The Folly of Full Utilization

Bob Wiesner | March 6, 2018

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It’s time to end the pursuit of “full utilization.”

Yeah, all of us who’ve been in management positions in professional services firms or ad agencies have been required to chase that 100% (or more) utilization target. Always seemed to make mathematical sense.

The problem is this: There’s good full utilization and then there’s bad full utilization. And evidence is mounting that as firms become more project oriented, and leaner, they are subjecting themselves to the bad kind. Maybe full utilization of any kind is no longer the best objective.

As reported in this HBR article and interview, companies are forming more teams more often. And while those teams might be getting larger, they are also being populated by the same people who are being stretched way more than ever before.

Once upon a time an account manager handled one or two accounts. Now that same person might be on four or five. The bad part isn’t that they’re now devoting only 20% or so of their mental (and physical) energy to each project. The bad part is the rapidity with which they have to switch from project to project.

The Problem of “Rapid Switching”

Research on attentiveness, focus, stress, energy, and innovation all seem to indicate a common problem: Rapid switching between tasks diminishes one’s effectiveness on each task. You’ve experienced it when you have back-to-back meetings. As the day goes on, you have a harder time concentrating on the current meeting when you’ve just walked away from the previous one. And by the end of the day, you’re toast.

Too high a utilization target means too many teams, which means too many meetings. That means too little downtime. So too much utilization will mean too many burned out, disengaged, non-productive people. Netflix certainly made a strong case a few years ago that it’s not how hard or long you work that matters, it’s what you produce. More – and better – production is inextricably linked to opportunities to recharge your energy and renew your focus.

I don’t think this automatically means that there’s a magic utilization target that’s below 100%. Instead, it’s about the quality of the time you’re utilized. Apply time to fewer tasks that allow you to use your strengths with focus and purpose. Then we can work effectively with relatively few breaks. Think more smartly about how you build your teams. You might get much better results when people aren’t 100% utilized by traditional measurement.



A large agency in LA realized its people were burning out. Of course there were many causes, and lots of them couldn’t be avoided, at least not in the short term.

We took a look at how people were asked to spend their days. One interesting finding stood out. Like many contemporary organizations, this agency was expecting its people to attend an unbelievable – and unhealthy – number of meetings. And many of those meetings were conference calls, which, believe me, are the most inefficient way to get things done. Each person was probably spending 60% of their time in meetings. And, based on interviews, each person regarded half of that time as wasted. 30% of their time translates to about 700 hours a year down the tubes.

We took about a third of the agency through our Conference Calls/Meeting Management workshop. They followed our recommendation to do the following:

  1. Cut back on all meetings, especially conference calls
  2. Reduce the list of invitees
  3. Make the meetings shorter
  4. Adopt excellent meeting protocols

The extra free time – and the better use of meeting time – has made a difference in agency morale and effectiveness. Less has definitely been more.


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