More, more, more. That's the operating premise of most companies. But it can lead to what Heike Bruch of Switzerland's University of St. Gallen and Jochen Menges of University of Cambridge call "the acceleration trap," as corporations take on more than they handle. The result, they write in Harvard Business Review, can be reduced employee motivation, with many workers fleeing for other pastures, as well as a corporate focus scattered in too many directions, causing confused customers and an imperilled brand. Here's a look at what you need to know.
Habit of constant change
The acceleration trap shows up in three ways:
The first is that employees are overloaded, with too many activities and insufficient resources to do the job. The second can be termed multiloading, as companies ask employees to take on too many kinds of activities, leaving them - and the company itself - unfocused and misaligned. The third is perpetual change, with employees denied any chance to recharge their batteries. "To compensate, they hold back their efforts wherever they can, even if doing so hampers the company," the academics say.
Stop the action
Instead of asking employees for new initiatives to improve the company, ask them for ideas of what to terminate.
Be clear about strategy
Leaders must be prepared to step on toes as they focus the company on its strategy, and terminate unessential tasks.
Declare the turmoil over
Often companies enter the acceleration trap after a particularly fruitful, exhilarating period of growth. When you sense your company has slid into ceaseless turmoil, however, declare the precipitating issue over.
After taking the helm of European conglomerate ABB - which experienced eight years of rapid growth and constant reorganization as a result of its many mergers and acquisitions - Jurgen Dorman declared: "What we see today is more than just the light at the end of the tunnel. This is the end of the tunnel."
Institute spring cleaning
Establish a schedule for housecleaning, during which you cull initiatives. It could be annually, every few years or when activities seem overwhelming.
Cap annual goals
You can prevent an explosion of activities by limiting the number of goals you set. When Hans Schulz was CEO of Balzers AG, a Liechtenstein-based industrial company, he cut back his managers from setting 10 priority goals a year to just three must-win battles. He stressed that goal-setting was not about piling up projects but giving employees a general orientation on which to focus their energy.
Filter new products
Your project managers should be filtering and prioritizing, as well as managing projects. "At too many firms, the CEO implicitly or explicitly encourages the people running project management systems to get caught up in new-project euphoria and to be liberal with go-aheads," the academics note. "At the beginning of a project cycle, project managers should ask: Do we have the resources for this project? Who will lead and own it? What other projects will we abandon to make room for this one?"
Focus on one thing
For a period of time, consider putting on blinders so that you can narrowly focus on one strategically important effort. Discounting chain Lidl International swept aside other issues between May and September, 2009, to concentrate on opening 29 supermarkets in Switzerland.
Institute time outs
In 2004, after a period of substantial organizational change, Microsoft announced it wouldn't introduce any more changes for a year.
MARKETING: SPICY WORDS OFFER A LESSON
Old Spice's steamy Super Bowl ad drew lots of attention, but advertising wizard Roy H. Williams says it's important to draw the right lesson. The success is not in the seamless one-shot videography and stage effects, as the bare-chested man moves from shower to boat to horse, nor in the sexual imagery of the oyster and the phallic Old Spice can. It's the words:
"Hello ladies. Look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn't me. But if he stopped using lady-scented body wash and switched to Old Spice, he could smell like he's me..."
The magic of the commercial, Mr. Williams says, is in the imperative voice - the actor's commanding tone - aided by short sentences. He suggests you try it with your own ads:
1. Short sentences. "Four words are okay. Three are better. Two rock," he says.
2. Open with verbs. Words such as: Walk. Sing. Wiggle. Kick. Dance. Jump. Swim. Lift.
3. Imperative voice. Keep it tight and taut. Command the viewers.
"Open with a three-word sentence. Make the first word a verb. Prepare to be amazed. Imperative voice gets attention," he stresses.
MANAGEMENT: MEN, WOMEN, EMOTIONS, AND RISK
So, what if women ran Wall Street? That's the provocative question posed by journalist Sheelah Kolhatkar in New York magazine. The short answer is that we might not have experienced the recent financial crisis and recession. As neuroscientist Joe Herbert tells her: "The banking crisis was caused by doing what no society ever allows, permitting young males to behave in an unregulated way. Anyone who studied neurobiology would have predicted disaster."
While women are considered to be more emotional than men, Ms. Kolhatkar explores how they tend to be more conservative when taking risks, while men, fuelled by testosterone, competitiveness and ego, are more likely to be carried away in the "constant ricochet between panic and euphoria" that is the market or in mergers and acquisitions.
"Despite what we've been led to believe, the market isn't rational or efficient at all - it's all about feelings. The major plot points of the crisis largely turned on emotion: Dick Fuld was too egotistical to sell Lehman Brothers when he had the chance, so his pride drove it into the ground," she writes. "Almost every single bank chief doubled down on mortgage junk at exactly the wrong moment. Emotions led otherwise intelligent men - because, let's face it, all of them were men - to make terrible decisions."
The biggest barrier to leadership? Ego
The barrier for many people in leadership is their ego, according to Australian speaker and author Tomas Vieira: "To be a great leader is to have undone a large portion of the ego - the false self - the part that is obsessed with being right, being first, never making mistakes, all of which are masks for insecurity and lack of real confidence. A great leader doesn't take things personally, so he or she can listen and is open to fresh ideas. He or she is inclusive. Being inclusive demands trust and you can't trust others when you don't trust yourself." Anotherwayof.com
Wanted: employees unafraid to make mistakes
If you want an innovative company, hire people who aren't afraid to make mistakes, says Geoff Nicholson, a retired vice-president of a company famed for its innovation, 3M. Knowledge@SMU
Set clear limits on a working vacation
If you intend to work during your next vacation, limit your involvement by choosing a specific time each day - or, if you can manage it, every few days - when you will plug in, take calls and answer e-mails, consultant Peter Bregman suggests.
Harvard Business Review blogs
Success may require looking back
Management guru Tom Peters says his own career and a lifetime of reading biographies suggests a key for success is to never look back. While reflection is imperative, too much of it can be paralyzing. The positive result of not looking back is something he has always championed - a strong action bias. But lately he has been bothered by the negative, making the same mistake twice with accompanying collateral damage: "If I had to do it all over again, I think I'd pay more attention - maybe even a lot more - to that collateral damage." Tom Peters!
Give Web-form respondents some space
Web designer Luke Wroblewski advocates flexible inputs on Web-page forms, allowing people to answer questions the way they want to, instead of the way a database requires them to. For example, a little extra coding does away with the issue of whether people should enter credit card data with or without hyphens, so let them do either.