Hello. I’m Tony Mayo, the Business Owner’s Executive Coach … with one quick idea you can use in your business today.
Have you noticed the epidemic we’re in? It’s a widespread infection called “overwhelm.” You may have caught it yourself. I know I’ve had it a few times. Today, I’m going to tell you the fundamental cause of overwhelm. This insight will give you the key to avoiding overwhelm. Still, I should warn you, …you’re not going to like the answer. Let’s do it in “Bad News / Good News” format.
The bad news is: the cause of overwhelm is insincerity. Yes, your overwhelm is caused by you not telling the truth. And, if you are a business leader or owner, the cause of your staff’s persistent sense of overwhelm is caused by you fostering a culture of insincerity, an environment where it is not safe or sensible to tell the hard truths. Please don’t be insulted; you and I both do it because we are both human. But…WHY?
We get into overwhelm by making promises —either to ourselves or to people around us— promises that we know we cannot or will not keep, by saying that we will accomplish certain things _knowing_ that we can’t. Or, …won’t. Or, …are unlikely to. When we say it, we may mean it, but at some point, it becomes clear we just can’t handle it, we haven’t got the time, the skills, the interest. This happens to the best of us, of course. …What makes it troublesome is, once we know we will not deliver, is our failure to renegotiate our promise with the people affected.
The good news is that this insincerity is not usually caused by a personal moral failing but by a flaw in the company culture. That’s good news because you are a leader who influences your company culture.
Many years ago, when I worked in computer systems development, I attended a lecture by productivity expert Capers Jones, who had studied hundreds of software projects, comparing the original budgets with the actual time and money expended to implement the systems. He found a simple yet very consistent pattern. Software projects mostly took …twice as long …and cost twice as much …as had been budgeted.
The solution is obvious, he thought. Management should just take the budget proposals and… double them. Then everyone can manage to realistic costs and schedules. Capers Jones eagerly presented to his clients in corporate management this simple solution to a multi-million-dollar problem …but was puzzled to find it greeted coolly …and never implemented by anyone anywhere.
After speaking and writing about his findings, he began to hear from programmers and front-line supervisors. They said, “We know how to estimate software projects,” “The problem is, —when we present our budgets to management for authorization— they cut them in half.”
Insincerity is pervasive and accepted in project planning. Why? Because we are trained to withhold bad news.
I once dropped by a friend’s house. We talked for a few minutes but I could tell something was wrong. With great discomfort and much encouragement from me, he finally admitted that he’d been on his way out when I arrived and was worried about being late to his appointment. I said, “No problem. You can just tell me if I came at a bad time.”
He protested, “But, I like having you drop in. I don’t want to make you feel like you need an appointment.”
I said, “That’s exactly why I want you to tell me if I came at a bad time.” Then I heard myself say something that has helped me and my coaching clients many times since, “If you never say ‘No’ I have to doubt every ‘Yes’.”
“If you never say ‘No’ I have to doubt every ‘Yes’.”
And THAT is the culture of too many organizations. People do not feel free to say “No… I can’t do it by tomorrow.” “No… I won’t ask my staff to work through the weekend.” “No… I can’t maintain customer satisfaction with less staff.”
I’ll speak more on future podcasts about creating safety and encouraging integrity inside companies. For now, one more story about resolving overwhelm.
My friend, the great coach Bob Dunham, was also in systems development before becoming an executive coach. He was an engineer writing programs for NASA’s Hubble space telescope but the project was years behind schedule.
Three years in and not one finished module had been delivered. The turnaround started when Bob noticed his colleagues continually agreed to impossible deadlines. One of the things that made them impossible was that the components one group needed to start their work were late being delivered by another group or too buggy to use. Thus, problems in a few groups cascaded throughout the company. BTW, this software did not cause the serious problems you may have heard about; those were the result of an incorrectly ground telescope mirror. Hardware …not software.
As a lowly software engineer, Bob made one simple change that broke the logjam. He started giving sincere delivery estimates. To do that, he insisted on accurate, reliable estimates from the groups developing the upstream modules he depended upon to do his work. Soon, executive management noticed that his was the only group delivering finished modules, so they made him the team lead. His honest estimating spread and so did the quality of deliverables. He was promoted again and the pattern repeated on a larger scale. Within a couple of years, he was the Vice President of System Development for Motorola Computer Systems. —and the Hubble software went into service.
By practicing and demanding sincerity, by not accepting overwhelm as inevitable, Bob advanced his own career and put a major research tool into space.
Here’s the gist: Overwhelm is not physically real. Overwhelm is a story we tell ourselves to avoid responsibility for the insincere promises we made. I know that is tough to accept. We want overwhelm to be someone else’s fault, to be caused by our demanding boss or impatient client. Or, the world’s fault, for being too complex, fast-moving, or competitive. Even if those were the true causes, what good would blaming others do for you? Being a victim of circumstance may relieve us of the burden of responsibility but it also denies us the satisfaction of victory. Better to take on this possibility, that overwhelm is not physically real. Overwhelm is just a story we tell ourselves to avoid responsibility for the insincere promises we made. The simple cure for overwhelm is sincerity.
When you find yourself in overwhelm, find out where and to whom you are being insincere –even if it’s you. And if you notice that your employees are continually suffering from overwhelm, take a hard look at yourself. What is it about the way you run your company that people don’t feel safe enough to tell you the truth about what they can really accomplish?
To hear more about the special flavor of overwhelm specific to business owners, which I call Ownerwhelm, head over to my public speaking page at tiny.cc/keynotes
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