Why Your Organisation Is Busy Yet Nothing Gets Done (blame Michael)

OK, if you haven’t seen this before, this will land somewhere between ‘nice one’ and ‘holy freakin’ #@&* what have we been doing’.

It’s the reason why your whole organisation, your team, and you yourself have the permanent feeling of too much on and nowhere near enough of that ‘let’s get after it and get it done‘ vibe.

It’s the reason why whenever I ask ‘how’s things?‘ the answer I get is the wry smile, shake of the head, then ‘you know….flat out as always, you know how it is‘.

Yes, I do know how it is.

So let me set it up for you.  As always, I didn’t invent this stuff, I’m here to make genius useful when I find it, and this comes from Eli Goldratt’s Critical Chain, and further made sense of by Rob Newbold and Bill Lynch in The Project Manifesto.

It goes like this, which is deliberately over-simple:

  • We have three projects, which I’ve imaginatively named Project A, Project B and Project C.  Together they form Program ABC (see….I’m like a cross between John Lennon and Russell Brand with my interesting use of words)
  • Each project will take 12 months to complete
  • Benefits of 1,000 units per month flow once complete (whatever they may be, dollars, staff engagement, happier community)
  • Our resources limit us to only being able to work on one project at a time.

Now, due to a combination of pressure, anxiety and just not knowing better, most organisations use the Michael Jackson principle of program management, which is “if you wanna be startin’ somethin’, you gotta be startin somethin‘”.  So Project A kicks off, then we get Project B going, then we get Project C going.   Which means we feel all busy and useful.

If each bit of project occurs in a 3-month block, it looks like this:

Critical Chain 1

(Click here if the above image didn’t show up)

You’ll notice the numbers toward the end – that’s the month when the project is finished, A in month 30, B in 33, C in 36.  This means if we go another year into the future to month 48, we get:

  • Benefits of A for 18 months = 18,000
  • Benefits of B for 15 months = 15,000
  • Benefits of C for 12 months = 12,000

For a grand total of 45,000 benefit units at the 48 month mark from Program ABC.

(You can see where this is going right?)

Let’s change the Michael Jackson principle to “if you wanna be startin’ somethin’, you gotta be finishin’ somethin‘”  Now it lines up like this:

Critical Chain 2

(Click here if above image didn’t show up)

Look at when the projects now finish, A in month 12, B in month 24, C in month 36.  Let’s calculate the benefits at month 48:

  • Benefits of A for 36 months = 36,000
  • Benefits of B for 24 months = 24,000
  • Benefits of C for 12 months = 12,000

For a grand total of 72,000 benefit units at the 48 month mark, one year after the Program.  The other way was 45,000.  THAT’S BIG!  60% bigger in fact.

But…it’s not just about the benefit units.  There are two other significant things that occur with the second way of organising:

1) People like it more – the first way throws people around from one thing to another and sees longer before things are done.  Remember that motivation comes from a sense of progress toward delivering something – and the second way lets us get to ‘done’.  It feels better (this is a key principle behind Agile methodologies – we deliver something, often!  Do the above diagrams, but make each block 3 days instead of 3 months and you get the same idea).

2) Look at when C finishes.  Its still done at month 36.  Which means both methods see the whole Program done by month 36.  We don’t have to be starting everything at once to get things done.  In fact, this is exactly what we need to avoid!

The second point is crucial, as you’ll need to explain to your stakeholders why Projects B and C are still sitting on the tarmac. 

It’s this fear of planes sitting there that makes CEOs agitate to get everything going at once, which ironically leads to their exact frustration that ‘nothing gets done around here’.

So send this post to your local Executive, and/or take a deep breath and get ready to say “I’m not starting that yet, but it will be delivered by when you need.”

This crucial principle applies to organisations, to your team, and to yourself.  Think about any personal productivity thing you’ve ever read – they all say ‘turn off the flashing things and focus on the important thing until it’s done‘.  Switching costs in the mind are real – it takes energy to go from one thing to another.   That’s why you go home tired after a day of being all over the place.  Now imagine the same effect across 100, 1,000 or 10,000 people.

And now think about how many projects are happening right now.


How do you put this into action?  We help our clients by being the navigation pilot through the following waters:

– The first step is the hardest – you’re going to have a choose a Project A (or convene a meeting of all involved to make this choice).  This takes guts – good strategy is about closing doors, not opening them.  Make the choice, and not necessary the biggest one.  Perhaps fixing the damn finance system, which could happen if everyone just got into a room for three days straight and drilled it, would be a great first plane to land.

– Make the rule clear – Project A means that if you see an opportunity to help, or are asked to, then there is no other project that takes priority.  In other words, you can work on Project B…but only if you definitely can’t help A.

– Put the project list up visually on a wall where everyone can see – this is the ‘landing order’ of the planes.  It’s like a backlog in Agile, except organisation or division wide.

– Continually remind people about the Project A rule, and engage all stakeholders so they know their Projects B, C and the rest will still be delivered as they expect.  Even if the plane hasn’t taken off yet.


So there’s your opportunity – as Ichak Adizes point out, if the whole organisation focusses on solving a particular problem, it’s going to get solved.  Which means you don’t have a technical problem.  You’ve got a priority problem.

And whether the feeling of busy stagnation is just personal to you, or whether it’s rife through your organisation – you’ve got a priority problem.

Now you’ve got a diagram.  And the maths.

Because…If you wanna be startin’ something’, you gotta be startin……one thing.



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