You look across the conference table at your business lead. He's checked out, surfing his phone, when a question flies his way. "Sorry, what was that?" At least he's here. Your executive sponsor stopped showing up to your briefings months ago. Your engineers stopped showing up in person too, preferring to join by phone so they can work on the other projects piling up on their desk. And you? Well, you're dreaming of that vacation coming up next month, fantasizing about landing that new job and escaping this slow, grinding torture that seems to have no end
Sound familiar? If you've ever been involved in a large transformation program, you've likely seen the symptoms before. Project burnout. It happens to the best of us and the best of our projects, no matter the importance and initial energy. Why? Because we're human. Persistence and resilience over the long haul are not our strong suits. Just ask people (me included) in March how their New Year's resolution to lose weight is going.
Project burnout is common but not inevitable. You can use a few "project hacks" to avoid it or at least reduce the likelihood. These include
Building a Coalition
Ever seen a C-suite executive swoop in, start a major transformation initiative, then just as quickly bail leaving everyone else holding the bag? It happens more often then you may think, and when it does, the program usually fizzles, dying a slow, agonizing death. Without the forceful personality of a senior exec, the program lacks a sponsor to get it over the finish line.
You can mitigate against this risk by getting executive buy-in across the organization, building a coalition of passionate advocates who internalize the initiative's goals and make it their own. Not only does it provide some redundancy should someone leave, it creates a tribe that supports each other through the change. When one member gets disheartened or burned out, others can encourage him or her and pick up the slack in the meantime.
You can go overboard with the size and formality of a coalition. Keep it small - 3-5 members - and rely on their informal self-organization rather than an overly formal meeting schedule. At most, get them together as a steering committee every few months, giving them space in between those meetings to connect and build bonds.
Delivering Quick Wins
"We're rolling out a new ERP! It's going to be great, it will make your life so much easier. When will you have it? Oh, 3-5 years." See the point above: we humans aren't the best long term thinkers and planners. Just ask our poor planet.
Thankfully, this common cause of burnout is easily solved. Structure your program as much as possible to have a series of quick wins spaced out across the first year of the program. These quick wins should deliver real value to at least a subset of your organization: your internal IT group, an office, a business line, etc. You accomplish two things: building internal advocates who tell others about their positive experience and benefits, and keeping the project team engaged with the program's mission.
People like to celebrate success. No surprises there. It doesn't need to be hokey or expensive; just enough to say "Thank You" to the broader team and let off some steam. You can throw a potluck or happy hour, give a thoughtful gift or a gag gift about some inside joke of the project, whatever resonates with your team. Be mindful that for many people, an after-hours activity is off-putting, creating more stress and taking them away from their families, so it may create the opposite effect. But a thoughtful, well-executed celebration goes a long way in avoiding burnout.
Rotating Team Members
Finally, plan transition and turnover into your project. This includes you, at least in terms of the role you play on the project. Assume people will roll in and out, so make sure you are not relying on a few critical individuals to prop up your enterprise. Build redundancy and resiliency into your plan, and structure the milestones so they engage different parts of the organization.
Most projects fail. You've seen the stats. Being successful in any project is an uphill battle, something we slog through to reap the benefits on the other side. Just don't overlook the high likelihood that at some point, people will burn out on your project. This includes you! With some forethought and planning, you can minimize the risk of burnout.
Like most things in life, you don't need to go it alone. You're not a mythical hero, and please don't martyr yourself for the sake of the program. Seek out colleagues and mentors that have battle scars from past projects, and lean on their expertise and encouragement. Their wisdom and advice can be its own form of burnout avoidance.
Leading Change by John Kotter
ADKAR: A Model for Change in Business, Government, and Our Community by Jeffrey Hiatt
Change Management: The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey
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