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You get the project and development team which is assigned to it recently finished one of those hard-core projects, where everyone is working overtime for long months just to end up being completely burned out.

Now they're starting to work on your new project but they aren't going to get engaged which means their lower performance and few options when any issues pop up. You can't get another team assigned. How to bring back their enthusiasm and engagement back?

UPDATE: It isn't you who rode the team into the ground - you just got them to your project. Also it's not the goal to have them working crazy hours again - you just aim for commitment you'd get form most of other teams in the organization.

  • I also give some suggestion to avoid burnout at pm.stackexchange.com/questions/860/… not exactly the same question I guess. I would hate to lose my +21 votes in a merge too... (well a merged would be good, but current procedure is to close one). – Michael Durrant Mar 9 '12 at 4:06
11

I agree with Shawn and BillThor in general, Rework is a great book about this issue. Also have a look at "The way we're working isn't working". Tony Swartz hits else you need.

I also think you are looking for some specific to-dos.

Here are four.

1) Limit their time in the office (8 hours is plenty, 7 would be better for a while, but you will need some leeway from your management.)

2) As a group, block out about 2 hours a day (NO phone calls, NO meetings, email or IM, except within the group). This is time for them to code, study and breath. 1 hour in the morning and 1 hour in the afternoon. It should be fairly quiet during those 2 hours. If you have to pick just one thing, this is it.

3) If you can, breakup your new project into some smaller bit sized chunks, so the team can get a few small wins to build some momentum on.

4) Recognize good work when it happens, right on the spot.

How this helps

10

I understand this is not the "fix" you were hoping to receive, but I've always found that the best way to deal with this situation is to avoid it altogether. A team that works tons of overtime for long months is not only going to run into "burn out" issues when it comes to the next project, but they are going to be much less effective at their jobs during that overtime.

Rework touches on this topic in two separate sections: 'Go to sleep' and 'Send people home at 5'. They worded it more eloquently than I had been able to prior to reading those passages, so I'll explain via paraphrasing the book:

  • As people work on a project and get tired or burnt out, they become stubborn and will continue to try to push through whatever path they've chosen in a constant effort to reach the 'finish line' in the distance. The result is they don't make smart choices about when to change their tactics/processes/solutions.
  • Creativity is diminished. Reword posits that more productive people simply use their creativity to find ways to do things in a shorter amount of time rather than beating the problem over the head with tons of man hours. The more you slam people against a problem, the less creative they become.
  • Morale suffers. This one is fairly obvious, but should be considered to be a problem just beyond employee satisfaction since low morale means loss of motivation to do things the 'right way' or to tackle larger issues that they would normally jump into head-first.
  • People become more irritable and communication and overall team efficiency can suffer as a result.
  • You get used to doing things in inefficient ways. Rather than working smarter to get the problem done, you simply throw more hours at the problem.

In the long run, the easiest way to bring their enthusiasm and engagement back is to inform the team that the last project helped you to realize that the team needed to strive toward working smarter, not harder. It can be hard to justify this to higher-ups sometimes, but if you can analyse previous projects where you hit "crunch time" and point out places where you had to go back and redo parts (thus wasting time) or that the number of issues/defects was higher than normal (thus wasting time), you begin to build evidence to the fact that you're hurting both the projects and your team more than you are helping anyone by working 50-80 hour weeks for several months.

The alternative, I'm afraid, is usually to overwork them to the point where they start looking for other jobs. Some people are more tolerant than others, but if that kind of project is your 'norm' then I would expect to see a high turnover rate. Typically, you'll end up losing the most skilled people first as it will be easiest for them to find new jobs. In the end, the best thing the team could hear right now to give them hope and motivation is something along the lines of "Look, I know your last project was brutal, but this one will be different. I want you guys fresh and effective, and that means not working yourselves stupid."

  • I'm well aware how overworking affects people and it's not the goal to have people working that way again. What more consider you had no influence on the project which burned them out whatsoever - it's just a team you got to run your project and they look like they don't even care whether you succeed or not. – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 5 '11 at 21:28
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    @pawelbrodzinski The same principle applies: Tell them that you operate differently from the last project manager. Help them to work smarter rather than harder and make sure they know that overworking is not the expectation and that you actually think it's a bad thing. – Shaun Mar 6 '11 at 2:29
  • Actually stating clearly that expectations has changed (i.e. overtimes isn't treated as a normal thing) is a piece of good advice. You could add it to the list (even as a very first thing). – Pawel Brodzinski Mar 6 '11 at 9:15
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    Another point is: if you keep forcing your team that way, all the best team members, those who can easily find another job, will leave quickly, which will make your team much less effective. – Alexis Dufrenoy Mar 7 '11 at 0:55
  • @pawelbrodzinski I added that clarifying bit to the end of my answer. – Shaun Mar 7 '11 at 3:12
4

The unfortunate truth is that they may be working overtime again, it's usually not the PM driving the team, but the company culture - so, if you can't change the root cause of the overtime you'll be going down the same road. My advice:

  • Find the root cause of the prior overtime - correct that if you can
  • If you can correct the cause, tell the truth to the team - no sugar coating. That's life in some companies.
  • Build in some additional 'buffer' time - may make it look like you're less effective, but it's always the right time to do the right thing (MLK quote) - even if it means an impact to your reputation.
  • Be prepared for turnover and low productivity.
  • Reward the team more than rewarding individuals - team outings, help the team with their home chores (dry cleaning), buy them lunch, etc.
2

Once you have let them burn out it is difficult to get them back. Burn-out usually takes a fair bit of time to recover from. Getting them to do the same-old same-old won't help. You will need to make changes. Get them engaged in something new. It is a new project, make it really new.

A few things that may help:

  • As Shaun mentioned focus on working smarter, not harder. Get them engaged in helping each other to work smarter.
  • Send people home at the end of eight hours without fail. If some needs to do something after hours, send them early the next day.
  • Arrange for the team members to get positive feedback when they are moving in the right direction. A sincere "that's great" or "thank you" is a good start. If you need them to correct something, ask questions that lead them to make the discovery themselves.
  • Arrange the project so that it delivers usable functionality daily. Make sure the team sees this movement. (Look at Agile for some techniques.) Management will be more comfortable with 40 hour work weeks too.
  • Try to help your team members get engaged in something outside of work. (You may need to get to know the team members better to do this.)

Make sure you don't get burned out managing the team. Ask the team for help if you need it.

2

Good advice given already. I would add the following:

Have a thorough lessons learned workshop with your new team. Let them recount their experience, then try to find the weak spots in the current project where it could happen all over again. Then do something about it visibly. This is risk management.

2

The main thing to say is this: if your team needs on a constant basis to do overtime to get the job done, it means the project planning is not worth a penny.

I know what the reality in companies is today, but to much work with to less resources will not lead you anyway. Planning needs to be realistic!

That being said, how to remotivate your team:

  • Change your organization to work smarter
  • Overtime has to be exceptional
  • If your team is already burnt out, give them a vacation. Not necessarily everybody at the same time, but under a few months, for example
  • Explain your team things are changing right now, and mean it!
1

To recover from burnout will take time. Which you might not have. Some folks can recover in a few weeks, some take a few months, and some never recover (I'm aware of one guy who took 17 months before he was back into the swing, and one who I lost contact with at about 24 months who was still burned out).

  1. Insulate them from the managers and tasks that got them burned out in the first place.
  2. Get them working on small projects so that they can get a few "wins" under their belts. Padapa calls that "building momentum." Much of the malaise from burnout is the sense of things being out of the team's control. A few small wins will get the sense of control back, and that will help recover the sense of confidence and control.
  3. Recognize that some folks won't recover from burnout.
  4. Figure out what got them into the burnout zone this time, and figure out how to prevent it from happening again. If it is corporate culture, there is no cure, and the folks at the top will have planned for the disposal of the victims already. The book Death March should get some starting points on what to look for. EA_Spouse wrote a long rant about a certain game company that built into their business model burning out and then disposing of developers.

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