How can I stop over-committing?
Updated: Jun 13
It’s a good sign when the business recognises the need for analytics to support their decision making. However, the result can often be that there are more requests and demands than there are resources available to undertake the work. It’s not uncommon for analytics teams to feel overwhelmed with the volume of work that is requested and expected of them.
If you try to meet all these demands it will often lead to you working harder and longer hours to try and address the backlog of work - but this will inevitably result in a deterioration in, not only the quality of your outputs, but also your own morale and job enjoyment. If this persists for more than a short period of time it can also substantially affect your health and mental well-being also.
So, when it often feels like you have little control over your workloads, what can you do to address the source of the issue?
There are many reasons why we may knowingly over-commit ourselves, but one of the most common reasons is we like to say ‘yes’ to requests - it feels good to respond positively to a stakeholder request and it avoids a potentially difficult negotiation if 'yes' is not the answer. The problem occurs further down the line, when we’ve said yes too much and we find we can’t meet all our deadlines, so rather than do one thing well we compromise the quality of all our work.
Are you a 'people pleaser'?
In my experience, teams of ‘people pleasers’ are not uncommon - they are keen to help but they often over-commit and end up over-promising and under-delivering. This will not only increase pressure on the analyst but will be a huge source of frustration for their stakeholders as the timeliness and accuracy of delivered work is compromised - a lose/lose situation.
The key lies in recognising that you have to take control of your own workloads and not feel a slave to your stakeholders. For some, having their manager effectively manage workloads for them can help in keeping a balanced schedule - however, sometimes your manager can be part of the problem, as they also bow to the demands of their superiors without question.
If you do not take control of your workloads and you over-commit then you can find yourself in an unhealthy spiral of behaviour - you find yourself working later, producing poorer quality work then consequently stakeholders become frustrated and your own feeling of respect and value can diminish as you feel your hard work is not being appreciated. If this continues over a period of time, it will potentially lead to a collapse in your morale and the feeling you want to leave the organisation. However, there’s every chance the same circumstances will arise in any new job because the demand for analytics work will always be high and you haven’t addressed the core issue.
So, how can you take more control?
In my ‘Managing Workloads and Stakeholder Expectations’ workshop, I share various strategies and practices that can help you take back control of your workloads and avoid over-promising. But if you are firmly in the ‘people pleaser’ bracket then there are a couple of simple steps you can that can help you avoid over-committing in your dealings with stakeholders.
The common trait amongst ‘people pleasers’ is that they tend to be submissive rather than assertive. This naturally leads them to accepting demands rather than negotiating deadlines or challenging stakeholders. Quite often what holds back submissive analysts from being more assertive is their own perception and confidence. However there are some practical approaches that can help you gain more confidence in ‘pushing-back’.
Step 1 - Explore Alternatives
If you are not used to being assertive it can seem quite daunting to take more control. However, the key is to use good communication practices to make any ‘pushing back’ feel reasonable and natural.
Firstly, in being assertive, it is important to recognise that this does not mean that you turn down a request with a point blank ‘no’ and without any reason. Our job as analysts is to help the stakeholder but a blunt ‘no’ leaves them with no options and may appear obstructive to them.
So, firstly, you need to be thinking ‘If I can’t deliver the specific deliverables in the timescales they have requested, what can I do for them?’ in order to develop some alternatives for them. In providing an alternative you are still demonstrating a commitment to helping the stakeholder but without necessarily accepting their original request or it’s timescales. Finding an alternative can be achieved by:--
i) simply providing a later delivery date which you can deliver on without over-committing yourself.
ii) agreeing to deliver part of the work on the requested date and then deliver the remainder at a later date.
ii) offering them an alternative solution that may not be exactly be what they have requested but that will provide some help in achieving their needs (e.g. providing a recent related report that may already be available)
iv) identifying someone else who may be able to help them.
By providing an alternative you are subtly changing the control of the discussion - now you are providing feasible options for the stakeholder to choose from and they are not having to re-engineer their request for you to have to re-evaluate. They will feel as though you are trying to support them and at the same time you will know what you are offering is feasible.
Step 2 - Share your plans, deadlines and priorities with the stakeholder.
If you feel that you cannot find a suitable alternative for the stakeholder then you will be in a position where you will have to decline the request. In doing this it is important to give reasons why you cannot fulfil the request.
More often than not the reason for not being able to fulfil the request will be down to existing workloads and the commitments you have already made to other stakeholders/colleagues. If this is the case, then having some kind of documentary evidence (e.g. a plan of work) can be invaluable for sharing rather than simply having an ‘emotional rant’ about how busy you are.
In my workshops I talk about ‘transparent planning’ where a very basic, high level plan of your work and who it is for, is generated and, importantly, shared with stakeholders. This has a number of benefits.
Firstly, it’s a communication vehicle for making stakeholders aware of (i) your limited capacity and availability for new work and (ii) the work you have committed to other stakeholders and departments. This, on it’s own can be highly impactful, especially if shared regularly with your main stakeholders.
Secondly, it can be used to deflect any awkward prioritisation challenges. For example, once you’ve communicated your plans and your lack of available capacity, a stakeholder may well try and use their seniority to cajole you into giving their work priority over others on the list. This puts you in a position where you feel you have to defend and/or shuffle your commitments. However, referring to this plan you can simply say to the stakeholder ‘I’d be happy to give your work higher priority if you can agree with (person /dept on the work list) that their work is put back/re-prioritised’. This puts the onus on the stakeholder to talk to other stakeholders to agree the priority of tasks and avoids you getting embroiled in contentious and time consuming negotiations.
In my own experience, when you deflect the prioritisation like this, you can find that some of the requests simply vanish - this can happen because the stakeholder recognises they may be far less successful (and potentially unjustified) in attempting to persuade another stakeholder to concede priority rather than press-ganging you into submission in a one-on-one conversation. So, all of a sudden, the work disappears! (ok, not all the time, but it will filter out those requests which are not as important as the stakeholder may be trying to impress upon you).
Many teams have detailed work management plans that they use internally within their team but these will often be too detailed to share with stakeholders as they may contain levels of sub-tasks and dependencies. It is important to ensure that the plan you share with your stakeholder is very simple - it only needs a one line description per job, with a brief outline of the work, who it is for, and when it is due to be delivered. That way they can get the information they need at a glance.
In summary, by developing alternatives and by sharing your high level work plan you will be demonstrating your professionalism and your commitment to helping the stakeholder whilst, at the same time, you'll be in possession of a more objective tool for managing priorities and expectations.
So, if you feel that your workloads are not under control these two practices can be very helpful in redressing the balance and give you the confidence to 'push-back' and be more assertive with your stakeholders.
For more ideas, practices and techniques for maintaining manageable work schedules my ‘Managing Workloads & Stakeholder Expectations’ workshop provides more help on this subject.
Founder and primary facilitator of Sophic's development workshops for data analysts.
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