Overcoming the challenges of the ‘overcommitted organisation’ | AUA Blog


Pete Quinn | Consultant
Pete Quinn Consulting

Universities face many challenges at present, some of which are impacting most large organisations. At a team level a diverse workforce can be a huge asset but not without some investment in terms of time, training and talent-management. The diverse nature of teams includes:

  • Multigenerational teams (currently 4 generations in the workforce).
  • Neurodiverse teams (team members with Specific Learning Difficulties/Differences and people with autism as well as ‘neurotypicals’).
  • Diverse teams in terms of protected characteristics.
  • Diverse in terms of personality types and ways of working.

Along with this diversity a further challenge for many teams, in our ‘doing more with less’ era, is to manage work and communications across multiple teams with similar goals, projects or ‘working groups’. This becomes more challenging when you, and everyone else, are working in your original team but then become part of a wider project team within or between organisations (think satellite campuses, inter university collaborations, pathway colleges, faculty and department mergers).

Universities are not alone in being ‘overcommitted organisations’ where multiple responsibilities beyond business as usual (e.g. implementing CRMs, VLEs, space planning, organisational restructures and new data or legal compliance initiatives) leave teams and their members working simultaneously on a plethora of projects. Deploying different specialists to different projects, sharing brainpower and knowledge makes sense. That said, several key principles are critical to success and go beyond simple project completion.

Overcommitted teams and individuals face issues that include:

  • Key project personnel being swamped at critical junctures
  • Communication drift and subsequent discord between individuals, teams and project leads
  • Decreasing engagement, performance and satisfaction (at a team and individual level)
  • Increasing stress and impact to performance including burnout

Most studies on change programmes show a high percentage of failure. In our rapidly changing HE environment this is potentially more likely given the swiftly morphing strategic priorities in universities and overcommitted and overlapping teams. The ‘consolidation time’ that used to enable a recharge of energy or complete business as usual work are long gone in most of the universities I have worked with and for.  


These multiple impacts that can hamper projects do more than jeopardise the project itself. They affect team cohesion, lead to a mushrooming of competing priorities and sometimes burnout.[1] Burnout not only impacts individuals but has knock on impacts on fellow team and project members. Aside from stress and physical exhaustion burnout also has roots in a shift from organisational core values with resulting disengagement and dissatisfaction of individuals and teams. The well-being impacts notwithstanding, sickness absence, demotivated teams and failure to meet time critical project milestones can and do have serious consequences on universities.

My work recently has included helping teams and individuals to avoid burnout and mitigate the overcommitted model through evaluating and implementing evidenced ‘fixes’ suitable for the teams and projects involved. These go beyond meeting, email and life / work discipline.

These fixes include:

A formalised project launch (often overlooked) which should be done in person.  Launch or kick-off events enable project team members to share their current competing priorities. This prevents assumptions about who can pick up project tasks and clarify when multiple conflicts will emerge [e.g. during admissions, examinations or graduations, building moves, CRM implementations or organisational restructures]. Silo working is still commonplace in many universities and open and honest launch meetings mean different teams (and project leaders) are aware of, and can mitigate for, the multiple commitments teams or individuals are already managing. HBR research shows performance can be improved by 30% when launches take place. It’s also proven to be beneficial to have re-launch meetings if more than 15% of the project team changes.

A quick Skills mapping exercise detailing each project team member ensures that roles are clear and project teams aren’t duplicating effort. More importantly, perhaps, the mapping can give an opportunity to evaluate how team members can help each other in meeting the goals of the project and developing skills in doing so. Recent AUA blogs show the value of different experiences and these need not be unrelated.

Finally, I am often reminded of a PVC who I was interviewing during a consultancy project who said, “…for a learning organisation, we are not very good at learning”. People on projects who are committed to a learning environment tend to experience more meaning and purpose, a key element of positive well-being. Learning from each other on projects should be an outcome for everyone involved. Although this element is often crowded out by time pressures. As “teaching and learning communities”, shouldn’t part of our projects be to facilitate the learning of our project teams and continuously transform project methodology as they progress? 

Applying these small fixes to the projects you are working on is not as difficult as you may perceive and should lead to benefits on a variety of fronts including efficiency, effectiveness and, of most importance, team and individual well-being.

[1] For more on burnout see  https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/recovering-from-burnout.htm

Pete is a Consultant with the AUA. To find out more about AUA Consultancy and how we can help you and your institution, please go to our Consultancy Page.

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