As I was preparing to facilitate a senior management team retreat and planning session I came across an excellent Harvard Business Review article on the huge problem of frantic busyness and priority overload. This was especially timely since the executive team was debating how they’ll deal with a long list of urgent projects, goals, and priorities, poor accountability, and lack of follow through. We used the research to reinforce that “less is more.” It also provided further evidence that we needed to better target our priority setting agenda and set up a rigorous follow through framework for the large group of senior and middle managers we were bringing together.

The research was summarized in “The Acceleration Trap” by Heike Bruch, professor of leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and Jochen Menges, lecturer in human resources and organizations at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. In their study of more than 600 companies over the past nine years they found, “over-accelerated firms fare worse than their peers on performance, efficiency, employee productivity, and retention, among other measures, our research shows. The problem is pervasive, especially in the current environment of 24/7 accessibility and cost cutting. Half of 92 companies we investigated in 2009 were affected by the trap in one way or another – and most were unaware of the fact.

When they compared higher performing companies with a more effective and strategic approach to “accelerated” companies (lots of frantic activity with little focus) the differences are stark and dramatic!

“At companies we define as fully trapped, 60% of surveyed employees agreed or strongly agreed that they lacked sufficient resources to get their work done; compare that with 2% at companies that weren’t trapped. The findings were similar for the statements ‘I work under constantly elevated time pressure’ (80% versus 4%) and ‘My company’s priorities frequently change’ (75% versus 1%). Most respondents at fully trapped companies disagreed or strongly disagreed that they saw a light at the end of the tunnel of intense working periods (83% versus 3% in non-trapped companies) and that they regularly got a chance to regenerate (86% versus 6%).

The article provides a quiz on “Does Your Company Have an Acceleration Culture” and a series of suggestions on how to break free. Some of those include:

  • Ask employees for suggestions on what to terminate.
  • Terminate projects that don’t clearly and actively support the company’s strategy.
  • Develop a systematic and regular method for making hard choices.
  • Regularly clean out task and project lists before starting new projects.
  • Cap annual goals at three “must-win battles.”
  • Filter and prioritize new projects by asking what to get rid of to make room for the new ones.
  • Focus on one thing for a limited time.
  • Slow down to speed up by alternating periods of high energy and regeneration.
  • Celebrate successes.
  • Managers must model “think time” and renewing their energy and commitment.

Overload is a major leadership problem that swamps way too many organizations creating stress, disengagement, and poor results. Click on these titles to read a few past blogs or articles on dealing with this growing issue:

Spring Clean-Up: Does Your Team Keep an Active To-Stop List?

Spring Forward and Avoid the Speed Traps

The Learning Paradox: Slowing Down to Go Faster

Attention Deficit Disorder is Becoming a Major Management/Organizational Crisis

I wrote about this issue a few weeks ago (in the “spring clean-up” title above.) If you missed that blog, CLICK HERE for more archived items on this critical topic from The Leader Letter.

To check out my approach to facilitating management team retreats CLICK HERE for an overview and CLICK HERE for retreat options and an agenda menu that includes developing focused “strategic imperatives” with an implementation process.

Four Minute Interview Clip on Leading in Turbulent Times Now Available

After a Toronto presentation on “Leading in Turbulent Times: Building Flexible and Resilient Organizations,” Canadian HR Reporter editor, Shannon Klie, recorded a four minute interview with me on the number one leadership challenge in turbulent times, how to get everyone leading, what leadership looks like as an action and not position, why it’s important to build leadership throughout the organization, and how to help people get out of negative wallowing and become positive. CLICK HERE to view the four minute interview in our Media Centre. It’s the second screen shot in the center of the page under the heading of “Canadian HR Reporter.”