Bridgeway Partners Blog

The Costs of Organizational Overload

Organizational overload is a troubling fact of today’s business culture. 24/7 accessibility and market pressures intensified by global competition and the current economic crisis have exacerbated the drive to produce results faster with fewer resources.

Recent research reported in Harvard Business Review found that of 600 organizations surveyed, half suffered from overloading (insufficient resources to meet demands), multi-loading (shifting and competing expectations that undermine focus), and perpetual loading (constant pressure that allows people little opportunity to recharge their batteries).[i] Many organizations expect employees to work at two to four times higher than capacity.[ii]

The more overloaded and chaotic the organization, the more difficult it is for the majority of people to do their best and most important work. Strategy execution suffers because people have too much to do to understand and follow through on a limited number of priorities. Our own research suggests that managers are diverted from their strategic responsibilities by having to spend at least 50% of their time fighting fires, doing work others should have done, responding to email, and sitting in unproductive meetings.

Related issues for businesses include: failed communications, dysfunctional conflicts, missed deadlines, poor quality work and resulting rework, recurrent unresolved problems, customer dissatisfaction, and lost opportunities. In addition organizational overload takes a dramatic toll on individual employees, who experience a relentless sense of overwhelm and urgency. This in turn leads to such personnel problems as stress-related illnesses, burnout, family problems, turnover, high health costs, and low morale.

While it is tempting to attribute these problems to such external factors as market pressures and 24/7 technologies, the fact is that some organizations are more effective – and satisfying places to work – than others despite competing under the same conditions. An alternative explanation for low performance is the unreliability of poorly organized individual performers; however, our work with hundreds of managers indicates that even the most organized ones are frustrated by the numerous demands on their time which undermine their ability to focus on what is most important. Neither of these reasons gives organizations much leverage for dealing with the problem.

In the coming months this blog will:

  1. Dig deeper into the underlying causes of overload – in particular those factors which leaders can influence to improve every person’s performance
  2. Identify what leaders can do to build the foundation for reducing organizational overload and increase organization-wide productivity in sustainable ways.

[i] Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges, “The Acceleration Trap”, Harvard Business Review, April 2010

[ii] This research was originally reported in the book Revolutionizing Product Development by Steven Wainwright and Kim Clark (Simon and Schuster, 1992) and has been corroborated by the findings of Professors Nelson Repenning at MIT and Rebecca Henderson at Harvard along with their associates and clients.

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