Part 3: One Matchstick at a Time — Pinching Out the Flame

March 31, 2021 | By Donna Fitzgerald

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we’ve been talking about the causes of burnout, but we haven’t yet asked whether you or anyone else you know is burnt-out. There is a very short assessment test you can take (Olden burnout). According to the test, you can see if you are disengaged or exhausted or over the mean on both.

If you are, the question is, what can YOU do about it, especially when we find ourselves still struggling with virus-related restrictions.

Without diminishing the fact that poorly structured workloads are causing burnout, I believe that we, as individuals, can make choices as to how severely we let this problem impact us.

Asking questions to understand the why

ControlBegin by utilizing control. You don’t need to keep task switching. I’m going to skip discussing all the personal productivity practices you can find on the web and limit this blog to discussing how best to deal with burnout caused by an unending workload.

Your first assignment is to understand the “value” of the work you are being asked to do. If you think you are too busy to ask that question, no matter what role you are in, you are doing the wrong job.

As a longtime advocate of MBWA¹, I stopped by the desk of one of the developers on my projects and asked if she would find value in learning more about the goals of the project. We chatted for a few minutes, and then she surprised me by saying, “In the eight years I’ve been at this company, no one has ever talked to me about how the software I’m writing is going to be used. Just to let you know, I’m now going to take a completely different approach to implementing this feature than I would have if you hadn’t come by to talk to me.”

There have been jokes about being mushrooms sitting in cubicles for as long as I’ve been in the workforce, but knowledge is power². Knowledge gives you control. In a mixed environment of projects and products, the advice is still the same – always try and understand the Why³. If you can’t understand the why, then drop it to the bottom of your queue. Believe me when I say that I have countless horror stories about backlogs filled with work when nobody even knew why it was there, or of agile backlogs with multiple conflicting stories for the same product… but, for the sake of time, let’s just agree that understanding why always makes things faster, easier, and more enjoyable.

What do you do if you can’t get answers to your questions? First, have a friend review your process for asking questions — sometimes, we phrase the request incorrectly, and friends can help us recognize this. If it turns out that you aren’t the problem, then your organization is.

Normally, I’d suggest getting your resume out, but I have also seen chaotic organizations right themselves. If you see glimmers of hope on the horizon, then I recommend sticking it out a while longer while you continue to ask questions.

Community of Practice

CommunityA second way to deal with the conditions that cause burnout is to build a Community of Practice⁴. Don’t worry if you aren’t a natural organizer! What one person can’t do effectively, another person can.

“Gatherers,” as a former COOs dubbed my proclivities, are people who want the people they work with to be better at what they do while enjoying it more. True Gatherers are NOT interested in power for themselves. It isn’t what drives them. Solving the problem of helping people work better is their goal.

I’m highlighting this because the odds that you will want to personally take the initiative to form a CoP are probably small (less than 20%.) The odds that you can find someone in your organization who does want to do it are probably 80%.

Having watched CoPs come and go over the decades, there are certain best practices I would encourage you to adopt. The first is that the community is responsible only to itself. Official company support is nice, but never necessary. The second is to always remember that it’s a community of Practice. The goal is to share tacit knowledge about the work the group members have in common⁵.

The reward of accomplishment

CompletionA third way to reduce the possibility of burnout is by focusing on Completion. Once you know what the work you have been asked to do is intended to accomplish, you can start choosing a conscious plan for how you will complete a logical portion of it.

Over the last decade, there’s been a disturbing trend to break work down into small bits and operationalize it (taking a factory line approach.) There’s also been a trend to take the discipline of project management (an extreme example of a completion-oriented occupation) and move the focus from completed project to completed paperwork.

Knowledge workers generally have a much higher curiosity factor built into their personalities, and sameness can negate the benefit of completing small bits of work. Knowledge workers usually appreciate bigger, more meaty chunks of “new” work to feel satisfied.

Consider how finding a small problem at your organization and setting aside some time to fix it can rejuvenate your outlook on life. Early in my career, I noticed everyone complained about how difficult it was to get approval to buy small pieces of “capital.” Since I was the person who had to process all the requests, I decided to rewrite the procedure and design a new one-page request form to simplify the process. People stopped complaining, and I had a sense of completion⁶.

Using challenges to combat burnout

ChallengeOn the 8C framework, Challenge sits across the circle from Completion. It may seem strange to talk about a new challenge as a cure for burnout, but it’s one of the most effective techniques for countering disengagement. And if exhaustion isn’t too bad, it works there as well.

With all-too-rare exceptions, finding a new challenge often means finding a new job. I want to propose that finding a new challenge at the company you currently work for should be an option you can take advantage of in the not-too-distant future. The Strategic Workforce Planning (SWP) community in HR is chartered with planning for the workforce of the future. One of the aspects they are focusing on is retraining and, more importantly, extending the skills of the current workforce.

The concept of extending skills through cross-training and adjacent assignments has been proven effective in the past. For anyone who has done a good job in the past and is now sliding down into burnout, making a move to something different that still uses most of an individual’s skill set—and yet has some growth potential in terms of new knowledge—might make a lot of sense.

If Challenge is lacking at work, Challenge and fulfillment can come from other sources. Everyone has a story of how one decision in life led them to their ultimate destination. A bad case of burnout once gave me the time to develop my skills as an author and speaker. Fifteen years later, those skills—which I had continued to hone—allowed me to switch my career (yet again) and become a Gartner analyst.

Burnout is a state to avoid, but even burnout can be used positively. In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson offers a perfect description of the right use of Challenge:

“Think of it as a house that magically expands with each door you open. You begin in a room with four doors, each leading to a new room that you haven’t visited yet. Those four rooms are the adjacent possible. But once you open one of those doors and stroll into that room, three new doors appear, each leading to a brand-new room that you couldn’t have reached from your original starting point.

¹Management by wandering around – With thanks to Tom Peters

²The exact reference is “kept in the dark and fed B/S”

³Simon Sinek, Start with why


⁵John Seely Brown is the guru of organizational knowledge sharing. Start with People are the company

⁶I’m often asked if I got permission first to rewrite the procedure. The answer is no. I worked for a company that expected initiative. The element of personal choice is also part of the reward of completion.

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