On browsing social media recently, I saw a quote that really resonated with me.
It is one that you've probably seen before, but it is one that seems to have particular relevance for those of us that work within a project or organizational change environment. The quote was:
"A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part"
This quote underpins something that seems to happen all too often in organizations; bad decisions in one area have a knock-on impact in others. Events that were foreseeable, and often that were predicted in advance, end up playing out and “surprising” the organization later down the line. We are left with a situation which is both "urgent and important", where we call "all hands to the pump" to overcome the issue. If you've ever worked in an organization where this happens a lot, you'll know how tiring it can be. When long hours and negative stressors become the norm, morale ebbs away and unnecessary urgency festers within the organizational culture like a bad smell that everyone knows is there but nobody dares to talk about.
There will, of course, be situations where it is genuinely necessary to act quickly, put in the hours and get problems solved. In the right set of circumstances this can be positive—if you've ever found yourself in "flow" when solving a problem you'll know what this feels like. You blink, and all of a sudden it's late evening and everyone has left the office. Projects require flexibility, and temporary bursts of late-night working and opportunities for creativity like this are great, preventable project emergencies are not.
Enter (and exit) the "Project Hero"
Being a project hero who sweeps in to ‘solve’ the urgency feels great, but the elation is short-term and bitter-sweet. I still recall a time earlier in my career where I was working on a major systems consolidation project, which involved working with colleagues across Europe. Nearly two years of my life zoomed past and I saw lots of airports, hotels and conference rooms. Perhaps some people saw me as an ambitious BA who could "get stuff done". Awesome, right? Well, yes and no..
I remember there being a turning point where colleagues from elsewhere in the program were sending more and more “urgent” work to my colleagues and me—but of course so often “urgent” is a euphemism for “poorly planned”. The project went through some inevitable hurdles, and I (and those around me) did everything we could to keep it on track, on scope, on benefit and on time. Decisions elsewhere were drastically affecting our work, and my colleagues and I just worked longer to get it done. Nobody stood up and said "this is crazy!" The usual phrases were uttered by me and my colleagues "It'll look great on our appraisal", "We'll be in line for a good bonus", "If we get this over the line, then we can rest for a bit!". We felt that the only option we had was to simply ‘work harder’ and ‘work longer’. And at the time we thought we were doing it for positive reasons…
A heroic "doom loop"
Yet the rewards of project heroism are short lived. The curious reality seems to be that the more work you take on, the more capacity people assume you have. Start working 12 hour days and if you're not careful it’ll become the norm. It’s then all-too-easy to cram in just another half hour conference call—and just another quick task. Before you know it, morning has arrived again. It becomes an accelerating feedback loop until something (or someone) breaks—or until someone decides to stop it or slow it down.
The danger with a feedback loop like this is that it accelerates exponentially. People work longer hours shielding the real issue and nobody addresses the root causes of the perceived "emergencies". Bad decisions are followed by bad decisions, and the cycle continues. Working longer to compensate for problems elsewhere obscures the real problem. We rob others of the chance to learn—the organization will never know the chaos that bad decisions caused.
The antidote is to break the cycle. This involves having the courage to call out systemic problems, avoiding the "blame game" but encouraging our stakeholders to look at the situation and show that there are a range of root causes. To find creative ways of solving the immediate issue that don't lead to burnout, whilst also asking the question "how can we collaboratively work together so that this never happens again?"
This is yet another place where our BA skills, such as root cause analysis, help.