The unrealistic expectation of doing more with less has swept through the ranks of the tech industry. How can you maintain efficiency without burning out?
At LeadDev London earlier this summer, the phrase “do more with less” seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Speakers said it on stage, sponsors invoked it to sell their software, and it came up in many of the hallway track conversations I joined.
With the current financial climate, it’s no surprise that companies are looking to operate with fewer staff members and lower budgets. But what is surprising is the seemingly widely-held belief that these reduced-headcount teams should be able to produce just as much work, if not more. The underlying assumption is that by reducing headcount while keeping expectations high, companies can force their teams to operate more efficiently.
This might be true in the short term, as the team members remaining after any kind of staff reduction strive to preserve their own jobs, but “just work harder” productivity gains are rarely sustainable. Teams can sprint for short periods of time when there’s a motivating reason, but trying to hold that pace long-term will result in burnout and attrition. Research backs this up, with one study finding that companies that reduce headcount underperform their peers for an average of two full years afterward.
Unfortunately, it seems clear that constrained budgets and staffing levels are going to be with us for a while longer, so we’re likely to keep hearing the phrase “do more with less”. What should you do if you’re an engineering leader facing these impossible instructions? Let’s talk about three strategies that can help you achieve great results, while still caring for your team.
Embrace your constraints
You had high hopes for your team over the next few quarters. You were going to grow headcount, ship a bunch of important features, and you had a load of promotions for your team in mind just waiting on the work that would justify them. But now your headcount’s frozen and you may have even had to lay off part of your team.
The temptation of “doing more with less” is to maintain these goals despite them no longer being feasible. The more quickly you’re able to embrace the reality of your situation, however, the more likely it is that you can find positive outcomes amidst your new constraints. If your company went through layoffs, your team might be reduced in both size and morale. Budget restrictions might mean you can no longer justify hiring for all the great projects you were about to embark on or submit the promotions you had lined up.
Constraints can be frustrating if you’re constantly pushing against them, but they can be incredibly clarifying when you embrace them. If your current capacity will only support shipping one major feature each quarter, which feature makes the cut this quarter? If you can only get one or two promotions approved, who are the first people on your prioritized list?
Looking at it from this perspective helps you understand exactly how much “less” you’re working with so you can put together realistic plans for yourself and your team. Having a realistic roadmap can also provide leadership with early visibility, meaning their expectations are adjusted accordingly and they can provide any necessary steer.
Focus on impact
Let’s talk a little bit more about building that realistic roadmap. The current landscape means there’s likely no way you can do all the work you had planned. If this is the case, how do you decide what to prioritize?
The answer starts with making sure you have a solid understanding of what your company needs from your team right now. You should be having regular conversations with both your manager and your skip-level manager to understand both their and the company’s priorities. It’s likely those priorities have changed pretty significantly over the last several months.
Once you have that context, it’s relatively straightforward to re-order your roadmap in a way that spends your team’s capacity in the right places. Collaborate with your team to get an honest appraisal of how much work they’re confident they can deliver over the next quarter and apply that as a cut line to your revised roadmap. That “line of high confidence” allows you to communicate with your leadership about your revised plans in a way that acknowledges the uncertainty of your team’s new capacity.
As your team achieves milestones, focus on celebrating the impact of their work. They won’t be shipping as much, so it’s key that they’re connected to the importance of that work. Make sure your team’s impact is visible to your leadership and others in the organization through things like internal blog posts and all-hands demos of feature releases.
Doing a smaller amount of high-impact work will be far more valuable for your company than spreading your team thin trying to do everything you previously had on your roadmap, and it’s up to you as a leader to make sure the story of that impact gets told.
Keep cooking the books
"A thing I am regularly surprised by: how many engineering managers don't understand that a bunch of their job is making sure that the house (aka the underlying technology quality/stability) always wins, because their job is cooking the books without anyone noticing," author of The Manager's Path, Camille Fournier, posted on X (formerly Twitter) recently.
When you’re facing reduced delivery capacity combined with high organizational expectations, it can be tempting to put a moratorium on quality work and focus all of your available capacity on shipping features. Unfortunately, this strategy isn’t any more sustainable than telling your team to work harder. If you introduce major stability issues in the process of delivering features, those stability issues will overshadow any good work your team is doing and can quickly lead to burnout.
Your job as an engineering leader is to hold a little bit of capacity in reserve so your team can address quality and stability issues that emerge. This means saying yes to a team member’s small refactor to make the feature they’re working on more performant or easier to build. Or addressing a problem that resulted in one of your engineers getting paged at 3 a.m.
Doing that work makes your system more stable, but perhaps more importantly given the current climate, it helps maintain morale. Engineers want to build quality systems, and it’s incredibly demotivating to be told they can’t do that.
The “cook the books” approach works well for small, ongoing quality and stability work, even in the face of reduced capacity, because you’re able to work it in alongside your existing delivery commitments.
Facing a larger project with reduced capacity is a different story. Bartering with upper management for that necessary extra time or budget for quality and stability work requires you to understand how critical or time-sensitive the work is. Are you accruing deeper debt by building on top of what’s currently there? Is it on the verge of causing major stability issues? Help your manager understand why the project is critical even given your reduced capacity by connecting it to company goals. It may be a tough conversation, but remember that bad news now is always better than an unpleasant surprise later.
Celebrate doing less with less
When you’re facing pressure to “do more with less”, it can be scary to push back against that pressure, but that’s exactly what your team, your leadership, and your company need you to do. Your job as a leader is to chart a course forward that allows your team to sustainably deliver the most important things your company needs, balancing quality and speed.
Accepting the mandate of “doing more with less” might push your team well outside the envelope of sustainability into burnout or attrition by trying to do it all. It might mean spending time on something less important over something truly critical due to a lack of reprioritizing. Or it might lead to a catastrophic system outage as a result of neglected stability work.
If you embrace the idea of doing less with less, however, and focus on figuring out the right places to spend your team’s reduced capacity, you can avoid all of these things. It will take persistence on your part to push back on unreasonable expectations, but leveraging your constraints to sustainably deliver the most valuable work on your roadmap will be far more impactful for your company than any attempt to “do more with less” could ever be.