Managing a reduced budget through deprioritisation: insights from inside Facebook
For the second installment in a regular series of leadership insight articles, Mike Yaghmai, head of brands and marketing legal at Facebook, explains how the team approaches budget management and prioritisation. Crucially, he also explores techniques to facilitate team and client buy-in.
In my last WTR column, I shared the challenges our team (Facebook’s Brands & Marketing Legal (BAM)) has faced since transitioning to a remote operation and how we have worked hard to transcend them. Our team continues to navigate these new challenges, but change is everywhere one looks now. Speaking to peers at different companies, many have shared with me their concern over how the likely downturn in economy will impact their teams’ budgets, ability to fund projects and hire much-needed support. Their fears resonate with me.
I led the eBay trademark team through the economic downturn of 2007-2009 and know the pain all too well. It can feel like the demands on the team keep growing while resources become more and more scarce. And as the team leader, you’re left to shoulder the weight of helping the team navigate these challenging conditions while convincing them that everything will be alright, all while assuring your clients they will continue to receive the very best support and service levels. While it is easy to feel under attack and resign to a ‘this is going to be impossible’ mindset, these circumstances are great opportunities to refocus and be more deliberate about how your team spends its human and financial resources.
Ideally you would be disciplined about this all the time and regularly revisit your programme’s resource utilisation, but surely there are many things competing for your attention and focus. With the regular flow of busy work, it is not uncommon for leaders to lose sight of this important task. Don’t get me wrong: we would all love unlimited resources to optimise our programmes, execute novel strategic plans, and offer the very best service possible to our demanding clients, but the reality is that when there’s a downturn in business and financial pressure, we have to explore trade-offs and make hard decisions. This column explores a path I have found helpful in dealing with similar circumstances.
An effective way to think through how to continue to provide top-notch service to your clients with reduced resources is to go through a top-to-bottom prioritisation exercise. The goal of this exercise is to identify the most important and high-priority tasks your team does and to focus on offering those, while deferring low-priority tasks and projects to a later time or deprioritising them all together.
To do this exercise, you and your team will need to compile a list of all the tasks you perform and services you offer. These can be specific to your team (eg, reports you prepare, meetings you attend and tracking you do), things you do with cross-functional partners (eg, support brand use requests for the communications team and review trademark licence language for the contracts and procurement groups) or services you provide to your clients (eg, clearing trademarks and counselling on use). Once you have a complete list compiled, start plugging the tasks into a chart that consists of two axes.
The vertical axis will be the ‘impact’ axis, going from low to high, and the horizontal one will be the ‘difficulty’ axis, ranging from easy to difficult. I use the term ‘impact’ for my vertical axis because this is one of our core values at Facebook: to have the biggest impact, we focus on solving the most important problems to bring us closer to our mission. It sounds simple, but most companies do this poorly and waste a lot of time. We expect everyone at Facebook to be good at finding the biggest problems to work on. If you’d like, you can substitute in a term that better resonates with you and your company, even ‘revenue’ for example.
The next step is to work with your team to decide where each team task fits into the chart. It is important to have team alignment on where each task plugs in. Once you place your full set of tasks onto the chart, you will start to get a sense of which tasks you should be focusing your resources on. Clearly, you will want to prioritise and do more of the ‘high-impact/low-difficulty’ work than the ‘low-impact/high-difficulty’. In fact, the latter quadrant may represent projects and tasks to possibly deprioritise altogether. Why put a ton of resources and time into tasks that have little impact on your business? And if you’re not sure about some of the placements, why not check in with your business partners to pressure test things, a process which should help with getting buy-in and building trusting relationships?
Reprioritisation and deprioritisation based on the above model should hopefully seem achievable, but as a leader, you will need to keep a few things in mind.
First, as you begin this exercise, you may find that some team members are reluctant to participate or feel attacked by the process, so you need to be reassuring and supportive. Consider this: some of the work they have proudly owned and contributions that once seemed important may suddenly feel less important and low impact. It is your responsibility to assure them that is not the case. Perhaps when they began to do the task it was more of a priority but circumstances have changed. Maybe the business has reset its goals now. Assure your team members that it is healthy and important to regularly evaluate projects so that each person can focus on the most high-impact work. It is my role to help the team see this as an opportunity to pivot to more important and relevant projects that will help unlock the path for our company and clients.
Another challenge to be mindful of when conducting these exercises is team alignment. The team members may need assurance that the leadership stands behind them if something that has been deprioritised leads to escalations from unhappy clients. Surely, it is not pleasant to tell clients that you are no longer supporting their project due to more pressing competing priorities, and your teammates may feel reluctant to deliver that message or stand resolute if the client pushes back. But when resources are limited and you have to make trade-offs, this has to be done. Rest assured that your clients are likely going through similar exercises and refocusing their own resources as well.
In BAM, we have taken a few steps to address this challenge. First, we have published and shared our deprioritised tasks list so it is transparent and the entire team is on the same page. This way, it is a team-wide initiative, rather than what may otherwise seem like an individual decision and, also, it affirms that leadership has endorsed it and stands behind the decision. We also use that published list to track escalations so that we can revisit and validate our prioritisation decisions on a quarterly basis. If we learn that our decision led to a considerable number of escalations and that our clients depend heavily on us providing a particular service, we can review whether we assigned it the right ‘impact’ value on the chart or whether we should reprioritise it.
Budget cuts and anticipated financial downturn may be forcing functions for you to kick off the exercise I described above, but in reality, once you start this journey, it should be ongoing and continue to evolve as your company’s goals pivot and adjust. Consider adding this exercise to your quarterly or semi-annual roadmap process to reassess where you are using resources and whether it is still wise. Such proactive team self-assessments will not only help your team and programme focus, but will also hopefully demonstrate accountability and resonate with department and finance leadership as you continue to develop and present your budget asks.
Good luck working through this tricky situation. Hopefully you will continue to learn through this all. Please do share your thoughts and feedback on this topic with the WTR community. Until next time…
The first in this series of insight articles by Yaghmai, titled ‘Leading a team through mandatory work from home’, is available here.
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