Sunshine on a rainy project
13th September 2020
When working on large transformational projects, there is often an understandable focus on those that will be affected by the change. Thought will quite rightly be put into engagement and communication planning, alongside robust stakeholder analysis that will ensure that all relevant voices are represented. These activities are absolutely crucial, however there is another important angle that is too often overlooked: how will those working on the change sustain their energy levels and wellbeing?
We have probably all worked on one of ’those’ programmes. You know the type: a programme that is sold to you as a real ’career development opportunity’, but in reality is a hard slog which becomes all-consuming for seemingly years on end. Programmes like this seem to always have ambitious goals and (being diplomatic) often seem to have rather ambitious ’stretch’ goals when it comes to delivery dates. As conscientious change practitioners, this often means we work longer hours to ensure that deadlines are met. This might be fine in the short term, but do it for too long and burnout ensues. It can be an insidious creep – a few extra hours here, a little bit of weekend working there. Then all of a sudden you find yourself staring at your screen at 3am in the morning having not slept yet, remembering that you’ve had to shoe-horn in a 7am meeting as tomorrow is so full. What is even more worrying is that this can begin to feel normal as everyone is doing it…
Agreeing how to work: set ’tripwires’
Working longer and longer hours can rarely be sustained. We can probably all remember times when we’ve done this and have ended up resenting the project as a result. We start to miss out on obligations with our friends and families, and life and our personal wellbeing starts to suffer as a result.
Chip and Dan Heath in their book Decisive set out the idea of ‘tripwires’, and this is a useful concept for us to adapt to this situation too. A tripwire is a set of circumstances defined in advance that trigger action. We are deciding in advance what is acceptable, and deciding what action we’ll take if those conditions are breached. A project report might well talk of exceptions and tolerances in terms of time or budget. Tripwires are similar and can help us take a pulse reading of how people are doing.
There’s no inherently right or wrong way of setting a tripwire, and they have so many possible applications. Here is a possible example:
|Triggered by||Action||Tripwire can be reset by|
|A project team member is required to work excess hours of more than X% consistently for > Y days||Timesheets
Raised by individual
|Immediate one-line ‘amber flag’ message sent to sponsor by PMO
Resource review held between team member, their manager and project manager
Retrospective discussions on why the resource pinch-point wasn’t foreseen
Individual involved (only)
It’s important to note that this tripwire has been set in advance, when heads are at their coolest. This makes decision making easier when things are tough because we’ve already decided what we’ll do and when we’ll do it. We’ve ‘automated’ elements of the decision making in advance to reduce the cognitive load when we’re in the thick of it.
We also define who the tripwire can be reset by. In the example above, we see that it is only the individual themself who can hit the reset button (there might be times, for example, when someone is deliberately and voluntarily working longer hours as they have taken on a new and demanding role). Crucially, the decision is with the individual, not their manager—it isn’t an issue that can be strategically hidden away on a risk log somewhere.
Plan to keep the sun shining (but accept the rain)
Of course, working unsustainably long hours isn’t the only issue that we need to consider when it comes to major programmes of work. We also need to consider how we and our colleagues will stay motivated. What seems very exciting during the initial ideation phases can seem much less appealing when we’re down in the detail.
As human beings we seem to be inherently social creatures, and it’s worth considering how the team will socialise. For dispersed and virtual teams this can be more difficult but is equally important — an optional Friday night Zoom call with drinks might not be the same as a pint down the pub, but it goes a long way to providing opportunities for people to socialise in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Yet, however much effort we put into cultivating an environment where people are at their happiest, there will be times of stress. Sunshine is followed by rain, and there will be tough times for us all to endure. As conscientious team members, we should look out for each other — if someone appears ‘down’ we should find out if there’s anything we can do to support them. We should cultivate an environment where taking some time out occasionally is not just accepted but encouraged. After all, having someone unproductively sitting in front of a monitor going through the motions is achieving very little.
In setting our tripwires, looking out for our colleagues and empathetically engaging we build humanness into our project teams. And surely that’s a good thing?
by Adrian Reed, Business Analysis Expert
 Chip and Dan Heath, 2014. Decisive: How to Make Better Decisions. Random House Business