While most managers complain about being overloaded with responsibilities, very few are willing to give up any of them. It’s one of the great contradictions of organizational life: People are great at starting new things — projects, meetings, initiatives, task forces — but have a much harder time stopping the ones that already exist.
Take this example: The CEO of a large consumer products company was concerned that the organization was becoming too complex and unwieldy — which was adding to costs and slowing down decisions. After a long discussion with her senior team, everyone agreed to identify committees, projects, and studies that could be stopped across the firm. However, when the executive team reconvened the next month to review the ideas, everyone pointed out activities that other teams should stop instead of opportunities in their own domains. They then spent an hour justifying why everything that they were doing was critical and couldn’t be stopped.
There are several deep psychological reasons why stopping activities is so hard to do in organizations. First, while people complain about being too busy, they also take a certain amount of satisfaction and pride in being needed at all hours of the day and night. In other words, being busy is a status symbol. In fact a few years ago we asked senior managers in a research organization — all of whom were complaining about being too busy — to voluntarily give up one or two of their committee assignments. Nobody took the bait because being on numerous committees was a source of prestige.
Managers also hesitate to stop things because they don’t want to admit that they are doing low-value or unnecessary work. Particularly at a time of layoffs, high unemployment, and a focus on cost reduction, managers want to believe (and convince others) that what they are doing is absolutely critical and can’t possibly be stopped. So while it’s somewhat easier to identify unnecessary activities that others are doing, it’s risky to volunteer that my own activities aren’t adding value. After all, if I stop doing them, then what would I do?
The final reason that unnecessary tasks continue is that managers become emotionally attached to them. We see this often with “zombie projects,” activities that are seemingly killed or deprioritized but somehow keep going because managers just don’t want to let go. Once people have invested in creating projects, committees, or processes, they feel a sense of ownership. Getting rid of them is like killing their own offspring.
Given these powerful underlying dynamics, what can you do to stop excessive activities in your own organization? Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
Separate cost-reduction from work-reduction. Since people are naturally (and understandably) protective of their livelihoods and careers, it’s difficult to ask them to do things that will result in the loss of their own job. So if cost-reduction is a key driver, try your best to eliminate jobs first. Only then should you work with the “survivors” to eliminate the unnecessary work.
Make work elimination a group activity. While managers are hesitant to point out stoppage possibilities in their own areas, they often can see opportunities elsewhere. By bringing teams together across different business units and functions, you stand a better chance of surfacing activities that can be brought to a halt.
Insert a “sunset clause” in the charter of all new committees, teams, and projects. Instead of swimming against the tide in trying to stop ongoing endeavors, make the shut-down process a natural event in the life cycle of organizational activities. If people know from the start that there is a beginning and an end, then managers will start to expect that things will be turned off at a specific time and can plan accordingly.
All organizations need to periodically hit the “off” button on activities that add unnecessary costs and complexity. Doing so however requires that you deal with the psychological dynamics that make it easier to get things started than to get them stopped.
(Ron Ashkenas, Managing Partner of Schaffer Consulting & an Executive-in-Residence at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, HBR, March 2013)