If there is one line I hear over and over from the middle layers of management, it’s “what are we going to stop doing?” They are desperate for activities to be removed from their very full plates if new ones are going to be added. Although trade-offs are welcomed by most, it’s a different story when your work is what gets traded off. As a manager, how you handle those trade-offs will determine whether your organization actually benefits from increased focus or just hatches a string of skunkworks to continue on as if nothing had happened.

Put yourself in the shoes of the person who has been leading a project for several months. I’ll give you a real example. Imagine you’re the head of technical training for a high-tech product company. You’re responsible for the skills of hundreds of engineers. You need to know every technical tool and process used in the engineering group and which employees are certified in each. You need to spot gaps and roll-out additional training just-in-time.

For months, you’ve been working on selection and implementation of a new Learning Management System (LMS). This software will allow you to easily track the engineers’ skills and to schedule and administer training. It’s exactly the tool that everyone has been waiting for.

Now imagine that a variety of very high profile programs require the same IT resources that were slated to implement your LMS. In a difficult but strategic decision, the executive team decides to shelve your project for this year.

How Not to Handle a Trade-Off

Handled poorly, having your project kyboshed is incredibly demotivating. It sends the message that:

  • All that work you and your team put in was wasted
  • Your work isn’t important or strategic
  • Your project wasn’t going well

It’s even worse if the executive team doesn’t re-open the goals and objectives and change them to reflect the trade-off. In that case, you might still be expected to deliver your training to a standard such as “90% of all engineers training on any new software within 30 days of launch” with no hope of delivering.

Imagine how engaged, talented, ambitious people respond when their goals don’t change but their resources are slashed. Unfortunately, many of them keep the project going with resources marshalled from wherever they can find them. Your goal of diverting resources to higher priority areas never really happens.

A Better Way

If you need to pause or even discontinue work, there are a few things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a skunkworks starting up.

  1. Pull together the team working on the project and explain your decision to stop the project. Address their questions and entertain creative ideas for how they might continue. Make a final call on the game plan.
  2. Publicly announce that work on the project is to stop. Make sure everyone knows that energy should not be spent on the project. Share a date at which you will revisit the decision to pause the project.
  3. Help set new, lower expectations of what things will look like without the added investment. Let people know not to expect the original improvements and ask for their patience from the team who is now coping with less.
  4. Publicly thank that team that has been working on the project. Make it clear that they are making a sacrifice in the best interest of the organization.
  5. Revisit the performance plans for everyone affected. If appropriate, increase the goals and objectives for those getting additional resources and reduce objectives for those who are losing them.
  6. Discuss an alternate game plan for how the project team should invest their energy while the project is deferred. Leaving them idle is not acceptable.
  7. Monitor for signs that work is continuing and quickly nip it in the bud.

You need to make uncomfortable trade-offs to cope with the competitive marketplace. Without trade-offs, the energy of your organization becomes so diluted that you can’t win. But no one wants to be on the losing end of a trade-off, especially if they are expected to deliver the same results with fewer resources. Celebrate the people who put their own progress behind what’s in the best interest of the organization—they are responsible for your success too.

Further Reading

How to Make Mid-year Corrections to Your Objectives

Tips and Tools for Saying No

Dead Wood or Dead Work

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