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Short on Time or People? Ironically, You Could Try a ‘Sacrifice Session’

Of all the commodities we want or need in our organizations, the only one that is finite is time. You can get more money, more power, more impact, more love, more influence, more friends, etc. etc. You really can. Even money–global governments just print more! But you cannot add an hour to your day or a day to your week. Seven days and 24 hours are all we get. It’s funny, though–have you noticed that we act as if things were the other way around. We struggle for more of the “non-scarce” by wasting the scarce. So, in this column, let’s take a realistic look at time.

Another somewhat erroneous belief we have is around needing more people, more human resources. If we could just get more folks, we could do a much better job. Although in principle that’s true, it is also true that more people take more time. A different approach might be to better leverage the time of the folks we already have.

We call this process a “sacrifice session.” Please don’t look this up on the Internet; you’ll have some very strange things show up! I’ll describe it here for you so you won’t be subjected to that. It’s a very simple process. You can do this in a 2-hour group session or with your folks individually over time. First, have everyone think of 2-3 things that they are currently doing that they are going to sacrifice; that they are going to quit doing. These activities have to be the ones that your folks believe no longer contribute any real value toward achieving your organization’s desired purpose.

Typically, of course, people will come in with a list of activities they don’t like to do. That’s partially okay, but it doesn’t actually meet the requirements of a “sacrifice.” A sacrifice is giving up something we like. If you grew up with Catholic roots like me, you might have first understood “sacrifice” when you were a kid around the time of the year called Lent. For my first Lent, my mom asked me what I was giving up and I said “raisins.” My mother replied: “You don’t like raisins.” “I know that’s why I am giving them up.” “No,” she explained, “you have to give up something you like, so it feels like a sacrifice. This year you are giving up bubble gum.”

When we run these sessions, we ask everyone to bring one “bubble gum” for every “raisin.” Be careful here, you don’t want to give up everything that’s fun and that keeps engagement high. This process is meant to look at time intentionally and strategically, not to strip out all incentives or rewards. It’s supposed to be meaningful, not draconian. That’s why we let the folks come with their own lists.

The next step is to see if you can really give up this sacrificed activity. The “sacrificers” have to vet their idea with anyone else who might be involved. A simple question will usually get you there. “Do you still need me to do this and if so, why?” You might get an “I don’t know” or “I think it’s because….” If so, keep asking other people until you get to the real reason for the activity. Don’t assume it needs to be done. We have seen examples of reports and time-consuming processes that people have been doing forever and have never asked if they were relevant. They just kept doing the work. One great example was a fellow who spent two hours a week gathering and inputting data then sending it to a colleague who spent an hour a week checking and reconfiguring it then sent it to a third colleague who printed it out put it in a file drawer taking about 30 minutes a week. That was as far as the work ever went. They later found out that it was an old government-required process that had been changed and delegated to a different department. No one told them to quit. That’s one of the ways to define a bureaucracy: an organization that has taken on many new things to do but never got rid of any of the old.

So that was a raisin example. Here’s a bubblegum: One group we knew had an on-going “outreach” committee of 10 people who met for four hours a month over a long lunch to discuss funding projects for young people in the community. They prepared presentations, discussed demographic changes and the state of things today: how much need there was and where they thought the trends were going. They had lunch, enjoyed each other’s company, shared their findings about need and reported on the amount of money in their budget and where it was being sent. They didn’t get any feedback from the places where the money went; they just discussed how great it was to send the money. That’s 40 hours of resource time a month!! But don’t get me started on the wastefulness of meetings….

Much of this extravagant wastefulness is caused by old habits that we haven’t questioned in a long time. You probably know the stories about keeping old behaviors when the original reasons are long gone. Here’s some history to remind you to keep asking the “why.” I am, right this moment, typing on a computer keyboard that is a classic example of the danger of rigid old habits that are missing the reasons behind them. It’s called the QWERTY keyboard because of the top row of letters. It is not ergonomic at all, but no matter how hard people have tried to create a faster and more user friendly keyboard, we are pretty much stuck with this one. Do you know where it came from? In the early days of manual typewriters, typing too fast caused the keys to fly up and get tangled up in a big mess. You would have to stop, reach up and untangle the keys, then you would have to scrub your hands because they ended up full of ink. The QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow you down so this wouldn’t happen. And now, even though there are no “keys” at all, we are stuck with a keyboard that was designed to slow us down! In fact we still call it a “key” board!

What are the old habits in your organization? Where is the waste? It’s as satisfying and therapeutic as cleaning out your garage or your pantry and takes a lot less time. In our experience, people know where the wasted time is as soon as they are asked to think about it. In most cases, when they ask others involved, they usually recognize the waste as well and agree with the sacrifice.

Here’s the really good news. It is easy to calculate how much time is being saved. Simply ask folks to add up the number of hours they and others are spending on the activity. Groups of 25 to 30 people, on average, end up finding the equivalent of five to seven FULL TIME resources.

It’s worth a try. If you run into any problems, let us know. Just do me a favor, don’t look up “sacrifice session” on the Internet!!


Author: Laree Kiely, Ph.D., President, the Kiely Group. Dr Kiely served on the faculty at USC for over 15 years. In addition to currently leading the Kiely Group, she serves as faculty for leadership programs at Duke CE, UCLA, USC, Thunderbird, and Ivey (Toronto). The Kiely Group specializes in Leadership and Organizational Impact. Please send your comments, questions, and stories to us at: [email protected]


Image courtesy of http://metamemes.typepad.com/beyond_brainstorming/start_up/.

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