January 23, 2009 by
Filed under: Agility, People, Teamwork 

 In many shops, big or small, software or otherwise, agile or traditional (as if that were a true dichotomy) we see fabulous energy in projects where people are committed to delivery. Unfortunately, in too many shops, we also see the down side of fatigue. Sometimes after the project completed (if you’re lucky), but often while the project is trying to progress to completion, the many symptoms of fatigue can have tremendous costs.

There can be tremendous euphoria as a project is progressing smoothly, and a team that works well together and is properly motivated to succeed can perform miracles. Quite often when the project is completed, though, there can be a significant let down as people disengage from the project (around 1975 Bruce Tuckman augmented his Forming Storming Norming Performing team model to acknowledge this with an Adjourning stage – which some have called the Mourning stage). It can be tough to get rolling on the next project, and the fatigue that people have been masking with that project euphoria can have a devastating effect. This needs to be anticipated and acknowledged, watched for, and carefully managed with a team.

More often than not, though, fatigue will show up with people while a project is progressing (sometimes progressing in time if nothing else), and the manifestations of fatigue show up in different ways with different people. Some will show almost bi-polar behavior, with manic highs and deep depression and withdrawal, particularly as the pressure increases on a project. There will be more interpersonal collisions, going beyond the warranted conflict of deciding which path to take to the unwarranted, interpersonal conflicts that can poison the team. Some will disengage completely and decide that it is time to move on.

All of these signs of fatigue inject significant costs to a project, most of which are difficult or impossible to put concrete measures to. While it can be relatively straightforward to model the costs of turnover on a team, few organizations completely appreciate that these costs go beyond the interview dance and any excess compensation that might have to take place. There is almost always a loss of intellectual property, a massive learning curve to overcome for the new candidate, and often a weak incorporation of this new person into the culture of the organization.

These in-process symptoms of fatigue certainly diminish the productivity of the team, but they also contribute to the likelihood of increased costs after the project is completed (a term used loosely here), and reduce the likelihood of delivering all the potential value to the customer. With the under-appreciated impact of fatigue, more mistakes will make it out the door with the product, there will often be higher maintenance costs afterwards, and a good chance that new, unanticipated projects will be spawned to actually deliver on the promise that was missed the first time around.

The fascinating thing about fatigue is that while it can often show up in teams that are putting 80 hour weeks, it is also observed in teams that are barely getting in 40 hours. Fatigue is not merely a function of how long you are at the job, but also depends on your motivation and alignment to the values and goals of the project you are working on and the organization you are with.

What to do about all this? As with most issues, the root of the solution lies in improved communications. Get all the stakeholders together to agree on what is really needed on the project, and use this as a basis for all work that follows. Ensure that the team is working to a shared set of values, and be specific and precise about the objectives of the project, well beyond the criteria of schedule and cost. Only then can you clarify the scope of work that will deliver that value, and only then can you have a reasonable expectation of how this will all play out. From this, you will be able to manage change with less risk of shooting yourself in the foot (which, alas, is the reality for many agile implementations). Layer on top of this a sensitivity to the symptoms of fatigue and the need to carefully govern effort and enthusiasm if you want sustained output, and you are well on the way. – JB


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