The Challenge of Leading Over-Worked and Under-Performing Project Teams

“It is not enough to be busy… The question is: what are we busy about?”
– Henry David Thoreau

I can’t think of a single leader I know who is not overwhelmed by the pace, complexity, and sheer amount of change that he or she is expected to accomplish this year. Change in organizations is getting faster and more complex. And the failure rate of change is still about 70 percent. But you probably knew all that.

Back in 1991, Daryl Connor wrote Managing at the Speed of Change. He suggested that people lacked resilience when the amount and pace of change got to be too much. Individuals and organizations pay a terrible price for that lack of resilience. When people are overwhelmed and overcommitted they drop balls, make mistakes, get cynical, and their productivity plummets.

Unless you are taking on a lot of frivolous projects – and I doubt that you are — then the challenge of too much change is not going to go away – ever! Given that reality, what do you do?

Here are three things to avoid — and ways to avoid those pitfalls.

1. Dumping Instead of Delegating

Everyone is extremely busy, including you.  It is tempting to take a Johnny Appleseed approach to disseminating information – just toss a bunch of projects out there and hope they grow into something grand. They say  that in the early days of the United States, Johnny Appleseed walked the land tossing apple seeds wherever he went. He hoped they would take root and turn into large healthy apple trees.  Some did, but many more never took root.

It is a nice story, but not a good way to run a business. People need more than seeds. They need knowledge, tools, and understanding of what’s expected in order to cultivate new projects. That takes time and a willingness to do what it takes to help teams cultivate projects so that they can grow and bear fruit.

To avoid the dumping problem, I created a Contract with Other Leaders. This simple and informal tool provides a framework for conversations with the people on those project teams. (By the way, same things applies when you are delegating to individual contributors as well.)

The contract suggests that the team must:

  • Understand what this change is all about.
  • Know what’s at stake – and why a change is needed.
  • Trust that you and the other leaders will provide oversight and commitment so that projects can move smoothly from planning to implementation to results.
  • Know what milestones or benchmarks you expect along the way.
  • Be encouraged to talk with you about the resources they need in order to make this project a successful. Resources often include, money, access to other key players, time to do the job right, and the right people on the team.

You can probably address all of those bullet points, right? But the big question is, Does the project team know the answers?  I think the Contract with Other Leaders can help.

Here is a link to that informal contract. Feel free to make copies.

2. Giving Effective Teams Just One More Project

It seems reasonable to give high-performing teams more work. You’ve got a group of talented people who work hard and get things done. Why wouldn’t you give them another project? The reason is that they probably aren’t sitting around from 3 to 5 every afternoon wondering how they’re going to fill their time. In most organizations people are working at maximum capacity. In fact, in some places they may actually be working beyond maximum capacity. When that happens, quality suffers and results often don’t come near what was hoped for.

Here is how to avoid that trap:

Encourage people to say no to you. If they are working well, they are probably the type of people who know what’s too much. So, ask them. Let them tell you what they can take on and what needs to go on a back burner for a while. The Contract with Other Leaders would be a good way to handle those conversations.

GE developed a very good process for training and supporting project teams. As part of that training, they told project team leaders a story about a guy who used to appear on television variety shows. He would spin plates. He would take a dowel rod, put a plate on top of it, and start spinning. And then he would grab another dowel rod and start a new plate spinning. He would do this until he was spinning so many plates you couldn’t imagine him spinning one more. Here was his secret: he couldn’t imagine spinning another plate either. He knew exactly how many plates he could control without putting all of the plates at risk. GE believed that project teams should be able to say how many plates they can handle. And if their sponsor says, “This project is top priority, you’ve got to do it,” then that project leader needs to be able to say to the boss, “And which of the existing plates would you like us to stop spinning for awhile?”

Since everything seems to be top priority these days, taking one plate down for the time being may seem risky. But think of it this way. If project teams are inefficient, make mistakes, and sometimes see plates tumble to the ground, then adding more plates is just invites further problems. Starting plates spinning is pretty easy; keeping them going is the challenge.

One last thought about overextending what you ask of people. Leaders may be tempted to require too much of overworked individuals and teams. But those same people may add to the problem by actually asking for more work.  Most of us believe that we are far better at multi-tasking than we really are. While research shows that driving while talking and texting is dangerous, many reading this paper may believe that those warnings apply to other people and not us!

Leaders need to help regulate the work of the teams reporting to them Too much multi-tasking makes it difficult to focus on the work at hand. And, multi-tasking often adds to the time it takes to complete something.  Effective leaders need to say no to over-stretched teams that are excited about and volunteer for more projects, since they may not realize that they are already overworked.

3. No Time to Look Back Over Your Shoulder  

In many organizations, people go from project to project without ever learning from  experience. When we don’t learn, we have no choice but to repeat how we did things in the past. Without learning, we can’t get better at what we do.  That’s true in sports, music, and in project management.

People don’t necessarily avoid assessing a project because they don’t care; they’re just busy. And, it’s often risky to talk about what went wrong in some organizations.

However, in other organizations, there is an expectation that every project – in fact, every engagement – must be evaluated. People don’t learn very much from experience, they learn from reflecting on experience. And they get better at what they do.

A good evaluation boils down to four critical questions.

1. Did we meet our targets?

2. What contributed to meeting our goals?

3. What got in the way of the work?

When you address questions two and three you need to cast a wide net. For example, consider how well informed the team was about what was needed. How well skilled they were to do those tasks. The availability of resources that they could draw on when they needed them. Access to people who can provide information or guidance to the team. Access to you. Did they have the right people on the team? Was the team large enough? Did they have sufficient time and ability to focus in order to do the job right?

4. What did we learn from this project that will help us on subsequent projects?

Even on a very large project, a debrief need not take a lot of time. What’s important is that people are encouraged to talk candidly about all of the things that contributed to their success or failure. A warning: if this debrief is used as a performance review item, you will defeat the purpose of a candid conversation.

Give it a Try

Making an improvement in any of these three areas can make a difference, but improving performance in all of them can significantly improve the work of project teams (and individuals).

Try it out. Think about a project team that just doesn’t quite cut it. And ask yourself:

Do I dump assignments on them or do I delegate?

Do I pile on more and more projects to teams that have been effective in the past?

Do I encourage people to keep moving onto the next new thing without asking them to evaluate the work they just completed?

Additional Resources

If you haven’t looked at the checklist, please go to to access it.

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