It’s a worn-out trope to say that everything, these days, is about “more,” and it’s worn out because it continues to create problems. As technology evolves to make work more efficient, we are paradoxically pushing ourselves even harder. Companies trying to cut down on busywork, overwhelm, or meeting fatigue are often tackling these challenges with the same additive mentality that created them – by squeezing in “more” mindfulness, “more” listening, or “more” social hours. These initiatives could be a step in the right direction, but often they’re proposed with the same compulsive mentality that created the problems they’re trying to address. In the end, they often just become one more commitment on the calendar. So what, then, about the possibility of literally just doing less? Might that be a worthwhile consideration?
It’s a questionable suggestion in today’s work climate, and could understandably pique the concerns of investors, shareholders, and owners. After all, doing less the wrong way could be seen as advocating laziness or lowering efficiencies. But doing less in a considerate and strategic way needn’t equate with lower profits or productivity at all. On the contrary, it can boost the vitality of your company and the well-being of your employees, all without compromising the bottom line.
As Connolly, Motroni, and McDonald note in The Vitality Imperative, a team’s vitality is the capacity to live, grow, and develop together. Vitality engenders and encourages qualities such as presence and creativity—qualities we surely all value in our work. When we try to force too much activity into limited time, we stifle these qualities and the health of the team.
As an example, imagine two contrasting meeting scenarios. In the first scenario, you have an hour-long virtual meeting with your project team. The meeting is high-pressured with looming deadlines to address, and there’s a good chance you won’t have time to cover every important item. You have just a few minutes to address the main points before closing down the conversation to make a decision and move on. You certainly won’t be able to flesh out any nuances around your discussion topics. We’ve all experienced these kinds of meetings. They tend to trigger our “fight-or-flight” zones in the amygdala and make everyone feel uptight. How much vitality do you feel in these scenarios?
Now imagine a meeting in which you have a little more time than you anticipate needing to cover each item. There’s space to see how everyone’s doing before jumping straight to the agenda. Granted you maintain some rigor around what you need to accomplish, there’s time to think creatively about the issues at hand. Participants’ amygdalas aren’t triggered to the point of compromising the higher thinking of the cerebral cortex. People can raise issues they would have otherwise kept quiet, for fear there wasn’t time. People can listen more fully to each other, and discussion can grow organically and considerately. How does vitality feel in this scenario, contrasted with the former?
It’s a simple metaphor, but effective enough. We can also expand it to a company’s operations, at large. The more pressured the system, the more we cut off vitality, presence, and creativity. At Conversant, we’re working at reinventing our systems with the intention to plan for everyone—on average—to be at 80% capacity in their work. This means everyone has enough time to approach their core job with both focus and room for creativity while allowing further “flex” time to make room for the unexpected; and since there’s nearly always something unexpected, we might as well build that into our expectations. In a relatively small(ish) firm like ours, it also means that when more than one person in a similar role leaves on vacation at the same time or gets sick, there’s enough bandwidth in the system to pick up the extra load. Nobody should have to be under constant pressure.
But returning to our earlier question—what about the bottom line? Wouldn’t easing up the pressure compromise profit margins? On the contrary, doing less can bring vitality to your profit margins, too. We made some clear decisions at the start of the year to cut down on our strategic initiatives and stick to a narrow set of goals. We’re doing less, but we’re doing less in a more focused and humane way. Jim Collins recommends this approach in Great by Choice, his follow-up to Good to Great. He argues that companies do better when they narrow their strategic scopes and resist the temptation to say “hey, we could also do this” mid-stride, leading to strategic scope creep, distraction, and added stressors. He calls this willingness to stay the course “fanatic discipline,” and while we’re just experimenting with this ourselves, it seems to be paying off in one respect: our profit margins are currently double what we anticipated through the first seven months of this year.
Every company has unique circumstances. I’m not suggesting this is the best approach for everybody, and I’m not even suggesting it’s brought us to a perfect state—if such a thing existed. But it has certainly earned us some vitality back, so if your company and your people are feeling stressed and you’re searching for an initiative to ease the pain without risking the business, it might be worth double-checking the assumption that there’s something more you need to do, and simply ask, what if we try doing less?