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strategy and business
 / Winter 2013 / Issue 73(originally published by Booz & Company)


Are You Your Employees’ Worst Enemy?

Saying No

The third step on the ladder of escaping the hindrance trap is accounting for the organizational capacity required along the pathways from intent to results. A good starting point is to decide which initiatives have outlived their usefulness and should be eliminated to make room for new programs. Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges make a strong argument for this approach in their April 2010 Harvard Business Review article “The Acceleration Trap.” Their notion of starting an initiative to kill initiatives resonates strongly. Far too many “walking dead” projects clog capacity in most organizations.

Once superfluous activities have been cut, leaders can allocate resources according to the priority of the remaining projects and initiatives. This requires the application of a consistent set of attractiveness criteria. Shape A/S, a highly successful Danish company that develops mobile applications, applies four criteria to all potential projects:

  • Does the project include a feature set that will deliver value to the customer?
  • Does the project provide interesting brand or marketing opportunities that deliver value to the company?
  • Does the project suit the current human resources on the team?
  • Does the client believe that the deliverable will be profitable?

On the basis of these criteria, projects are given red, yellow, or green status. As noted in “The View from Above: The Power of Portfolio Management” (Project Management Institute, April 2013), CEO Christian Risom allocates 80 percent of the company’s resources to pursuing projects that are rated green, even if it means saying no to big clients.

If the future of your company depends on the most important initiative, stop assigning people to focus on it only 15 percent of the time. Assign the right people to focus on the project full time, get it done, and then move on to the next project on the priority list. Effectively managing capacity means not just ensuring your employees aren’t overloaded, but ensuring that the right people are working on the right things at the right time. For example, you can use lower-priority projects as development opportunities for less experienced leaders. Proven high performers lose interest quickly in low-priority projects, but less experienced leaders will be eager to prove themselves.

Leaders don’t need to understand the complete details of how each project maps against organizational capacity. They do, however, need to be sensitive to the possibility that important new initiatives may conflict with existing workloads. Communicating clear intent, the “what and why,” isn’t sufficient for highly constrained organizations. Leaders must also state clear priorities and be willing to let go of some initiatives to make room for others.

No More Monkey Business

The fourth step in freeing yourself from the hindrance trap is to eliminate or rewrite unhelpful policies. Here, take a lesson from the monkeys that enforced their “no banana” policy because of the way things had always been done.

Two simple questions can help guide the process of eliminating or rewriting cumbersome policies. First, does the policy protect the organization from violating safety, legal, or regulatory standards? If the policy helps ensure compliance, leaders should still ask themselves if there is a better way to structure the policy to ensure compliance in the most efficient and effective way possible. Second, does the policy help focus talent and energy in ways that improve key business outcomes? If not, leaders should ask if the policy could be reconsidered.

For policies that do not involve compliance, it’s good to ask, “Is this a must-do or is it a preferred way of doing things?” One defense contractor implemented detailed policies on how to conform to certain government requirements. Before these policies were put into place, government auditors would simply assess the level of compliance to given product specifications. Once the company implemented these new policies, government auditors assessed the extent to which the company complied with product specifications and the extent to which the company complied with its own policies on how to achieve product specification compliance. The policy added significant product development time and resulted in an additional unintended consequence. The company could meet or exceed design specifications but still be out of compliance if it didn’t follow, to the letter, its policies on how to achieve compliance. Leaders recognized that the creation of such internal policies could be traced back to specific individuals reacting to isolated negative events that could be prevented through other means. Armed with this awareness, they began streamlining or eliminating certain policies in favor of achieving quality and compliance through a heightened focus on product and process design.

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  1. Heike Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, “The Acceleration Trap,” Harvard Business Review, April 2010: Clear thinking on how leaders can get out of the way by reversing the effects of initiative overload.
  2. Ken Favaro, “We’re from Corporate and We’re Here to Help,” s+b [online only], Apr. 8, 2013: Sound prescriptions for shifting from hindering corporate governance to focus on truly helping BUs sustain profitability.
  3. Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters (Random House, 2011): A straightforward way to think about crafting and implementing actionable strategies that overcome obstacles to success.
  4. For more thought leadership on this topic, see the s+b website at:
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