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How To Beat Negative Margin

Any team, project, or process with negative margin doesn't tend to get better. Instead, people expend all their energy just trying to keep up, make lots of messes, and go on their merry way toward total burnout.

One of the most common solutions to a workload that is causing negative margin is staffing up. Unfortunately, adding people only stretches the experienced staff even more—they have to train the new personnel, review their work, and clean up messes as they go. In the end, you've kicked off a vicious cycle.

Another common situation is that people will simply work as hard as they can to do as much as they can. If humans were machines, this would be a great plan. Since we're not, each week still ends with failure because we weren't able to catch up. Work starts to feel futile, as the pile in front of you seems impossible to move. Your defeated attitude makes each hour stretch out, reducing your energy levels and pushing the team even further behind. Another vicious cycle.

So how do you get out?

Be intentional, set aggressive goals, then stop.

First, make a plan for how the team can get back on track. This plan will be modified each week as you learn more about the situation. Then, set a tough goal that the team is committed to hitting each week. Push through the hard work until the goal is met. Dig deep. Show grit. When the team hits the goal, stop! STOP. STOP. STOP.

Declare victory. Celebrate. Enjoy this milestone. DO NOT ADD MORE WORK! Moving the finish line is the most demotivating thing you could possibly do. If your team detects even a chance that you will move the finish line, the motivation to dig deep will disappear.

Consider runners. If the finish line at the end of the race is unknown and movable, how can runners choose their pace? Runners are forced to either bide their energy and run slowly enough to run a marathon or run like it's a sprint and never make it to the end. If our competition knows exactly where the finish line is, they will probably beat our runners, even if theirs are less talented or experienced.

Efficiency can be a trap because humans aren't machines. Ignoring your team's humanity will always cause your team to perform below their potential.

Andrew Bryden, P.E.