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What’s more vexing than not having enough time for all of your projects?
Realizing you’ve spent too much time on the wrong project.
Being smart about where you devote your resources — your personal time and energy and finances, as well as those of your organization — means being smart about not just time management, but about choice management.
Felipe A. Csaszar (University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business) and Alfredo Enrione (ESE Business School) note that some of the errors we make are ones of commission, while others are ones of omission. “In business, an omission error means missing a good project, while a commission error means pursuing a bad project,” they wrote in “When Consensus Hurts the Company” in the Spring 2015 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. An error of commission is when we pursue a project that isn’t the right fit — maybe it doesn’t make sense strategically or is beyond our competence. An error of omission is a missed opportunity — such as not pursuing an acquisition or role that we later regret. Both types of errors are maddening.
Making the right decisions about which projects to enter into seems like it should be easy. But it often is not. Our intuition is not always our best friend.
Part of the problem is that we don’t dig deeply enough when an opportunity presents itself. “When a project fails to achieve its objective, observers frequently chalk it up to politics, poor planning, and weak execution,” wrote Karen A. Brown (Thunderbird School of Global Management), Nancy Lea Hyer (Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University), and Richard Ettenson (Thunderbird) in the Fall 2013 issue of MIT SMR, in “The Question Every Project Team Should Answer.” But their experience, looking at several hundred teams in more than 50 organizations, showed that teams often stumble because they failed to ask and answer the simple question of why they are going down one particular road and not another. “Without a solid why, a team can become overwhelmed by conflict and confusion, and all-important supporters can and will direct their attention elsewhere,” the authors note.
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It’s critical, too, to listen to the naysayers — both your internal naysayer and the critical voices of people you work with. Ellen R. Auster (Schulich School of Business at York University) and Trish Ruebottom (Goodman School of Business at Brock University), in “Navigating the Politics and Emotions of Change” in the Summer 2013 issue of MIT SMR, pointed out that when any new decision or option is introduced, people will fall into one of six categories in response: a negative skeptic, a positive skeptic, a cautious fence-sitter, an indifferent fence-sitter, a promoter, or — if they are all-in — a sponsor. In both our personal work lives and our organizational lives, we have to learn to embrace the instincts of the fence-sitters and the skeptics, especially if we are prone to jumping quickly on opportunities. Fence-sitters are often cautious because they are feeling overcommitted, a very real and very reasonable objection. Positive skeptics are often resistant because they genuinely believe an idea has flaws that need to be addressed. “These folks are critical to involve and listen to because they offer a reality check,” the authors observe. “They can be a catalyst for useful rethinking of different aspects and often can help uncover snags and complications that could cause trouble or create backlash.”
Stopping to reflect before jumping into a project means being proactive and disciplined. And it’s an art, not a science. “There are no rules regarding the number of ‘Why is this important?’ queries,” wrote Brown, Hyer, and Ettenson, “except to persevere until the reason articulated is a critical business issue that can rally team members and other important constituents.”
We invite you to read these articles from our archives for additional ideas on how to bring clarity to decisions about where to commit your resources.