How to Do Less with Less

Posted 11.07.2011

As I’ve spoken with groups of leaders over the last year, I’ve often begun the conversation by asking how many of them would say that the results that are expected of them today are significantly different than those that were expected a year ago.  Usually, every hand in the room goes up.  Then I’ll ask the question about future expectations.  How many of you think that the results that will be expected of you a year from now will be a whole lot different than the results that are expected today? Again, just about every hand goes up.

That’s the point where we start talking about what’s going to have to change for them to get different results.  I’ve heard a lot this year about the expectation to do more with less.  A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a group of newly promoted government executives including flag officers from one of the branches of the military.  No one mentioned the line about doing more with less so I asked them if they felt that was what they’re up against.  There were a few moments of silence until one of the flag officers said, “Actually, for a lot of us,  it’s going to be doing less with less.”

Most everyone in the room agreed.  To be honest, I had not really thought about it that way until that moment but it made perfect sense.  To take one example, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta notes in an interview with the New York Times this morning, his department will be implementing a $450 billion budget cut over the next ten years.  He and his team will have to consider base closings, reallocation of resources, benefit programs and a lot of other options to make the cuts while still fulfilling the DOD mission around the world.  That’s not easy.

Doing more with less certainly has its challenges (and will likely be the topic for future blog posts).  Doing less with less might be even more challenging because it not only deals with the resource constraints, it also deals with the emotional and intellectual exercises of scaling back expectations.

I’m not suggesting that there are a few easy steps to doing less with less, but here are some thoughts that might help frame the challenge.  I’d love to hear what you think and what you’d add.

Engage –  Leaders who have to figure out how to do less with less almost certainly need to start by engaging their different constituencies in a conversation about the current and future realities.  If you’re in a do less with less environment (or a do more with less environment for that matter), you’re basically leading a big change management initiative. The people you’re leading have to understand the reality and the context to contribute to the solution let alone buy in.

Prioritize – This is an obvious but critical step in the process.  Even when resources are flush, leaders have to prioritize.  The one resource that is always in limited supply is time and attention.  Operating in an environment in which economic resources are limited just makes the need for prioritization that much more clear.  Perhaps a good question to start with in determining priorities is “Given what we think we know about the future, what are the have to do’s and what are the nice to do’s?” Not saying it will be easy to get to the answers but the question seems like a reasonable starting point.

Rethink – As priorities become clear, leaders need to encourage people to rethink the way they do business.  It’s human nature to continue on with a pattern of behavior or actions that seem to have worked in the past. One of my favorite rethink the way we do things questions is “If we were starting with a blank sheet of paper, how would we design this process?”  If people have the right amount of context and the right people are in the room, the answer to that question is usually a lot different than the way things were being done.

Educate  – Of course, it’s one thing to rethink the way things should be done.  It’s another to get that change to take in the organization.  Leaders in the do less with less environment need to be the educators-in-chief and make sure that they have a lot of help with that task.  The education for the organization on how to operate in the new environment should cover the what, the how as well as healthy, ongoing doses of the why.

That’s my first cut on how leaders might proceed in a do less with less environment.  What’s your take? What experience have you had with leading a do less with less situation? What advice do you have based on what you’ve done or seen done?