear whether they were expected to provide inputs, review progress, make decisions or take on other roles. Specifying roles helps everyone contribute more effectively while freeing up significant amounts of time.

Having too many initiatives can turn your great job into a dismal job and turn a thriving business unit into a lagging unit. That’s why a well-managed portfolio of initiatives—and each participant’s thoughtful engagement with them—can help you (and your organization) make better, faster decisions and boost performance.


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