Doing More With Less: 4 Ways to Cope (And Even Succeed) In A Downsized World

Scaling down your operation doesn't have to be scary. But many people confuse activity and results. Meanwhile, effective leaders succeed with limited resources by distilling their central objectives, and simplifying communication.

We recently invited 40 different thought leaders to participate in a webcast on the topic of Doing Still More with Less. The subject hit a nerve as over 4,700 people from around the world signed up to hear what experts had to say on getting work done during a time of limited resources.

Dozens of great ideas emerged during the two-and-a-half-hour event. Among our favorites were four ideas specifically geared toward executives leading in today’s hectic environment.

Make time to think

Mark Sanborn, president of Sanborn and Associates and best-selling author of eight books including The Fred Factor and You Don’t Need a Title to be a Leader, shared a simple ritual along with a key question that he asks himself.

Whenever Sanborn is in his office in Denver, he’ll schedule some time to visit his favorite coffeehouse with one intention in mind--some quiet time to think. In Sanborn’s experience, most executives don’t think as much as they react to their environment.

For executives who may not know the difference between proactive and reactive thinking, he suggests starting out slowly. In his own case, he allocates only 15 minutes.

It’s harder than you think, says Sanborn.

“This sounds very simple, and maybe as if I’m aiming a little low by suggesting that you only aim for 15 minutes, but try it--it’s really hard. Within the first 10 seconds, you’ll think of a phone call you need to make or a meeting you need to attend or something else you need to do. You will find, as I do, that proactive thinking about your business and your life is far more difficult than it seems.”

A second technique Sanborn recommends for busy executives is to ask themselves a question: What am I accomplishing? In his experience, many leaders often confuse activity and results. The problem today, says Sanborn, is that “busyness” can easily lull us into a sense of accomplishment--but activity and accomplishment are not the same thing.

“Today, activity has become the anesthesia for leaders who wonder if they’re really accomplishing anything worthwhile or important. So when you are doing those thinking sessions, focus on that question: What am I accomplishing?”

If you’re like most leaders, taking the time to think and evaluate your progress will almost always turn up a couple of areas where you are spending time on projects and activities that are not generating much in the way of return. The question now is what to do about it.

Learn to say no

Charlene Li, author of the New York Times best seller Open Leadership and founder of Altimeter Group, says that achieving focus means knowing what you will do and also what you won’t do to achieve a particular strategy.

As Li explains, “In so many ways, it’s the very first and most important thing. In order to get more done, you actually have to do less things but--very importantly--the most important things.”

Leadership coach, speaker, and writer Tanveer Naseer shared that this can be tough, especially when there are so many seemingly important tasks in front of today’s leaders. For Naseer, the answer to maintaining his focus is to discipline his attention. In addition to getting more done, Naseer has also noticed a great side benefit: consistency.

“By relying more on what I focus on, instead of what gets my attention, I’m also able to be more consistent in my actions, since everything I do is centered around a common objective instead of a reactionary response to what I encounter. This makes it easier to deal with the prevailing uncertainty out there--because while I might not know what issues I’ll have to deal with tomorrow, I know which direction I need to go and what results I need to achieve.”

Communicate efficiently

Once a leader has determined a personal course of action, the next step is to get the rest of the team aligned with the leader’s plans. But when everyone is struggling to do more with less, how do leaders find the time to communicate more frequently?

Start by looking at the default settings for your meetings, suggests Elliott Masie, an internationally recognized futurist, analyst, researcher, and organizer who heads The MASIE Center think tank. Masie believes that our rituals sometimes get in the way of our focus. Do we really need to meet for 30 minutes--or can we get the job done with a much shorter meeting?

In Masie’s experience, when we are given a lot of time, we fill up that time--but we don’t necessarily fill it up with relevant content or collaboration.

As Masie explains, “By default, most meetings are going to be an hour or a half hour, or, in rare instances, 15 minutes. When was the last time you scheduled a five-minute--or better yet, four-minute--meeting with a colleague or direct report? At first it might feel as if there’s not enough time to collaborate, but in a busy organization, five-minute conversations might work well. Used correctly, that five minutes could focus on working on a theme or a title for a new product, or talking about the upcoming meeting you are going to.”

In other words, we don’t always need more time--we need to make better use of existing time.

Organizational anorexia

Finally, consultant, speaker, and multimedia designer Steve Roesler recommends that leaders take a closer look at the whole concept of doing more with less to make sure they haven’t slipped into a distorted view of what’s normal. Roesler believes that many organizations have reached a stage of organizational anorexia.

Roesler contends that organizations of all types--corporations, nonprofits, even churches--now base their success on looking in the organizational mirror and being as lean as possible. That might make them appealing to Wall Street, but it’s shortsighted and potentially dangerous to their long-term health.

Roesler’s advice?

If you’re a manager, next time the phrase "do more with less" pops into your head as you begin a meeting or make a speech, pause for a moment. Consider what your objective is. Then, instead of simply reacting with a shrug, say:

“Here’s our situation. This is what our strategy is all about and here’s what our company is all about. How can we achieve the goal that goes along with this strategy and be as satisfying to our customers as we possibly can, make this as profitable for ourselves as we possibly can, and [yet] keep our costs down? While we’re doing all of this, who can be included and what can we do with this particular situation or project so we’re building talent at the same time?”

As Roesler sums up, “If you’re the person in the room who stands up and does that instead of using the [doing more with less] phrase, people are going to know that you’re the one who is the leader.”

Act, don’t react

Organizations have been through some testing times in the last few years. For a lot of businesses conditions have been stagnant or, in some cases, deteriorating. But this is not the first down cycle we’ve experienced—nor will it be the last. Especially when the environment is challenging, a leader’s response is critical. With focus, prioritization, communication, and forethought, leaders can continue to build toward the future. Prudent practices established during a low ebb in the business cycle will help organizations excel when the upswing inevitably arrives.

[Image: Flickr user Anders Ljungberg]

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