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Doing more with less - it's doable. 'Expecting bread vs cake" approach

The uncertainty in the business world caused by COVID-19 outbreak has increased the necessity of deeper evaluation of cost efficiency and operational innovation questions. In this context I feel that the problem “How to do more with less?” needed to be addressed more than ever before.

It’s not a new topic, work and cost optimization, often connected with organization restructuring are inevitable elements of rapidly changing environment, and it comes up repeatedly in conversations with customers, in business meetups and private chats. We all are part of the picture and it affects us in multiple ways.

There are multiple great trainings and publications focused on introducing and leading change, cost efficiency and strategy. What I noticed though is that in real life we often don’t spend enough time evaluating the human part of it to build a stable and reliable bridge between people and business goals, especially in difficult economic times. I don’t deny the fact that changes need to happen, and need to happen fast. But we should take a step back to answer the question how we stay respectful and human while executing the cost optimization strategy because, if we don’t do it right, in long term the company will suffer. If we show no appreciation for people and their needs, their trust, motivation and engagement will slowly decrease. The employees may stay for now and even keep working hard, but the main reason will be fear of losing stability in such critical time, not connection with the company, and it's an unstable foundation you build on. You probably heard of 'silent quitting', well that's it.

Change has become a constant, what is not necessarily a bad thing. We just need to figure out how we can work together, managers and employees, to make it successful.

Working with less is doable if we set the right goals and approach the challenge together in a grounded, respectful way.

Let’s start with the basic realization regarding setting expectations in people management.

If you give me flour and water and ask me to produce delicious food, I can work with it. After evaluation of the available options, I decide that the best idea would be to bake bread. It’s tasty, nutritious and smells good.

After a few days I will eventually get my sourdough base and, being an engaged employee and understanding the challenges we face currently, I will go the extra mile and use my connections to get some pumpkin seeds and even learn how to extract salt from sea water. This way I make the “less” a little bit “more”. I’m fully on board with the fact that it is my responsibility to make it work.

But if I come to you with the freshly baked, aromatic bread and you are disappointed because you expected a 3-layer cake with buttercream flowers, sprinkles and cherry on top, please, reflect on what you provided as a base for it.

I strongly believe that we can make things happen. We can work with less and achieve a lot. We just need to invest together – the team members and managers – to create the right opportunities and environment for success. It’s an agreement based on common sense, trust and understanding.

The below points are a summary of my research and reflection on this topic from the perspective of a manager and an employee. Doing more with less is not easy and requires a lot of courage, mindfulness and strategy (re)evaluation, but with the right approach we can make it work.

As a team manager

Think about both - company and team goals. They are inseparable and impact each other. Evaluate and build strategies to achieve business goals, remember that it’s important to stay grounded and deliver a clear, feasible vision of the path to success. It’s in your hands to showcase what is doable and what is needed to become successful.

Evaluate the situation: the current set up and how the team is/should be equipped for the project, how much time you have, which tools and resources.

Specify your own investment - how much you can add to it - your advice, hard work, guidance, representation.

Set SMART goals. Smart is not expecting a cake from water and flour. Instead, invest into honest evaluation and specify goals that are (truly) specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Constantly challenge your own and your team’s way of thinking to identify if the obstacles and roadblocks you identify come from a genuine reason or from resistance to leave your comfort zone.

Spend time listening, really listening to people who are involved in the area you focus on instead of waiting for the moment they stop talking to turn the conversation around with “I hear you, but we really need the cake”. It’s them who work hands on, have the expertise and can give you valuable insights. Feel free to challenge them but listen. There is a big chance that, if you focus on the right things and build consistently, you will get your cake eventually.

Celebrate successes. Even if the change doesn’t go as planned and you make small steps instead of expected quantum leaps, celebrate the progress, since it will give everyone a shot of energy to realize that their effort matters and doesn’t go unnoticed.

As a team member and project manager

Be aware that you’re the star and hero here. It’s your hard work that makes the difference!

Be honest about what you can do, what extra mile you can go. If you are being asked to do more with less, it means there are reasons behind it – it could be a difficult time for the company, cost cuts to save jobs and make it work through the “7 bad years” to survive until the good years come, needed restructuration. It’s tough, we need to invest more of our time and creativity than usual to become successful while having less to support us, but it’s exactly why honesty, understanding, partnership and respect count more than ever.

As you can see from the points I highlighted in the first part, it’s not only your struggle, the responsibility lies with both sides – you and your manager. Seek constructive dialogue. Take your time and prepare to help them get clear understanding of your approach, challenges and ideas. Ask for what you need to make it happen and demonstrate why.

Don’t hide failures and mishaps – they're a good lesson for everyone and help evaluate the situation. Everyone makes mistakes and not every project is successful, for many reasons. Remember, if a failure happens, it’s not because you are bad at your job - mistakes are inevitable part of acting! And in most cases you’re not working in isolation, not everything is in your power, so instead of beating yourself up for it, take a step back and look at the root cause, learn from it and let your manager learn too. This way you can prevent similar situations from happening again.

Be proud of yourself and share your successes, doesn’t matter how small they may seem to you. Don’t underestimate your achievements. Be proud of it, you made it happen! You do more with less, remember?

It’s not an easy situation and there a multiple aspects that require deeper analysis. But one thing is clear – we can do more with less, but it requires honesty, partnership and application of common sense. If we work together to create a supporting environment with SMART goals and recognition of the effort, we set ourselves up for success.


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