Strategic projects hold the promise of a major payback in the future, but must compete for scarce organizational resources today. That includes not just budget and resources, but an even more finite and scarce commodity – management time and attention. This is where the issue of dedicated versus non-dedicated project teams comes into play.
Dedication doesn’t just mean how much those involved want a project or initiative to succeed. Of course, that is important, but in the context of many strategic initiatives a key factor is whether people get to work on it full time, part time or hardly at all.
The problem is that most managers pulled onto projects are already stretched to capacity in terms of their day job. As a result, projects can be starved of attention, with executives struggling to dedicate sufficient time to them.
Executives on non-dedicated project teams are trying to fit (or more likely squeeze) the project in around their other work. The question is: Can a non-dedicated project team really give a key strategic priority the attention it deserves?
There is an unlikely skill required by most executives working on strategic projects. It is juggling!
When a project team is non-dedicated, people may have a boss other than the person leading the project. They likely have KPIs and targets other than those relating to the project. Their incentives and rewards are probably driven from elsewhere too. In an ideal world, all these would align, but in reality projects and priorities often compete.
In the drive for progress and innovation organizations can find themselves with a proliferation of projects and priorities. But as every additional project is added, the risk of any project struggling increases – not because the people involved are not capable or committed, but because they are being pulled in multiple directions and simply have too much to do.
The most important strategic priorities need the best people. But they are often very much in demand and their bosses can be reluctant to share them.
In a high-pressure environment where diaries are already packed-full, an invitation to yet another project or steering committee meeting is often dreaded. Knowing that ‘the willing mule gets saddled’ executives have learned not to look too eager. They commit cautiously, before making a decision to ‘go all in’. They have learned to gauge how interesting / important / prestigious the project is and its likely impact on the business.
Is a project really a strategic priority if people can only be-grudgingly give it a few hours each week – if they struggle to make it to project meetings and when they do – they arrive unprepared and with little progress to report.
The organization may be saying this is a key strategic priority, but its words are hollow unless that commitment is manifest in the allocation of people and other resources. For example, when an overworked executive is asked by their boss to participate in a new initiative – but yet is clearly told that they cannot fall behind in any of their other work – mixed signals!
Other executives may be left to intuit which initiatives they are going to give their attention too, leaving others to falter due to neglect. Things can improve when leadership of the organization clearly signals where to focus and clearly delineates the key strategic priorities. In translating ambitious ideas into effective action focus is a critical issue. If something is to be a priority then something else must be de-prioritized.
Juggling multiple projects may not be the most efficient way of working. When executives participate on too many projects, committees and initiatives it can result in multi-tasking overload(1).
While most of us think we are good at multi-tasking – the research shows that it is generally inefficient as a means of working, with switching between tasks representing a drain on time, energy and attention.
Each time attention is diverted from one project to another, picking up (and perhaps even remembering) where people left off can result is a loss of focus and momentum.
(1) If you would like to see a passionate case for avoiding multi-tasking on projects and priorities read: Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, Cornerstone, 2015