I’m not afraid to admit I’ve been “stuck” or burned out a few times in my career. My last article was an early lesson in burnout when of all things, my boss asked me to postpone my much-awaited vacation. Likely it was that deep emotional wound that prepared me for this next challenge where I found inner strength and witnessed positivity can turn any project around.
Inheritance is not what it seems
It all started with a project that I inherited from another project manager. The project manager was a contractor hired temporarily for this role. She showed many signs of being burnout herself. More frequently, she was late with status reports and forgot to check in with the team. She seemed defeated. She couldn’t manage the workload and quit.
When I came into the role, post planning and well into the design phase, I thought, “Awesome. I’ll just manage this to the end,” my most unforgiving project assumption ever. Why wasn’t I asking what was going on with her workload?
What I didn’t know was that the scope had gone sideways, the design also bending sideways and the team was not excited about the work. I had inherited a little mess that was growing more out of touch with the client’s needs. With a more senior project manager at the helm in the beginning, I thought this was going to be a rather straight-forward assignment.
Grumblings in the hallways
The team put in long hours from the onset of the project. Likely understaffed, each member was working well over 50 hours a week. The culture in the office always caught rumor of that one project that was going to be really hairy. People would say, “Oh! You’re on that disaster? Yea, good luck with that.”
My first thought was to change this attitude. I didn’t want my team to feel like castaways, and I didn’t appreciate the rumblings and taunting from the rest of the company. Overall, most of the team was fairly junior with this being their first taste of an intense, fast-paced project.
In talking with a few team members, I suggested we rebrand the project. We gave it the nickname, “Casey” and corrected anyone who called it anything else. I got laughs, strange looks and many who said changing attitudes about this project would never work. Consider it my Lucille Ball approach to team management to do whatever it takes to get a laugh, even if I looked ridiculous. If others we laughing at me, they weren’t laughing at the team who could now get down to business.
Right around the same time, some of the team was asked to split their time on another project which according to leadership, needed “bodies” thrown at it. What a horrible expression. Anyway, I was assigned Project Manager of that too so that I could better allocate work evenly amongst the now combined team of 25. The second project needed the same skill sets so everyone was asked to “step up.” How could the team possibly do any more?
We called that project “Reggie” implementing a lot of the same working norms and positive team approach to the project. One of the new things that emerged was a place for us to work. We were relocated to the large boardroom.
For the few of us on both projects, it was a little dizzying. Which use cases where those? Whose technical specs are these? Where is the latest conceptual architectural diagram? And so on. Both projects were government clients using near identical templates required for our deliverables. Thank goodness for online collaboration tools.
I was now pretty stressed out. There was a subteam that needed help to stay on schedule, so I volunteered my developer skills in the evenings. Now I had three roles – project management of two separate projects and developing for one of the subteams. What was I thinking?
Positive Energy Pulls Through
Long gone were the days of grumbles about each of these projects. I saw a gentle shift in the team. They felt listened to. They felt important. We made up silly rewards and stickers, and individual nicknames just to keep us light and fresh. The team gave me the nickname “Positive PM Patty.” I was honored. We completed each of the projects, having numerous scope discussions and an iterative approach until we were done.
- The energy of one person can make a difference. A team without direction, leadership and an understanding of the larger vision will be miserable. Most teams are starved for communication, recognition for their hard work and more meaning in what they’re working towards. Combine good team management with a positive attitude and empowerment, and the team’s energy expands.
- Heavy workloads require prioritization. How could any team take on more when they are already at their max? Leveraging unique strengths, empowering each other and realizing “we’re in this together” allows for learning to grow. Large workloads sometimes can assist you to be cautious for additional work. If you’re taking on a new assignment, what of your existing assignments can be put on the back burner?
- Leadership influences everyone. No one likes to be on a castaway project, nor benefits to see any project within the organization as a castaway project. Leaders have an obligation to set the example and keep morale going. Using phrases like “throwing bodies” at the problem and “the project’s on fire” influences team behavior. As soon as a leader gives up, the team will wonder, why bother? Or worse, you’ll see turnover increase.
The final story in this burnout trilogy is the biggest burnout yet – a perfect storm burnout. What may surprise you, is the final story is my favorite because through the experience, I have regained self-reliance and confidence in a way that I couldn’t have imagined. Curious? Stay tuned next week.
Want to vent about work stress that’s currently happening to you?
If you have or are currently feeling on the verge of burnout, post a comment or an email at Jessica at managingmindspaces.com.