The company cure for initiative overload

The company cure for initiative overload

Four guidelines that can help control this common ailment.

  • min read


The company cure for initiative overload

This article originally published in

If you work for a large company, you may be suffering from a common ailment: initiative overload. You don’t have enough time to do anything well. You don’t have the bandwidth to absorb what you need to absorb. Fortunately, the ailment isn’t fatal. You may not escape initiative overload, but you can learn to manage it. Here are four guidelines to prevent it when possible and mitigate its effects when not.

Guideline No. 1 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,” said Steve Ballmer, who until recently was CEO of Microsoft. “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?’” Without such a budget, people stay busy but don’t necessarily spend their time on the right initiatives. The figure below shows the situation at one company we studied: About 80% of the leadership team’s time went to issues that accounted for less than 20% of the company’s value.


Guideline No. 2: Carefully define your responsibilities for each initiative that passes the time-management test. Understand what the expectations are. 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 or development plan for the year. Then figure out the resources you will need (both people and budget) to get the work done. Be sure you and your team are comfortable with the allocations and can shed other responsibilities as necessary.

Guideline No. 3 is simple but often underutilized: Delegate. The key to successful delegation is to establish a crystal-clear framework within which your direct reports can make certain decisions, so that you see only decisions falling outside of the framework. A major insurance company, for example, had put its head of human resources in charge of a number of significant initiatives. Yet it also expected her to make compensation decisions for new hires above a certain level. She couldn’t do everything, so the company ended up with a bottleneck in hiring. Then the company worked with the head of HR to reset the decision process: She established the compensation framework for senior hires and delegated individual decisions to the managers involved. That gave her more time for her initiatives.

Don’t forget guideline No. 4: 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 (and only the right people) involved. When a pharmaceutical company took a closer look at some of its key decisions, it realized that 60% involved more than four committees or teams, and some of them eight or more. 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.

Initiatives can overwhelm any executive, turning a great job into a dismal one and a thriving unit into a laggard. 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.

Jenny Davis-Peccoud, a Bain & Company partner based in London, leads Bain’s Organization practice in Europe, the Middle East and Africa and also the firm’s Global Social Impact practice. Michael Mankins leads Bain’s Organization practice in the Americas and is a partner in San Francisco. He is coauthor of Decide & Deliver: 5 Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (Harvard Business Review Press, 2010). Jeff Denneen is a partner with Bain’s Atlanta office and leads the firm’s Higher Education practice.


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