When working with a large IT function of a major government organization recently, a frequent complaint was the overwhelming amount of work to be done with not enough people and not enough time to get it done. What that looked like for the team was an ever growing number of requests from internal customers and limited resources to support legacy systems and implement new technologies. People were working such long hours that the leaders were genuinely concerned about burnout.
While some of what I’ve described is specific to IT organizations, I imagine we all can recognize certain elements of the story. Most of us can relate to working long hours and still not getting to what’s important, let alone all the things we would like to get to. And it’s even more unlikely that we’ll get to other important things, like spending time with the family, exercising, making time for ourselves and getting a full night’s sleep. We rarely feel like we’re on top of things. In fact, much of the time it feels like an achievement that we kept the wolf away from the door.
Going back to our IT example, there were many things the leaders in this organization did to impact the condition. First and foremost they tackled the three key levers of communication, collaboration and coordinated action.
In addition, they took a radical approach. They confronted the reality that they will never get it all done and stopped doing some things.
While this is easy to understand, and likely makes sense to most of us, very few of us actually take this approach. It often looks like there are important reasons to continue to try to do everything – there are dependencies, it’s a priority, so much time has already been invested, it’s near completion, etc. There is one largely unseen element that gets in the way the most: we live in a fantasy that we can get it all done if we really try.
Take a moment to consider your own experience – have you ever gotten it all done? Everything? Each of us is reliable for getting some small set of things done, and getting them done no matter what. But getting it all done? For the most part, we get to the end of the day with some important things not done. And, if we tell the truth, some of those important things that don’t get done today, never get done. What happens for us as individuals plays out similarly in organizations – the list of projects and initiatives just keeps growing. Things keep being added, but none are stopped.
We often ignore the reality of this. Instead, we live like we should get it all done. It’s a fundamental assumption we live inside of and we don’t question it. We can barely consider we won’t get it all done because if we didn’t, what would that mean about us? We end up thinking there’s something wrong with us that we’re not getting it all done, that we’re a failure in some way.
In reality, you and I will never get it all done. No matter how clever we are, no matter how hard we work, no matter how much we decrease the demands on us, we will never get it all done. It’s the same for our organizations.
So how do we get out of this trap? By making conscious choices about what we will not do. This is often the most difficult but at the same time the most freeing choice a leader can make.
Imagine for a moment – what would it be like if you made a choice that you would not do something and agreed it with all the parties involved? That something would no longer occupy any of you and your team’s attention and you would have greater ability to focus on what you have chosen to do. This ends up translating into greater productivity and performance. Expand this into an organization and this benefit is multiplied.
Back to our client. After several failed attempts at trying to stop doing some things, as everything seemed like a priority, the leaders of the IT organization identified and committed to shutting down several systems. They negotiated with the impacted customer organizations. The final sign off took several months from the items being identified, yet when it was done it was a landmark moment – nothing had been stopped like this before. They were encouraged and began to focus more fully on other items they saw as important that previously had only been able to get to marginally. Beyond this, they now have the experience that they have a say in what they do and don’t do. That experience of choice has left them with a greater experience of power and self-determination in the face of all of the work that is remaining.