Modern business language is chock full of flavorable terms and phrases. Things that sound really nice, but are more verbal optics than possible realities. Like the Penrose Triangle these little bites of wisdom exist in the endless universe of theory but seldom stand the test of practice. The issues arise when we start to believe that these nuggets of corporate-speak can represent an achievable goal. When managers misinterpret a hackneyed phrase for an actual proverb. As when we suggest someone gives 110% , a request which is impossible but attempts to suggest that we might be holding back on a full effort. One phrase in particular appears to have developed into an actual business belief in the impossible – “do more with less”. While the origin of this little gem is probably unknown, one could guess that it came as an answer to slashed resources without a corresponding reduction in goals. It's easy to imagine that it was accompanied with either an implicit or perhaps explicit threat of “if you can’t get it done with what I’ve provided then I’ll find someone who can.”
Sometimes to avoid termination people will agree to almost anything - including impossible goals. The truth is however you cannot do more with less. It may seem that way because maybe existing resources were being under-utilized and cuts just made the survivors work at full potential (which as noted doesn’t equal anything greater than 100%). It is also possible that employees focused on fewer tasks and those tasks provided a greater return. It is not possible that less resulted in more – “less is more” is another business proverb which originated as a philosophy of simplicity in furniture design. It did not mean that less provided more production or that less suited everyone’s taste. So what are we to do? Trapped between the impossibility of doing “more” with “less” and the probability of being seen as an “under achiever” for calling out that the emperor has no clothes. More or less by design means we can’t get everything done, so don’t try. Instead approach the challenge with a plan that implements the five key elements for success.
1. Focus: With fewer resources we need to look at the big things that will have the greatest impact or return on our smaller investment. In doing so we won’t have done more with less, but we will have achieved the most important and most noticeable things. We may have to reduce things like training for more tangible items such as audits and investigations. We won’t have the same results as if we did it all, but we’ll still get the important things done.
2. Maximize Efficiency: Whatever your resources, ensure that they are targeted at the key areas of your plan. Reduce redundancies and remove things that are more optics than actions. Advance plan travel and don’t let a crisis disrupt the larger goals. When the unexpected requires disruption, reevaluate and re-plan your objectives.
3. Performance not Production: Five people cannot produce what ten people used to produce. In a “more with less” mandate we need to improve quality to off-set the loss in quantity. Define clear performance metrics and develop the actions to achieve them.
4. Kill the Intangibles: All the “nice to do’s” have to be replaced with the “need to do’s.” Yes, this may erode some of our relationships, but things like “windshield time,” and “casual coffee conversations” need to be replaced with productive business discussion. You can still have coffee with a manager; just make sure that you’re discussing the audit results while drinking it.
5. Drive from the Data: Data can be both friend and foe. Too much is analysis paralysis and too little is called a guess. Parse your data to the most important elements for review and focus on the analysis that provides the greatest amount of insight. Then use those trends and findings to allocate your resources.
While the “more with less” mandate is a practice in the impossible, it can provide valuable lessons and information. In the past few years, business professionals have discovered that the absence of many of the things they once did, did not greatly reduce their results. In addition, the real value of more with less is that while it reduces production, it can, when approached correctly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our efforts. That doesn’t suggest we should continue to reduce resources or remain in a state of minimum people for maximum work. There comes a point where efficiency cannot be increased and more will require more. Instead efficiency and effectiveness lessons provide hope that we can run even better operations and achieve even greater things when someday our staff is increased.