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Over and Under Committing

This lesson is a part of an audio course Organize and Prioritize Your Life by Austin Churchill

In our previous lesson, we learned about how estimation doesn't need to be precise. Knowing relatively how complex something is, compared to something else is all we need. After practicing relative estimation enough, you will start to get a sense for your capacity of work.

Capacity is critical to know when you are committing to delivering your work by a certain date. Due dates are unavoidable in many situations. Your boss will want to know when an important project will be done, or another team might depend on you delivering a task for them to start on theirs. It is critical that others are able to rely on the dates you commit to. But how do we become more certain of the dates we give to people?

Let's check back in with Employee A at Company XYZ. Employee A has done a great job to this point, organizing, prioritizing, and estimating their work. They are starting to get a handle on their work! As they review their prioritized list of work, they have a realization! Employee A has committed to too much work in too little time……

How is Employee A going to fix this problem?

Have you ever overcommitted? ….It's surprisingly a common problem. Promising to achieve too much, or deliver reasonable results on an unrealistic schedule.

Consistently meet expectations, stick to the timeline, but costs exceed the approved budget. These issues can be damaging to a project or task, your reputation, or the organization's bottom line.

Not only is overcommitting a common problem, but there is also the issue of under-committing. This occurs when teams or individuals either deliberately over-estimate items or deliberately under-commit to their goals. This is because they anticipate unwanted consequences when they don't achieve all of their goals. This results in the individual or team severely underperforming.

We need to take a completely different approach to setting and reacting to goals. Create an environment that encourages aggressive, achievable commitments while removing the stigma of failure related to not getting all commitments completed. The only true failure is failing to learn from your failures.

We should be encouraged to be reasonably aggressive with our commitments and to continuously take steps to improve our performance. Creating an environment of continuous improvement helps us to create a sense of ownership for our performance.

As a project or task progresses, if it seems likely that we cannot complete all of the work that we've committed to, we need to review the lowest priority items and reduce our overall commitment.

Even with good intentions, we can still find ourselves over or under committing to tasks. Here are some common pitfalls to avoid:

True belief in promised results: This stems from a planning process that isn't sufficient enough. There might be pressure to begin work resulting in a short planning cycle, or you might not have cast a wide enough net when gathering information when developing your plan and scope.

Promises are then made in good faith, only later discovering that the plan didn't include all of the tasks, dependencies, and any other issues that needed to be managed.

Impress the boss: Project teams can be eager to gain the favor of and receive support from their boss or organization's leadership team. As a result, they might be willing to say almost anything to get on an executive's good side. This can lead to authority bias, where the tendency is to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of someone in an authority position.

Not pushing back: Many people are uncomfortable pushing back on timelines that are too aggressive, budgets that are too meager, or resourcing issues. This often results in committing to a plan the team can't deliver on or will need to work long days to meet.

Let's do a quick self-evaluation to see if you have been overcommitting.

Have you solicited input from every stakeholder group involved in your task?

Has advice been sought from outside experts to ensure you have all the necessary data?

Have any issues that could impact the project's progress been fully vetted and addressed in the plan?

If you can't answer "yes" to each of these questions, your team may be on the verge of overcommitting.

Here are some tips you can apply to avoid overcommitting:

Plan, plan, adjust: Spend the time upfront to put a solid plan together. You might feel as if you are wasting time, but the time spent upfront helps to set realistic expectations. Your plan is a living document as you execute the project or task, so be open to changing the plan but know the impacts of those changes.

Create a pause: Whenever possible, avoid agreeing to new commitments on the spot. Instead, slow down the decision-making process to give yourself the space to make a reasoned choice.

  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Ask for time to review your commitments and get back to them with an answer.

Say "no" early and often: If you immediately know that you don't have the capacity to take on the new task, say "no" as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to decline the request.

Think through the project: If you want to take on the new task, stop to think through what you'd need to do in order to complete it.

Review your calendar: Once you've thought through the commitment, review your calendar. This allows you to see where you have — or don't have — open space in your schedule.

Adjust your commitments: If you take on something new that will impact other efforts, make people aware of what they can or can't expect from you. Then put the new commitments on your calendar/work management tool.

Your Task: Take a look at your current workload. By now, you should have all your work prioritized in a central system, with estimations a reasonable amount into the future. Given the tips you have learned in this lesson, have you over-committed? If so, make sure to set new expectations with stakeholders early and often.

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Written by

Austin Churchill