“I Need Resources” is the Wrong Message!

As companies reset for a new chapter in 2021, there has been a lot of reflecting on how companies and teams made it through the uncertainty and disruption of 2020. One way was to reallocate resources or reduce teams. It drove efficiencies quickly, and it saved money. At the time, it was a difficult, but smart, step.

And now, managers tell us that what they saw as a temporary situation seems to be the new and expected normal on their teams. They’re stuck in the “do more with less” direction, and it’s causing burnout as employees continue to manage their roles and a part of someone else’s. Managers feel an urgency to reset and pull their teams out of the overload. And they’re headed into executive-level conversations with this message: “If we want to complete our project on time, I need five resources to do X”, “If we add 10 employees back to the team, we can do X.” It follows our message format, but it falls short of approval by most leaders.

Here’s why.

It’s the most common request leaders hear in companies. “I need more people.” It was the most common request before 2020 took place. So, you can imagine what it must be like now as more teams are short-staffed. If every manager added a headcount, the company would be right back to the pre-2020 bottom line. And leaders aren’t interested in backing up. They believe a lot was learned from 2020 and efficiencies – doing more with less – resonates as a positive outcome.

But the managers’ predicament is not an excuse; it’s a real challenge and a real threat to the retention of talent. Managers need to have these conversations, but they need to shift the storyline from “I can’t do it without people” to “we have choices to make about how we accomplish this”. It means shifting the storyline to focus on a business decision and outcome rather than the challenges they’re feeling to deliver against it.

The starting point is messaging that focuses on choices and actions that lead to outcomes. Take people and headcount out of the equation. It seems like odd guidance, but it makes a big difference. When managers look at initiatives, they think from the desired outcome backward and map out how to get the work completed. They map a single path to completion, and they quickly see the need for resources to complete tasks.

When leaders look at initiatives, they consider multiple paths to lead to the outcome. They rarely see it as a single path. So, when a manager comes to them and says: “If we want to deliver X on time, we need five additional people on the team.”, leaders ask questions like: “What other options did you consider?” And when managers don’t have that context, leaders get frustrated that multiple options weren’t considered.

The best way to lead these conversations is to learn to think more from the leaders’ perspective. If you have a project in front of you that doesn’t seem doable without adding resources, pull back and think about all the options/paths you have to get there.

Assume you’re down four people and have been since last year. You have been given a tight timetable to deliver product Z, and it’s the same timetable you delivered against with those four people you no longer have. You know you can’t do it without the full team in place. That’s fair; it’s how you delivered products prior to 2020. But before you head down the single path with a message that says, “I need resources,” think a little broader.

You could:

  • Partner with another team by prioritizing product Z over a product from another team on a similar timetable.
  • Outsource some of the product steps to avoid adding FTEs and instead add specific help to specific steps.
  • Push out the delivery date based on a new timeline that seems feasible to the team you have in place.

When a leader is presented with options like this, they look at the situation differently. They hear 1) change the approach 2) double efforts on critical steps or 3) change the timetable. They see that you’re thinking through options to get to an outcome instead of bringing challenges you have with a single path. It aligns more with the types of decisions they’re used to making, and it’s the most effective way to help them consider compromise.

The second point for the communicator to consider is setting context. In our workshops, we call it “Framing the Situation,” and we provide a methodology to help a communicator align a leader to the topic of choices that have been made to date. Instead of jumping to “How are we going to do this,” a good communicator will reset what’s already happened to date. This helps a leader see that they have already made some of the decisions that have led to the current topic.

A manager who is down four resources might begin a storyline like this:

“Last year, with uncertainty in front of us, we reduced the team by four people. And we asked the remaining six to work tirelessly to get product Y into the market in six months. They did that, and we have seen the product perform well by delivering expected revenue and good customer reviews. So, it was a success last year out of working differently on the team.

“But it came with compromise. In order to get product Y to market on the timetable, we skipped two critical points. We reduced testing, and we eliminated some of our protocols for integration. You may remember this conversation and debate last May. We made the decision to skip steps at the time, because we felt product Y so closely aligned to product X that launched the previous year. We seemed aligned with customer response and felt the break with protocols would have limited risks. In this one case, we were right.

“This year, product Z doesn’t align in the same way and following the modified steps would create bigger compromise and increased risks. As a product team, you have asked us to reset the “best practices” and protocols of development that you put in place three years ago. And when we do that, it will create some different choices to consider for product Z.”

This context aligns the leader to the topic and the broader reset they’ve put in place across the organization. They have agreed to the best practices and protocols for product Z before hearing the choices they need to make. And as you probably noticed, it calls out steps they value and a process that they put into place. So, it’s easier for the leader to consider options when they’re trying to avoid product compromise and risks.

The idea of adding back resources hasn’t come up. But it may be brought up by the leader. Because as they think through the options above, they may ask: “What if we didn’t change the approach or the timetable and instead of relying on contract resources, we added people back to your team?” When it’s set in the broader picture, it now looks like the least disruptive solution rather than the only way you can figure out how to solve a challenge.

Learning to lead conversations from a leader’s perspective is something we’ve been helping managers do for more than three decades. If you’re preparing for a tough conversation, we can help you develop the storyline that leads to the desired outcome.

So, whether you’d like to schedule a coaching session to focus on a specific conversation or book a group workshop to learn the fundamentals, we hope you’ll call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson & Associates