The Season of The Firehose: Managing Margin by Asking for Room

In a recent article (The Season of The Firehose: Fostering Innovation When Life Is Too Full) I clarified that margin is prerequisite to innovation and encouraged leaders to free up people’s time in order to boost the creativity of their teams. I know that taking things off the To Do List sounds counterproductive especially during the Season of the Fire Hose when you’re already feel overwhelmed and looking for maximum engagement. This tactic is worrisome because it feels like you’re taking your foot off the gas or failing to get everything out of everyone. It seems wiser to push everyone to their limit when resources are tight and the productivity of the team is a measure of your own performance. Unfortunately, people don’t perform very well for very long at their limit; they burn up or burn out and you’ll find yourself more overwhelmed than before. Counterintuitively, the secret to exceptional performance and persistence is margin, and margin exists only when people are functioning below their absolute maximum capacity. If you want to get the most out of your team, you may need to recalibrate your concept of what it means to be “fully engaged” to include a little room.

Let me give you a picture to illustrate this idea. Each time I order coffee at my local coffeehouse, the barista asks me if I want “room”. By this, she is asking me if I’d like her to leave space in the cup for me to add cream. I always answer “no”, not because I don’t plan on adding cream, but because I’m greedy and I’m trying to pack as much as possible into my cup. The cup she hands me is filled to about three-quarters of an inch from the top with coffee. Technically, this is not “full”, so I proceed to top it off with cream. I fill it right up to the brim. To be honest, I’m especially proud if I manage to get it even slightly above the rim of the cup. (Don’t pretend that you’ve never tried this…) “Now that’s full!” I think, and as I congratulate myself and try to take a sip, I spill it on the counter, on my clothes, or on the poor guy next to me.

When margin disappears, there are no more reserves to allocate and the only way people can take on more is to borrow from what they’ve already committed to something else. That means that if you keep adding work without respect for margin, you will quickly start trading quality for quantity.

It’s ridiculous and embarrassing, but I have this same mishap regularly because I stubbornly refuse to recalibrate my notion of what “full” really means. My caffeine-craving brain is determined to get everything it can out of the cup, and it can’t seem to grasp the reality that the container’s functional capacity is some amount less than its finite capacity. If I want to avoid a big mess, all I need to do is ask for “room” and resist the urge to max it out. (Last week, I literally drew a line on the outside of my cup to remind myself that “full” includes a little margin!)

Like my coffee cup, your team’s functional capacity is less than its finite capacity, and if you fill it to the brim, you may congratulate yourself on your efficiency but end up with a mess on your hands. When there’s no “room”, people can’t encompass everything they’re supposed to, emotions spill over, and people get burned.

Instead, rethink what it means to be fully engaged and factor some “room” into the way you lead. Your people are “fully engaged” before they are working at full capacity and you’ll need to exercise discipline not to max everything out. Just because a team member can take on another project doesn't mean he or she should. Just because there is still some time available doesn't mean you should fill it. These choices are especially tricky with your top performers because it’s always tempting for you to give them more. After all, even when they’re busy, they’re your best bets, and as the saying goes, the only reward for good work is more work. But be careful; this is a good way to run off your best people or turn your top performers into mediocre ones.

When margin disappears and there are no more reserves to allocate, the only way people can take on more is to borrow from what they’ve already committed to something else. That means that if you keep adding work without respect for margin, you will quickly pass the point of diminished returns and start trading quality for quantity. Performance will lag and top performers will leave when cannibalizing their commitments and compromising their standards is the only way to survive.

If you want your people to perform and persist, manage their margin well.