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Buckaroo management


Does this scene sound familiar? You’ve got a number of projects running at the same time. As soon as someone comes up with another idea, you add another project to your list. You’re just adding more and more to your workload. You decide you need a project manager to manage all these projects. All the projects are perfectly justifiable; they’re all good ideas, but, before you know it, you have a few hundred projects on the go. At that point, you are at serious risk of buckaroo management – just one more spade or a bucket and the horse buckaroos and everything collapses.

We’ve been called in on a number of occasions recently to help people break through the enormous to do lists they’ve created for themselves. What’s interesting is that most organisations have lost sight of performance management 101.

Performance management 101 concerns an understanding of the relationship between the amount of pressure you put on a system and how well the system will perform. It’s the Yerkes-Dodson law[1] – the linear relationship between pressure and performance. You keep on doubling the pressure and eventually you reach peak performance. But once you’re flat out, you can’t up your performance. All that happen is that as you increase pressure beyond the peak of performance, you start to move along the down slope of performance.

In the early days of that down slope, you won’t realise you‘re doing less than you were before. When your performance starts to decline by around 10-20%, then you start to notice. Then you panic and you start to worry. That just adds to the pressure. Performance worsens and you slip further down the down slope. Fundamentally, poor performance is either due to too little pressure or, more commonly, too much pressure.

This relationship between pressure and performance has been known about for more than 100 years. It was first demonstrated in mice and now we see it in the workplace. It happens in any kind of complex system. Apply too much pressure and you reach point of crisis. It’s true of mice, of men and of machines as well.

One of the most critical responsibilities of leadership is to get the pressure in the system right. When you’re loading more tasks on to the system, ask yourself: “Am I actually impairing the functioning of the team, the individual or the organisation?” 

One very straightforward thing you can do to reduce the risk of buckaroo management is to simplify and clarify. Sometimes just that is enough. I encourage leaders to create a ‘stop do list’. It’s not a ‘to do’ list. You’re moving things off your ‘to do’ list. You might decide to delay a project to the following year. You decide that it’s not enough of a priority and is not adding enough value, so you just push it back.

In addition to generating a ‘STOP DO’ list I can also help them to review their priorities in a ‘head to head’ fashion. Put two priorities next to each other and ask yourself if you could only do one this year, or if you only have an hour left in the day which of the two priorities would you focus on? This head to head approach can sort your ‘TO DO’ list quickly into a ranked order of what adds the most value

Ultimately you’ve got to draw a line. If you have more than 20 projects on your list, that horse will more than likely buckaroo and you’ll fail to deliver on any of them.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yerkes–Dodson_law

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Dr Alan Watkins

Alan is recognised as an international expert on leadership and human performance. He has a broad mix of commercial, academic, scientific and technological abilities.

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