Here is an excerpt from article written by Ron Ashkenas for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please visit firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The most common complaint that I hear from managers these days is that they simply have too much to do — and can’t get everything done without stretching and stressing themselves and their people. One explanation, of course, is that downsizing done over the past eighteen months has left many companies without the resources to support increasing levels of business. Another factor is that now, in the aftermath of the recession, many firms are rethinking how they do business, and driving these changes also requires extra effort.
While in some cases new hires or the use of consultants or temporary staff will relieve the pressure, the reality is that most organizations want to hold the line on expenses, and not add substantial resources. If that’s your situation, then you need to think about alternative ways to manage the overload. Here are a few options to consider:
[Here are two.]
• Review the workload across strategic priorities. If you have many projects going on simultaneously, all of which are considered high priority, take a hard and holistic look at the subinitiatives that flow out of these projects. Most projects are like trees — with branches of various sizes sprouting from the trunk of the project. This means that even if you have only five or six key strategic projects, you still might have dozens of subinitiatives, many of which call upon or affect the same people. Often managers look at each strategic project in isolation. Instead, take a more comprehensive view, perhaps with the help of a centralized project management organization (PMO), to identify opportunities for combining, deferring, or resequencing the subinitiatives.
• Eliminate zombie projects. In large organizations, it is very common for people to keep working on projects that have been “killed” or have not been officially commissioned — and that are not currently priorities. These “below the radar screen” efforts often stem either from an emotional connection to a cancelled project (and not wanting to let it go) or a well-meaning attempt to get out in front of an issue that hasn’t yet risen to a strategic level. Whatever the case, these projects drain resources and need to be nailed back in their coffins.
In the current economic environment, almost all managers will probably feel that they have too much on their plates at some point. Since additional resources may not be forthcoming, the best approach will be to focus not only on reducing the volume of work but also on recalibrating the process we use to get that work done.
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Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Robert H. Schaffer & Associates and a co-author of The GE Work-Out and The Boundaryless Organization. His latest book is Simply Effective.
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(Editor’s note: This post is part of a six-week blog series on how leadership might look in the future. The conversations generated by these posts will help shape the agenda of a symposium on the topic in June 2010, hosted by HBS’s Nitin Nohria, Rakesh Khurana, and Scott Snook. This week’s focus: values.)
Are values an essential ingredient of leadership?
Amongst those who study such matters, one school of thought says no, that leadership is a simple matter of power and influence, regardless of why or how that power and influence is used. From this perspective, a leader is someone who has followers, and a great leader is someone who has a lot of followers. The matter of whether that leader marches those followers off a cliff or towards a more perfect and sustainable society is secondary or irrelevant.
This view leads naturally to what I’ll call the “Gandhi/Hitler problem.” Gandhi had a great many followers, but so did Hitler. If leadership is essentially a matter of power and influence, then both individuals must be deemed great by virtue of the fact that they both changed history and influenced the lives of millions. For anyone with a moral compass and respect for human dignity, however, that’s an uncomfortable — actually, a repugnant — assertion.
There is, of course, a different perspective: that leadership is all about values. That in order to understand leadership, you must consider where an individual is going, and why and how he or she is going there. An individual with tremendous influence who offers flawed diagnoses of communal challenges, “solutions” that fail to address real problems, and who operates with a fundamental disrespect for human dignity and interdependence is, actually, not a leader at all. In contrast, an individual whose influence extends no further than immediate family, friends, and local community may well be a leader, if he or she is devoted to improving the human condition — at any scale. But whose values, then? And what exactly does it mean to “improve the human condition?” After all, Hitler had values, and saw himself as working for a “better” Germany. Any attempt to assert that some values should be elevated over others generates controversy and debate, creating a quagmire of moral relativism. Reasonable people may be inclined to throw up their hands and decide to walk away from the values question altogether.
That would be a terrible mistake. Here at City Year, we insist that it is simply impossible to live and work together without shared values. Michael Brown, our CEO and Co-Founder, has written that “without widely held shared values, our society will come apart. In particular, if we do not deliberately provide our young people with powerful, positive values, they will often receive powerful negative values by default.”
Despite the controversy and debate around values, a strong case can be made that widely shared values can be identified. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is an example of a value that echoes across all the world’s major religions and informs civic values in both East and West. “Great Spirit! Grant that I will not criticize my brother or sister until I have walked a mile in his or her moccasins” is a Native American prayer that resonates with the wisdom of communities across the globe.
However, perhaps the most compelling example of a widely held value is service. The importance and nobility of dedicating one’s time and energy to serving a community or cause greater than oneself shatters cultural, racial, religious, ideological, and geographic boundaries. The commitment to serve others unites individuals who would otherwise never connect, creating the type of bonds, understanding, and insight that can only come from working together side by side in pursuit of the greater good.
This is the understanding of leadership that informed Martin Luther King’s statement that “Anyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” King understood that leadership is not exercised by just a few “great men” with formal authority; it can potentially be exercised by anyone, no matter how modest or elevated their station in life. That sentiment is echoed by Robert Kennedy in his assertion that “few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please visit email@example.com.
Max Klau is Director of Leadership Development at City Year, Inc.
In this book, Laura Vanderkam rigorously follows what Albert Einstein recommends: “Make everything as simple as possible…but no simpler.” For example, in the first chapter, she suggests, “Picture a completely empty weekly calendar with its 168 hourly slots.” She then helps her reader to document his or her (the reader’s) current allocation of time. She achieves that objective as well as each of her other primary objectives such as disabusing her reader of major misconceptions about how much time (on average) people spend on sleep, work, and leisure time components. While doing so, she cites real-world examples (i.e. real people in real time) that both illustrate and confirm basic strategies that produce more and more enjoyable as well as better, and achieved sooner, in less time. She also identifies the core competencies that her reader must develop and then leverage to achieve that same objective. She is at her best when explaining how to determine what the “right job” is, what it requires, and how to obtain it.
[She cites Teresa Amabile’s admonition, “You should do what you love, and you should love what you do.” If that doesn’t suggest what a “right job” is, I don’t know what does.]
Vanderkam also explains how to control investment of time so that “there should be almost nothing during your work hours – whatever you choose those to be – that is not advancing you toward your goals for the career and life you want”; how to determine what the “next level” of personal and professional development looks like and how to “seize control” of the schedule while completing a transition to that level; and what a “breakthrough” is and how to achieve it to expedite the transition process. Vanderkam believes, and I fully agree, that our lives proceed through a series of levels above or below, better or worse than where we were previously; the journey to each should be one of personal discovery; and that it is important to know what we value most but we must realize that priorities change at various points in our lives as circumstances, relationships, obligations, and aspirations change. Each life is, quite literally, a “work in progress.”