February 27, 2007

How to get things UNdone!

Posted in management at 4:47 pm by scottmaxwell

We all have goals for thinks that we need to get done. When was the last time that you had a goal to undue something? If you are not careful (and even if you are) activities build up, particularly as your company grows and time moves on, which raises your level of complexity and lowers your level of productivity.

Think about it. If you have ever tried to stop eating, stop smoking, or stop drinking, you understand how difficult it is to UNdo your personal habits. Businesses habits are similar, as most activities get started and then have a particular inertia to them. Most businesses don’t keep track of all their cumulative activities…much, much more often they focus on what they should do in addition to what they are currently doing.

It is much harder to stop doing something than to start doing something when it comes to business process, as employees get a “this is how we do things” mindset and they have a need to feel that the things that they are doing are valuable to the business (which leads them to have a high perceived value of the lower value activities)….net, net it is extremely difficult to UNdo things!

The only management systems that most companies have that help to manage the UNdoing of things is cost budgeting systems, but most emerging growth companies are not very sophisticated with this type of management AND very very few management teams budget from a zero-base (their starting point is past activities).

So, how do you manage to get things Undone? There are only two management approaches that I have seen work:

  • The best approach is when you can zero-base activities relatively frequently and be absolutely clear on what your people are working on and what the short-term priorities are (generally easier in development, sales, and customer services groups than in Marketing, Finance, IT, and Admin functions). This will allow you to explicitly stop certain activities and allow more time for the high value activities (this works particularly well in agile development environments for development, well managed sales groups, and well defined customer service processes).
  • If you can’t for some reason do the above, then put enough goals on everyone’s plate so that they have too much to do…this approach generally leads to a prioritization conversation (or more resources if you are not careful!), which leads to activities being dropped off the plate (the lower value activities if you do this right). Not perfect, but it works! (a related approach is to keep your hiring extremely lean vs. demand as you grow…it will keep the focus on the high value activities).


  1. Kerry said,

    Strongly agree that we often overlook the value of undoing, or as we sometimes call it “addition through subtraction”.

    Sometimes the best way to add to your results is to subtract some negative elements.

    This is true not just for tasks and budget items, but also true for people, processes and projects. Sometimes the best way to improve your total productivity is to fire a person, or drop a process, or cancel a project.

    This goes counter to the normal instinct. When faced with a problem the natural thing to do is to increment on a new element. It is typically easier to stay in everyone’s comfort zone by adding rather than subtracting. But putting some short term stress into the system is often the right path to get a better long term result.

  2. scottmaxwell said,

    Kerry, great points.

  3. Ronnie said,

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