Protect the team from overcommitment


Protect the team from overcommitment

In every organization, there’s always more appetite for teams’ capacity than there’s the actual capacity out there. This often creates significant pressure on teams, pushes them to overcommit and actually leads to lower productivity. As a leader or team facilitator, you need to be well aware of this, to support high organizational performance. Let’s take a deeper dive into this important topic. 

The roots of overcommitment 

The mechanics of how the problem of overcommitment occurs can be different in different organizations, but it often has the same root cause underneath: those who request the work to be done usually have more authority than those who execute it. So, when someone comes to the team with a work request, but the team is already over capacity, they have to choices: A) to accept that work regardless of the capacity constraint and B) to say no… to someone with higher authority. And guess what most of the teams will do? They will pick option A and only add to their already overburdened schedule. But what will happen as a result is that the complex work that requires a lot of concentration and focused interaction of the team members, will get a lot less attention. Because of the overload and because team members will try to optimize their individual workload to accommodate for as many tasks as they can, there will be less opportunity for productive collaboration and instead a lot more context switching. Apart from this, constant pressure drives more defensive behavior and less creativity, which is critical to finding optimal solutions to complex problems. So, as a result, we get suboptimal solutions with suboptimal implementation. The implementation problems will then lead to rework in the future, automatically making the team’s productivity even lower. 

Finding the sweet spot

The amount of committed work and team performance are connected in a rather nonlinear way. When under-committed, the team cannot be as productive because they deliver less than they actually could. But when overcommitted, the performance is also low for the reasons we just described. So, you want to help your teams find the sweet spot where they can be most productive. But for that, some things need to be taken care of. 

The new working agreements

Since a big part of the problem comes from the fact that teams don’t have enough authority to say “no”, they need to be granted such authority and the stakeholders who bring the work to the team, need to know this. They need to know that the team will take only as much work as they have a proven capacity to effectively deliver. And beyond that they will not take work until their next timebox. And since there’s always more than enough work, there has to be a person (maybe it’s a product manager or product owner) whose responsibility is to prioritize work across multiple inputs from different stakeholders. The stakeholders need to understand that this is for everyone’s benefit, as this way the team is most productive and so, their work will ultimately get completed in a productive and fast manner and will not cause delays due to excessive rework, etc. The stakeholders must thoroughly understand the reasons and agree to the new working agreement.  

Routine, capacity-based work intake

Also, for this to work, the teams need to have a good way to account for their capacity. It’s best done as a part of a well-established work intake mechanism. For instance, the team may have a periodic work intake meeting with stakeholders—it may be done during their monthly or quarterly planning or backlog refinement sessions, for example. At this meeting, the stakeholders bring the work and the team provides the idea of what capacity do they have for the upcoming timeframe. The work from stakeholders gets prioritized and matched against the team’s capacity until it’s filled up. 

Taking action

Take one action item to improve the way your teams receive work. If well executed, your teams will be more productive.         

Alex Yakyma

Alex Yakyma is the author of “Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes” and “The Rollout”. As a consultant, Alex is helping enterprises succeed with complex challenges. Throughout his career, he operated in multi-cultural, highly distributed environments. Alex has trained a large number of change agents and leaders whose key role is to help their organizations achieve higher effectiveness at pursuing business outcomes.

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