Minimizing Project Fatigue

A few months ago, I participated in a discovery session with a client to better understand their organizational needs and plans for upcoming projects. The leadership team mentioned that one of the organization’s key challenges is employees suffering from project fatigue. Employees had participated in so many different projects in recent years, their energy and focus were waining when it came to new initiatives. Employees found themselves becoming distracted, losing sight of the goals set out by the organization. A few years ago, I had worked with this same client on improving their account payables and contract management systems. It was evident then that there were a few key resources that they had relied on for both initiatives. The new initiative, which was being reviewed at the meeting, was going to be their most ambitious yet and would call on the same team members to deliver success yet again.

At another client, where a large time and attendance system was being implemented, a similar theme prevailed. The organization had been contemplating this system upgrade for many years, with numerous false starts along the way. Finally, over a year ago after justifying the business case, the project kicked-off. Simultaneously, another large initiative that was already underway for 2 years went off the rails. Alarm bells sounded and the immediate focus shifted back to rescuing the struggling project. Both projects now shared key resources which were spread too thin. Since both projects had different stakeholders and funding sources, both leadership teams demanded that their respective projects continue to move forward. As the rescued project started to achieve success and come out from the shadows, the project resources were exhausted. The shared resources also developed preconceived fears about the newer initiative. Leaders were concerned about mistakes made in the rescued project being repeated in the new project, placing pressure on employees. Oftentimes, though, the mistakes made in the rescued project did not apply to the new project, so the fear and pressure were unwarranted. This stress impaired employees’ decision making and negatively impacted the progress of the latest project.

So why do organizations fall into the trap of unrealistic project demands, requiring a period of unsustainable overwork that leads to exhaustion, anxiety and eventual burnout of team members? In some cases, organizations do not heed the warnings presented by the project team members. In other cases, they do not even realize they are suffering from organizational fatigue, losing focus along the way. This is a substantial obstacle to project success, and it impedes an organization’s ability to drive change and operationalize new ways of doing business. Project fatigue is inevitable, especially on larger projects, however, there are ways to minimize project fatigue, especially if the organization acts in a proactive manner. Consider these 5 practices that can help:

Get Aligned at All Levels

There are numerous top-down approaches to planning, but the key is to focus on the core business practices and link the strategies throughout an organization. New projects are funded to support an organization’s strategy. To ensure the projects are delivering, define the performance measures and establish the goals for those measures of success. This enables transparency and alignment from the strategic to the operational levels. Since organizations tend to prioritize planning according to fiscal budgets, the almighty dollar is usually the starting point for an initiative. However, there are other key factors that should be considered when scoping out a new effort – the operational business cycle, available resourcing, and an organization’s appetite for change to name a few.

Learn and Distribute Your Knowledge

Become a learning organization. Learn from prior experiences and weave the new behaviors into future planning and execution activities. The costs of failing from prior mistakes and the execution of operational fire drills to right a recurring wrong are impactful to an organization. Many organizations tend to fall back into their comfort zones and readopt bad habits. This is costly in the long term as organizations follow sacred policies that may have conflicting goals. As you standardize your new way of doing business, make sure to distribute the knowledge across multiple resources so that you can minimize dependency on a few select resources and mitigate risk. Sustainable success cannot always rely on the heroics of individual team members, but rather on an organization’s capability and effectiveness in completing activities the right way.

Listen to Those Closest to the Work

As the Lean principle states, those closest to the work have the expertise and the collective intelligence. For more traditional and hierarchical organizations, applying this concept to planning can be challenging. Organizations should solicit input from the project team members and incorporate their inputs into the planning process. Over the years, agile and lean practices have refined such approaches. Planning at a high level without factoring in an operational perspective can lead to challenging circumstances.

Make the Most of the Opportunity Afforded

The implementation of a new system is about more than just the system and its direct users. Leverage the opportunity to re-engineer processes and improve the way things are done. This could also include an organizational redesign to define clearer roles and responsibilities, enabling greater productivity and efficiency going forward.

Recognize Success in a Visible Manner

Progress is a great motivator. If highlighted effectively, progress can energize a team. Make sure everyone knows about project successes both big and small. This includes recognition beyond the group that has been working on the project. This can also lead to increased collaboration as one team may be interested in learning what effective practices were employed by the successful team. Organizations also use monetary rewards such as spot bonuses which are used on an individual basis, but these tend to have a more short-term impact.

It is exciting to be a part of an organization that has ambitious goals. There is a responsibility that comes along with the implementation of such goals. The organization should ensure that operationally, project teams have the best opportunity to deliver effective results in a cohesive and productive fashion, thereby minimizing impediments such as project fatigue.

Shane Gerson

About Shane Gerson