Killing Gators vs. Draining Swamp

All organizations find themselves in overload occasionally. It may or may not be something that you planned on. Even if you knew it was coming, times when there are not enough hours in the day take a toll. I am not referring to the occasional crunch that any business experiences. I am referring to a prolonged period when there simply are not enough resources to go around.

Here are a few thoughts I have picked up over the years from knowledgeable authors and talented leaders.

The most common thing I have heard is “When you are in a hole, stop digging!” One organization I met with last year had a backlog of work that was killing its members to get scheduled and delivered. The idea of easing up on what was a very aggressive sales process had never occurred to them, even though skilled (read: “expensive”) labor turnover on the front lines of delivery was running at 40 percent. So it is never a bad idea to look in the mirror and ask, “How are we contributing to this situation?”

Leaders generally know that if an overload situation is constant, it is time to add more resources, realign the workflow or otherwise make changes that will relieve (or at least reduce) the stress on the system. But knowing and doing are two different things. One VP recently told me that “the middle of a fire is no time to stop and look for a new fire engine.”

Of course, he is correct, but his department had been fighting this particular fire for three years. We have all heard the old saw about being so busy killing alligators that we forgot we were supposed to be draining the swamp. Unless or until you are willing to allocate resources to solving the root of the issue, long days and weekends are going to be standard operating procedure.

Often, organizations that suffer from full-time overload have challenges with communications at the top. Launching an employee engagement survey during the busiest quarter of the year and at the same time a new ERP system is going in and the office is moving will give any workforce heartburn and sleepless nights. Every project or initiative is important to its own sponsor, so top teams have to be willing to discuss, prioritize and schedule so as not to add too much overhead to an already challenging schedule.

Outsourcing is also a possibility. What are you doing internally that you could contract out to someone else? The lost margin might be a bargain if it brings workload under control and lowers burnout; yet management often cannot see beyond the price tag of outsourcing a part or process.

In “The Power of Full Engagement,” a landmark book published in 2003, Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr discussed how although people are largely built to work in short bursts and then rest, businesses often run as if they were in a marathon with no finish line. Their case for a more reasoned approach still makes good reading today — for both people and profits.

My favorite oddity (which will remain unattributed because the local CEO does not want his employees to know) is a simple email report. He gets a monthly email readout on the number of emails originated by hour by the 500-plus employees in his organization. “When I see too many emails being sent between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m., I know that, allowing for the occasional insomniac, we are unreasonably asking our people to burn the candle at both ends. So we start looking at staffing levels and project load to create some relief. This has been one of my most solid predictors of when it is time to rethink the way we are doing things.”

And while you are looking at the workload for the rest of the organization, you might have a gander at your own calendar and email log, just in case.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 16, 2016.