Feast Nor Famine

A Better Way to Manage Projects, Develop Teams, and Nurture Expertise

By Paul Tibbert, CEO of GRID

Hurry up and wait. Feast or famine. All or nothing.

I doubt that many would advocate an on/off approach to resource allocation in the business world. However, the recent turn of a new calendar year brought with it a surprising number of conversations with friends and colleagues that revealed just such a phenomenon at play in many businesses.

It’s likely that you’ve seen this play out in companies yourself. Whether it’s a calendar event (such as the end of a year or quarter) or some other looming deadline or deliverable mandate, a company thrusts itself into “feast mode.” All hands on deck. Spare no expense. Staff up and pull from departments to get the project done on time. Call in outside resources, if you need to.

Then comes famine. Whether it’s the delivery of the project or the turn of a new calendar or budget year, the intensity abates. Maybe other priorities emerge. Maybe the excitement of a one-time pet project begins to lose its luster, in favor of the newest shiny object found elsewhere.

Projects get sidelined. Resources get redirected. Priorities are moved, and staff are either reassigned or put on the proverbial shelf indefinitely. In the worst-case scenario, the subject matter experts begin to walk out the door, seeking better and more fulfilling opportunities. With them go the expertise, as well as the lessons learned and ingrained strategy that were driving their objectives day-to-day. It’s more than human capital that is lost, but intellectual capital as well!

While that may “feel” right and wise at the time and in the heat of the battle of running a business, it is more likely than not doing actual and lasting harm — not only to the business and to its people, but to its competitive advantage as well.

Perhaps we should revisit what we learned in physics class about momentum.

The Wrong Way to Eat the Elephant

The Law of Momentum states, among other things, that once an object is in motion, far less energy is required to keep that object moving than is needed to stop it then start it again. The same principle applies to managing projects, people and budgets, in my view. 

Reading and reacting to urgent priorities presented in the immediate may have obvious benefits (Management needs this done ASAP!), but it brings with it non-obvious costs — both in the short term and those that will have long-term negative consequences as well.

For one, there is the emotional and intellectual toll that such seesawing inflicts on human personnel, who are asked for one period of time to devote their time, energy and expertise to one mission-critical priority then suddenly have those resources diverted to another project, having never fulfilled the initial project nor tasted the fruits of that spent hard labor. That can begin to undermine trust and confidence in leadership’s vision and can sap critical “drive” from those we rely on to further the company’s objectives.

Eventually, that treasure of talent is off to explore other opportunities, bringing with them a wealth of knowledge that is almost impossible to replace, even if the personnel is.

Equally important, think of the financial resources that, at worst, go wasted and, at best, go under-optimized when projects are constantly starting and stopping. In addition to readily apparent expenditures a given project may have exhausted, think of the loss of calendar time required to not only put a long-term project on hold, but also the time required to resume the project, bring (perhaps) new teams up to speed on where the initiative left off, and relearn or reteach things that were lost when institutional knowledge either got applied elsewhere or walked out the door with lost personnel in the meantime.

And the cycle continues. A new elephant gets identified, and the fresh available investment brings both promise and peril: A team gets to “eat” again, but it can’t possibly swallow the proverbial elephant whole, try as it may.

Really, the only way that elephant is getting eaten is one bite at a time, as the old saying goes. So why would one try any other way? You’ll never defy the Law of Momentum that exists in business as well as it does in physics.

A Different Approach to Consider for 2023 and Beyond

If company leaders are looking for additional resolutions to consider for their annual planning, allow me to offer one for consideration: Do your teams, your treasure and your talents a favor — move away from feast or famine and toward slow and steady wins the race.

By this I mean: resist the urge to apply dramatic pendulum swings as to where you commit your teams and priorities. It’s costing the company more than many realize. Instead, resolve to keep more important initiatives in an iterative process ongoing, even if it means keeping some in first gear while others get attacked in fourth.

I see a real business case for keeping more initiatives going at once, moving at steadier paces, as opposed to only a few select shiny objects that absorb all of the time, money and personnel at once, causing important but not urgent objectives to go under- or un-addressed. The former tack keeps the axes ever sharpening, and it keeps talent emotionally and intellectually invested in solving problems, acquiring skills, and mastering innovation, as they never lose sight of a specific and promised destination. It also makes budgeting more predictable and reliable, and safeguards against sudden (and perhaps frivolous) diversion of financial resources that could later come back to haunt the company.

If you want to truly run a tight ship, treat the business like it is one. Large ships take a lot of energy to get going, but once they do, they don’t stop until they reach their actual destination. There are no sudden turns possible. And while the captain is steering, one has the luxury of time and patience to keep one’s eyes on distant horizons, consider alternate paths to pursue if necessary, and slowly redirect the course of action when called upon. 

The turns are cautious and deliberate, and when they are made with a longer trajectory arch, nobody falls out of the boat. 

Keep your innovators innovating. Keep your talent focused and rewarded. Keep your budgets protected against risk and waste.

It might not be as satisfying as a feast, but it’s not as risky as famine either.

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