Initiative Overload: Why Organizations Can’t Get Anything Done

I’ve been talking a lot lately about how technology advances are affecting the workplace. Organizations unprepared for the rate of these changes, or how these new technologies are changing the way we manage performance, no doubt will be left behind. But there is another issue at stake: how can we possibly cope with new technology when we have trouble getting work done now.  Surely new technology can help if you only had the time to learn it. 

In today’s 24/7, rapid-change world, we are bombarded with more work on our to-do lists than we can possibly handle. There’s just not enough time to do it all. You know the drill. Suddenly you’re confronted with three new projects – all of them high-priority. And meanwhile, you need to finish the report that’s been sitting on your desk for two days.

For employees on the front line, it can feel like batting flies all day as they are inundated with high- priority messages from multiple departments. Workers at a global financial services call center, for instance, have to wade through 40 or more messages on operational, financial, customer experience and human capital metrics every day.

People at the top don’t necessarily have it any easier. In fact, a Bain & Company study showed that more than 80 percent of a leader’s time is spent on only 20 percent of what is most valuable to an organization. In my experience, many leaders are facing the same dilemma: too much distracting them from what truly matters.

Meanwhile, technology that is supposed to simplify our lives is only adding to the overload. Now, in addition to everything else, we need to be tweeting, blogging, texting, emailing, updating databases, staying current on technology, and on and on. It’s exhausting!
But, what can be done?

It begins with identifying and reducing the behaviors that lack business impact while emphasizing those that make a difference. For more than 100 years, the science of behavior has taught us that you get what you reinforce. Understanding and applying behavioral tools and principles (i.e. the science of behavior) throughout your organization will give you a competitive advantage unmatched by anything else you can do.  Here are some other things you can do to make the workplace more productive and less chaotic:

  • Ensure your infrastructure is innovation-friendly. Make it easy to obtain funds, space and time for innovation. Eliminate red tape for getting approvals.  Try many things.  3M is a master at this and recently received its 100,000th patent.
  • Schedule time for thinking.  Creative problem solving, uninterrupted project work and coaching direct reports can increase when people are not pressured by high workloads and productivity.
  • Spend more time listening and less time telling. An engaged workforce will always produce more than a disengaged one. Listening and acting quickly on what you hear is one of the keys to building a culture of engagement.  How quickly you act is as important as the idea acceptance rate.  Don’t dally.  Make decisions quickly even if the decision is to reject the idea.
  • Keep the focus on ideas that are valuable.  Keep asking how the idea will help increase the bottom line.   Ideas that can’t demonstrate this link do not need to be rejected but may get a “not now” priority.

In the face of rapid change, the company that embraces these ideas will not flounder among the shoals of busywork. In a culture where leadership helps employees to be engaged and productive, employees, in turn, will produce beyond their set goals.

For more on how to avoid initiative overload, I encourage you to download an article written by Tom Spencer, “7 Steps for Avoiding Initiative Gridlock.”