Since our company became a fully agile organization, we have unlocked so much energy, innovation, and brilliance from our team. Our employees went from focusing just on their day-to-day tasks (which were often repetitive) to creating and leading massive changes and improvements within the company.
This has overall been a really good thing, but sometimes too much innovation truly becomes… too much.
The other day I was facilitating a meeting with our leaders, and I asked how they were feeling about all the committees and new special projects that were happening. Although hesitant at first, one by one, they began to confess they were feeling overwhelmed.
We had started so many new things, but very few seemed to be getting finished.
And there were so many new ideas (and meetings about new ideas) that it felt like a distraction from our core purpose: serving our clients at the highest level.
I had come into that meeting with a pre-planned agenda, but it became clear that it was time to abandon that agenda and pivot to focus on the very pressing issue at hand;
How do we address our innovation overwhelm?
Here is what we did:
1. We Set Up a Kanban Board to Manage Our Ongoing Projects
The Kanban board has been one of the simplest but most effective tools agile has given us. You can create a Kanban board using post-its or create one for virtual teams on a digital platform (we make our Kanban boards on Trello).
A basic Kanban board consists of three columns: “to do,” “doing,” and “done.” (The “to do” column is also known as the backlog).
By laying out everything the team is working on in this format, we can all see at a glance where each initiative is in the process. Dragging items from column to column until they reach “done” is satisfying and makes sure things aren’t just floating around in limbo or forgotten.
We were already using Kanban boards within our scrum teams but hadn’t created a master Kanban board for company-wide projects. We decided to create a leaders’ Kanban board so we could easily see everything, understand where each project was in process, and know at a glance if we had taken on too much.
2. We Set a Work in Progress Limit to Improve Follow Through
This is a key area where we went wrong initially.
Because we hadn’t laid out all our new projects in a format we could easily digest at a glance (Kanban board), we hadn’t realized we were taking on way too many things at the same time.
We agreed to set a work-in-progress limit as a team and cap the number of initiatives in each category. By doing fewer things at once, we will be able to be more effective and make sure everything makes it to the “done” column.
3. We Created a Parking Lot for Great (Future) Ideas
We love ideas, and many of our ideas we deemed good and worth implementing. However, thanks to our work-in-progress limit, we knew many of our amazing ideas didn’t fit in our “to do” or “doing” categories without exceeding our WIP limit.
In order to capture those great ideas without letting them become a distraction, we added a “parking lot” column on our Kanban board right before “to do.”
Our parking lot is where we keep amazing ideas that we solemnly swear not to implement or even think about until enough of our current initiatives move to “done.” This really helps us learn to prioritize and not get distracted.
4. We Stopped Focusing on the Problems
We had gotten so good at optimizing and problem solving that it became overwhelming. In life and in business, we never run out of problems and things that can be improved. Sometimes it’s important to take a step back and appreciate that your business is not a problem to be solved.
I reminded the team of this.
Our company is working. We have happy clients. We have a great business.
When you get so focused on fixing problems, it’s easy to forget how much IS working.
Dan Sullivan really nails this idea in his book, “The Gap and the Gain.”
Being in the gap is when you measure from where you are to your ideal. The ideal is always in the future and always moving and changing. When you measure this way, it can feel overwhelming and disheartening. In the gap, you feel like you will never arrive because since the goalpost keeps moving, you will, in fact, NEVER arrive.
The gain, on the other hand, is the distance between where you were in the past and where you are now. Gain thinking (similar to gratitude) allows you to appreciate just how far you have come. It’s a place of optimism and appreciation.
When we shifted our perspective from problem-solving to looking at how far we have come in the last 6 months, it eased our overwhelm and put us back into appreciation. The problems to solve felt less frantic and urgent.
5. We Leaned Into Trial and Error
I feel no regret that we got into this situation.
I truly believe we needed to hit this place of realizing we had taken on too much in order to deepen our understanding of how to manage change and new initiatives more effectively.
You often don’t know where the line is until you find it.
We didn’t know how many projects would feel like too many for us until we experienced it. Trial and error can feel messy, but it is such an effective tool to gather information and understand things more deeply than theory or hypotheticals could ever take you.
6. We Said “Yes And” to a Pivot
Being an effective leader requires you to be able to stay present and pivot. It’s a lot like improv.
I came into this meeting with one idea of how it would go, and it became necessary to “yes and” our way to a totally new outcome.
Once I heard everyone’s concerns, I called a halt to all extra meetings. The collective sigh of relief was almost audible.
We agreed to reconvene in two weeks with our new Kanban board and have an honest and open conversation about which special projects will need to go back to the parking lot (even if they are already in progress) so we can focus more effectively and finish what we start.
Focusing on fewer things can feel like a big ask (especially for a visionary entrepreneur who loves novelty), but it is absolutely the path to more ease and higher impact.