IT Project Leadership #2: How to lead a team through burnout and boredom
I’ve been thinking about IT Projects that we've helped steer out of troubled waters lately and in, probably, eight out of ten cases the issue was with the people working on the project. This isn't a criticism of that talent, far from it, I'd happily be a referee for most of them. The issue isn't quality, it boils down to two talent issues that will sink a project faster than scope creep ...
Burnout and Boredom.
Great IT Project talent doesn't suddenly start performing less well for no reason. IT Project rock stars don't lose their A-game overnight, they leave clues. Project managers often relinquish this responsibility as ‘a problem for the line manager’ but as leaders, we are just as responsible. Shaking things up – breathing life into a bored or burnt out project team is a fabulous investment in time and will pay back in greater productivity and project success.
Burnout and boredom are on the rise. They are symptoms of a perfect storm of increasingly complex IT Projects, tighter budgets, greater transparency, blurred business needs, stakeholder interference, actually it's a long list and it's stressing me out just writing about it so let's cut to the cure.
IT'S ALL ABOUT YOU
The first thing is to accept responsibility. As Project Leader, it's all down to you! Yep! All of it!! The project manager who is having the extended cigarette breaks, the guy who seems to spend twice as long as everyone else boiling a kettle, the BA who quickly flicks their screen from Facebook to Slack when you enter the office – all the above and more.
In the same way that you'll take the applause from the c-suite when your project delivers in triumph, you need to also shoulder some responsibility for your team's less productive behaviours and address them. BUT find out what’s driving them first!
Does YOUR team understand the purpose they work toward? I can't think of an IT Project that has ever failed where the team is 100% on board with the mission vision. It just doesn't happen! On the contrary, teams who are bought into the WHY of an IT Project delight in finding the HOW. Make sure that your project’s vision and its importance to the business is understood by everyone.
Complexity is one of the greatest drivers of both burnout and boredom. IT Projects are getting increasingly complex and I'm seeing a lot of frazzled talent trying to keep up with it all and a lot of apathy among those that have given up trying.
Better training; extra resourcing from the Project Management as a Service market; better separation of tasks into more manageable, workable chunks; more open cultures where talent can admit they're out of their depth and not be judged ... there's a seemingly endless list of things that you can do to help with complexity.
Another great cause for fatigue and ennui is overexposure to stakeholders and contacts within the wider business. I covered this in a recent blog about corridor conversations becoming business expectations, in our desire to be more transparent we have left ourselves open to 'important' requests coming from all angles. Distractions, like a member of your team being asked for a status update, can take a few minutes to accommodate but they soon add up.
Also, this can be the thin end of the wedge, - if you're not careful. A friend is a project manager who has a c-level stakeholder who frequently asks for status updates as an 'ice breaker' ahead of then asking for a more time-consuming piece of work. "How's project X coming along?" he'll ask. The unsuspecting team member will break off to give him an update at which point the exec will say, "While I've got you, could you just ..."
Disciplined schedules and routine are key to productivity and contentment, project teams soon get worn down by constant interruptions to their workflow. Setting up clear procedures for how the business interacts with your team will make a huge difference. The PM above, for instance, has just instigated an "everything through me" policy to protect her team.
IT AIN'T WHAT YOU DO, IT'S THE WAY THAT YOU DO IT
Consider YOUR impact and how your expressions may affect your team. This is a hard one and needs a bit of honest self-awareness.
One of my friends had an epiphany recently, morale was low and it turned out her facial expressions were not helping! She found this out when she overheard team members talking about her "face of thunder"!! She was actually in good spirits but her look of concentration was being misread as moody, worried or furious by her team. It was infectious. She told me that she was mortified - she is the least moody, worried or furious project leader I know - but her resting face fell naturally into a frown! She said she has started smiling more and the mood has lifted.
Think about how you interact with your team, the words you use, your tone of voice, even the look on your face - it could be affecting productivity.
HOUSE OF FUN OR HOUSE OF PAIN?
The IT Projects you work on disrupt markets, drive innovation, stimulate growth, secure jobs, etc. What we do is a serious business. But it doesn't have to not be fun. In fact, it should be fun and as IT Project leader you are responsible for making it so. Not in a David Brent way, I mean, this isn't going out for drinks, declaring fancy dress Fridays and hosting baking competitions - although, if these work for you .. go for it!
No, this just ensuring that coming to work is a pleasure, not a chore.
And you can do this with the smallest of tricks, one Project Manager I know incorporates song titles into his emails and project reports - the team actually looks forward to receiving them and spotting the songs! I've borrowed this for this blog, did you notice?
As IT Project Leaders, together with delivering a healthy return on investment, measurable business value and stakeholder needs, increasingly we have an extra responsibility - to safeguard the wellbeing of our talent. It really matters because without your talent you don't have a hope of delivering those other things expected of you! While that is a great reason to have their back, it should be about much more than this.
It's a human thing, IT Projects are increasingly complex, virtual teams and remote working mean less contact - that small human touch is a leadership skill all IT Projects will benefit from.