Exposing the Myth of “Doing More With Less”

We first heard it in the early 00s–Executives and Managers saying, “We’ll just have to do more with less.” Well-intentioned at first, for some it soon became a poor alternative to managing effectively. While in specific situations the statement can be temporarily true, in most cases, we believe that those who proclaim and perpetuate the myth that this is an appropriate way to manage a workgroup, department or enterprise, are demonstrating their failure to manage.

What triggers this commentary is a recent workshop we performed for a customer we have worked with for over 22 years. We have seen them flex, grow, improve, and cut back, all in response to market conditions, the shape of their business, and their sense of coming business pressures. We did discuss the dangers of the “more with less” message with Executives and Managers 8 years ago, and with just a few exceptions, they have fortunately not fallen into that trap during this latest downturn. But in my recent sessions in this industry-leading business, we detected something sinister and terrifying.

While employees we encountered demonstrate strong loyalty to the organization, and show a sense of strong rapport up and down the chain of command, we detected individual contributors, project managers and managers alike who are overwhelmed and exhausted. People who have prided themselves on the quality and efficiency of their work in the past, are now deciding which essential project results will be eliminated or reduced; which project double-checks to push into post-project support; which internal customers to choose to fail to respond to. We have seen this death spiral before.

Jobless Recovery
Many organizations are facing this dilemma, in part because of the uncertainty in the US, between politics, consumer spending, the high unemployment rate, the threat of possible hyperinflation, and the unknowns in the next set of policy decisions that will affect business. These concerns are the root cause of this Jobless Recovery, as businesses are afraid to add staff to meet current demands, so they continue to manage increasing business with existing, or remaining staff. And even when they are not using the tired “more with less” mantra, that is what it looks like to their employees. And, if you think this only affects project success, this affects the operations side even more than the projects side of the business.

How To Honestly Do More With Less
In the early 2000s, as we starting hearing the “More With Less” mantra with increasing frequency, we put together a presentation, aimed at Managers and Executives, about “Doing More With Less.” In that presentation, we made a number of assertions, including that most managers who proclaim the need to do more with less were usually rewarded with much less with less. In other words, they were killing efficiency and effectiveness, overworking already exhausted team members, damaging morale more, negatively affecting the quality of the organization’s results more, and damaging the business unit’s or government agency’s reputation more. We’re not sure that is the more they were after.

We went on to coach Managers in the ways they really can do more with less. Interestingly (or not), the same Successful Project Climate guidelines we have recommended for years remain the best way to measurably do more with less—on a sustaining basis—and sustainability has been a recent theme in project management, so it makes sense to apply it to managing projects:

  • Prioritize better, then staff fewer current projects appropriately, completing each one better, faster and at lower cost, rather than fragmenting talent across too many projects.
  • Place team members full-time on large projects, at least half-time on medium ones (see The Successful Project Profile at the ProjectExperts website).
  • Eliminate project and ready response priority conflicts.
  • Eliminate, deflect or defer unnecessary interruptions in project work.
  • Position Managers to “carry the water” for the team, pushing barriers out of the way, and demonstrating that the organization works for the team, rather than vice-versa.
  • Measure and manage both effort and results, and recognize and reward achievements.

Nothing more than competent Managers of Project Managers and their teams have done all along, but these actions are even more important in difficult times. Most practitioners understand that while teams could perhaps, at peak, produce 10%-20% more results, Managers, internal Customers and Executives have the power to improve performance by 2x–4x in individual projects, and 8x—10x in the overall organization over a 3-5 year period. Now that is an honest and measurable way of Doing More With Less.

By Stacy Goff, IPMA VP of Marketing & Events