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Part 2: One Matchstick at a Time — Mental Models, Resource Capacity, and Human-Friendly Work

March 22, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

In our last blog, we talked about the negative impact of what is perceived as an unending workload.

Previously, being burnt out was a condition that only members of the 80-hours-a-week club could claim (at least, that was what a CFO I worked for often proclaimed.) Today, unfortunately, thanks to COVID-19, we have come to accept that burnout has other, more insidious causes, like an unending workload.

In this blog, I will explore why this situation has reached the tipping point and, I hope, show how easily we can tip the scales back into a healthy direction.

The element of choice

When I started my career in Silicon Valley, burnout was so common that almost every company had an unwritten policy that top performers could ask for their 90-day stress leave when they reached the end of their rope. It was a safety net we all knew was there to catch us if pushed too hard for too long.

This safety net was designed to support the mythos that people could choose to undertake “special projects” where they knew they might not see their families awake for six months or a year. In theory, they also knew the sacrifice would be rewarded with recovery time if necessary and a fast-track career.

If I’ve written this correctly, it should be clear that people were supposed to feel they had a choice as to whether they “signed up” for those hours, and that the work would be acknowledged and publicly rewarded. This element of choice was the critical thread that held the mythos together. Additionally, companies that broke the rule and conscripted people onto a “death march” project become companies no sane person wanted to work for.

So how has burnout gone from being a condition related to overwork to a condition related to having too much work, especially since employees have complained about having too much work forever?

What’s changed today is that we’ve structured work in what we’d hoped would be a more efficient manner and, therefore, decided that the previous focus on choice and rewards is no longer necessary. The only problem is that the new system completely fails to recognize how human beings, especially those who create new products and new software for a living, are neurocognitively wired.

Too much work leads to disengagement

Dr. David Rock, author of “Your Brain At Work,” developed a neurocognitive model he calls SCARF to explain how people interact with work as a social institution. Effectively, according to Rock, the brain responds to social threats and rewards with the same intensity as physical threats and rewards. This means that if a person feels that they are losing their autonomy at work (a prized commodity for a knowledge worker), they somatize their reactions, leading HR to think they have a problem with “stress.”

If you don’t think this situation applies to your organization, ask around and see if anyone in your company is assigned to more than two projects or supports multiple products. If the answer is yes, there’s a high probability (at least in any project/product-oriented environment) that you have structured the work in a manner that virtually guarantees disengaged employees.

A new mental model for projects and resources

The solutions to this problem in the project/product are simple (at least on the surface), but I believe it will take a combination of the PMO, Finance, and HR to make the end-to-end changes required.

The steps for easily solving this problem involve creating a simple model.

  • The first assumption is that no product or project has any value to the organization until it’s completed, at which time value can be assessed.
  • The second assumption is that, with rare exceptions, all previously approved work has a potential value equal to or greater than any newly approved work.

These assumptions, if accepted, can lead directly to a second small set of rules.

  1. Since a project or product has no “value” until its completed, project/product work should be structured toward the earliest (risk-adjusted) delivery date.
  2. Any new work can only start when resources are available.
  3. Resources only become available when their project completes or is canceled, or if additional resources have been procured.
  4. When resources are available, new work can start in a rough priority order, based on the skills of the available staff members.

Implementing the mental model

If you’re like me, you’re probably saying: “If it’s that simple, why isn’t everyone doing it?” The answer is that it is simple today when you have the right tool.

While it was possible with older technology tools, I want to acknowledge that many, many organizations tried but failed to get the tools to work as they’d hoped. So, rather than do nothing, they defaulted to excel. The problem is that doing true recourse capacity with excel is virtually impossible once an organization needs to manage staff sizes in the 100s.

Will fixing the portfolio resource capacity planning process fix all the problems we’ve discussed so far? No, and that’s why we will continue to need the help of Finance, HR, and the PMO to rebuild a culture that allows people to thrive.

The 8C wheel

Diagram for workplace burnout

As part of preparing to write this blog, I started writing down a list of the concepts that will need to be reinforced to build a new work culture.

Up to this point, I’ve been stressing the fact that people need to feel in control. They also need to feel a sense of accomplishment in their work. Those two elements translate directly to cures to burnout.

If we focus on completing projects/products, we offer employees a sense of accomplishment. If we ensure that people are not so inundated with work that THEY can plan their day, they can once again feel in control. If we start to give them some choice in their work assignments, they will be even happier.

In my next blog, I’ll continue to outline how the 8C wheel can help us know what to emphasize, specifically in our work toward building a healthy culture that improves outcomes and productivity in our technical areas.

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