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Outing Burnout

It might be because I’ve had a long summer break and am suitably relaxed (God bless New Zealand with it’s wonderful weather and short weeks) but I’m noticing burnout in change teams.

Change projects often have tight deadlines, high demands and big expectations and those charged with delivery often work harder and longer hours than the business team that they are serving. It’s been that way for a long time, so on one hand I shouldn’t be surprised but on the other I ask myself ‘why haven’t we learned by now?’

Burnout is not good business sense, so why do many organisations and in particular their C-suite leaders not only accept it but set up the conditions that create it? Burnout is a failure of leadership because it doesn’t happen by accident. In fact many cases of burnout are totally predictable from the start of a project.

Here’s how it goes.
Business Manager X decides that what is needed is a new Y. ROI cases are prepared and people are then convinced that new technology/systems/applications are the way forward. From then on the die is caste. Once the C-suite has decided a project will be delivered in 6 months nobody can say it can’t be. Unfortunately it’s also a trend for senior managers to set over demanding expectations of timeline deliberately.
The project team comes along and the people that have the expertise start to look into things in the kind of detail you can’t at the business case stage and it becomes apparent that it can’t be delivered to the timeline. They look under the stones and find all the things that nobody wants to tell the bosses, find the past patch ups, previous project frailties or the weaknesses in the business case and know they can’t deliver.
It takes a very strong project leader to go back and argue for more time. And even if they do it’s always a negotiation (everything in life is a negotiation as you know) and if they get a bit more time they don’t get all they need and the don’t get more resource to fill the gap between the time they need and the time they get.

Short of time and short of resource. Only one outcome.

But burnout doesn’t happen everywhere to everyone. The shortage plays out for some roles more than others. Often there is only one expert available for something when the timeline needs 1.5. Sometimes it’s the project manager themselves. And this is the worst case of burnout from a business point of view. You work the people who the project pivot around to a state of incapacity. If the one person who knows how the software works keels over before the end of the project, what’s the outcome? If the person who is responsible for keeping the project hanging together is barely hanging together themselves, what is the outcome?

Change projects run Risk registers. But I’ve not seen many that actually list key individuals and then monitor their real hours (not just in the office: what time are they sending emails?), stress levels, physical health and mental wellbeing throughout a project. It’s not something we talk about is it. ‘You doing ok John?’ is as far as it goes for most.

Maybe burnout needs to be a a C-Suite KPI?

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