We know at least one or two people who are bitter about being asked to “do more with less.” We understand. If you are asked to keep doing the same stuff, but with less money and manpower, it feels like your only options are to work faster or longer, which after a point is ridiculous. One reader of Government Executive magazine reacted to the President Obama’s (April 2012) call for leaner government (April 2011) by sputtering, “[Doing] ‘more with less’ just makes those who are left to do the work overburdened, underappreciated, and ready to call it quits!” And that sentiment isn’t confined to the public sector.
Unfortunately, the other sentiment we’ve seen in spades is: “You cut my budget by twenty percent? Fine. I’ll cut my output by twenty percent. Whadya expect?! You poke me in the eye, I’ll poke you back.”
Sorry. That’s not the way the world works anymore. Whether it’s iPods or airlines, we all have to up our game to stay in the game.
Granting that there are usually plenty of efficiencies to be gained through Lean techniques, Six Sigma, TQM, and all the variants, we’d suggest that anyone facing a belt tightening first consider answering these three pointed questions:
Question #1: “What’s the point?” We mean, what’s the point of your team, your organization, your project, or your process? One smart admiral we know once remarked, “Before doing anything else, leaders have to ask the existential question, ‘Why does my organization exist?’” He’s right.
Another leader recently commented, “My people think the point of their job is to do safety inspections. It isn’t. The point of their job is to ensure safety.” If he can get them to figure that out, their work will look substantially different (and more meaningful). Some of their busy-ness can drop away, once they know what business they’re in.
“What’s the point?” can’t be dismissed as just another way of getting at the old “effectiveness-before-efficiency” dictum. We think the question is conceptually at least one level higher. Furthermore, a thoughtful answer to that question provides extraordinary leverage for anyone who wants to achieve impact. If military strategist Clausewitz was right that the essence of strategy is to concentrate one’s forces on the “decisive point,” then one sort of decisive point worth knowing is the point of one’s organization.
Question #2: “How will I know when I’ve achieved the point?” This question is aimed at getting you to state your point so clearly that you and everybody else involved will know exactly what a home run looks like. Social scientists would then say that you have achieved high inter-rater reliability: everybody can agree whether something is happening. Obviously, this is the very opposite of “I’ll know it when I see it.” Or, “Bring me a rock.”
For example, if the point of a helpdesk department were, say, to “maximize the productivity of our users,” then they would be pointed in a good direction. At least they know that their job ultimately about users, not technology. But without a clearer finish line, quite a lot of time and money could be spent in the service of “maximizing productivity.” We’ll defer to our more tech-savvy readers, but we imagine one useful clarification might be something such as, “Users will experience at least 99% uptime for their computers and their smartphones.” Or, if you don’t mind polling people (we don’t), “None of our users will report that their work was delayed due to technological breakdowns or outages.” That finish line might drive slightly different behavior than the first one, which might be good.
When the point of your organization is as sharp as we are describing, we call it an “indisputable result.” Indisputable results are the antidote to those zombie corporate initiatives and government programs that keep growing – or multiplying – without delivering any more benefits. Almost always, “the point” is an ill-defined jumble of bureaucratic gobbledygook that is neither a “result” nor “indisputable.”
Question #3: “What can we stop doing that doesn’t achieve the point?” The people who whine hardest about being asked to do more with less seem to be the ones who have the hardest time letting go of work. We don’t mean “cutting back on existing effort.” We mean letting go of it: stopping, ceasing, and halting entire categories of activity. If activities don’t help achieve “the point,” then they are pointless.
The Prize: Answering these three pointed questions nets this prize: It frees people to focus on what they need to accomplish; it makes their doing more meaningful, more focused on what actually matters. And with that kind of focus, it’s amazing how creative, resourceful, and energized people can be. Yes, people can even accomplish more with less, if only they understand the point.
We held a “Results Roundtable” for one senior leader and his team. He cautioned us in advance: “This is going to be a short discussion. Everybody knows what we’re here for.” Well, it wasn’t a short discussion and it wasn’t at all clear that his team understood as well as he did what they were supposed to accomplish. Afterward, he said it was the best such session he could recall. “Why’s that?” we asked. “Because now we’re all focused on the right things and can stop doing the things that don’t matter.” Yep.