Bursting at the Seams: Managing a 50-pound workload in a 20-pound bag

Bursting at the Seams: Managing a 50-pound workload in a 20-pound bag

Sometimes we feel like we are stuffing 50 pounds of work into a 20-pound bag. Because leaders invent, delegate, and assign tasks, we will discuss a few things to consider when receiving or assigning work.

Assigning work

  1. Check your tendency to give more to the most reliable. A habit both common and intelligent in the abstract only becomes an issue when we provide the reliable person two jobs worth of stuff to do; they begin to wear down from the load, see quality fall below their standard, burn out, and leave. Check-in with these valuable folks and load balance to limit their responsibility to 1.25 jobs. They want the challenge and the ability to contribute at a higher level and can handle this modest overload.
  2. Stop assuming the team has the bandwidth for more and ask them instead. In his influential book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier asks the strategic question, if you're saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? At some point, the workload becomes a zero-sum game, and adding more to the pile diffuses focus and leads to late, lower-quality work. Sometimes, our essential work loses momentum and withers or dies, making the new shiny object the worst of bargains.
  3. Evaluate tasks with an eye on employee development. Most growth happens during stretch assignments, and using underutilized resources and talent to take on new projects can be a great way to expand their capabilities. This makes them more valuable and increases your team's effectiveness.
  4. Make the due dates make sense. We calculate how long it would take us to finish a task, add a day for a buffer, and set a due date without any discussion. Ask better questions: Is now the best time to do this work, or can it wait? When do I need this, and why? Can you comfortably meet the deadline without sacrificing other priorities if I assign you this? Is there somebody else that can do this that has more bandwidth?

Receiving work

  1. Create a 1-page sheet listing your essential priorities over the next 60 or 90 days. Establish a set of criteria to filter that list. Mine would include: 1. Work that serves external customers who pay our salaries 2. Activities that improve working conditions, tools, and equipment for our team to be healthy and productive 3. Process improvements that reduce our cost to serve. In a distant fourth are pet projects minimally related to our annual and strategic goals.
  2. Include a list of team members and use red for over 100% utilization during the period covered, yellow for 80 to 99%, and green for less than 80%. Precision isn't required. It need only be directionally accurate. At a glance, the boss and you can see where the capacity to do more stands.
  3. When a request to add work comes down the line, share this sheet with your boss and ask the strategic question above. "Boss, I/my team/we are at 110% capacity for the next 60 days on this list of priorities. You want a new project that requires these resources completed in 3 weeks. My best thinking is to stop number 3 on this list and move it to the right by five weeks. Is this acceptable to you, or do you have other thoughts?"

Some bosses don't care what it takes and want it done. This is rare. More commonly, bosses have little or no idea how much work is required to complete things, especially if the task requires cross-functional collaboration. We can help them by providing a simple visual guide (the 1-pager) that helps them connect to the collective challenge, inform our discussion, and determine viable alternatives.

Clarity doesn't guarantee the idea funnel will slow down, but it is a far better approach than assuming our boss should know or doesn't care. I became a better leader the day I stopped mindreading and started asking questions and having conversations. You will too.