Strategies to Avoid Early Project Burnout

Most project management professionals have been there: the project that never seems to actually begin. Stakeholders take their time negotiating what they need and where they can compromise. The Project Team may be asked to draft multiple iterations of timelines, budgets, and even potential vendor lists. Discussions go on and on. The planning continues to be drawn out and the team isn’t able to get to work.

It’s a difficult situation for everyone. End users aren’t sure when anticipated work disruptions will begin. Stakeholders don’t know when they can look forward to everything being done. It’s likely no one involved is clear on what the project’s objectives will be.

One significant risk for those within the Project Team is burnout from being in extended limbo. Teetering on the brink of beginning of project for too long saps morale and energy. It’s an issue that can negatively affect productivity across the board.

To ensure the team’s forward momentum doesn’t suffer, preparation fatigue is something the Project Team’s leadership should be ready to address and mitigate as soon as it appears. A handful of strategies can be helpful in keeping everyone focused and engaged.

Reduce the size of the team. The moment it becomes obvious that the planning phase will be protracted, team members should be reassigned to other efforts. This helps to eliminate the anxiety created by stalled discussions and extended negotiations. Rather than keep everyone on a project when their efforts aren’t yet required, it’s better to allow them to contribute to other activities that will help the team move forward while enabling individuals to continue honing their skills and gaining experience. By reducing the number of team members, those that remain on the pending project will also be able to take greater ownership of the duties that still exist and be more tightly focused on making progress.

Provide regular updates. Even after team members have been reassigned to other projects, they’re still likely to be keeping an eye on how the discussions are coming along. To prevent their time from being occupied with routinely checking in for information on where things stand, it’s often helpful to implement a schedule for sending out updates to all those team members who will be involved in supporting the project once it’s officially underway. Take an extra step toward reducing the potential for distraction by letting everyone know when they can expect to receive updates—weekly, monthly, etc.—and who will be sending them. This eliminates as much uncertainty as possible and provides the team with reassurance they won’t miss out on important status reports.

Develop a kickoff protocol. Team members can’t really devote their full attention to other activities if there’s a constant undercurrent of concern that their efforts will need to return to the stalled project at any moment. Eliminating this ambivalence can often be accomplished by setting a formal kickoff protocol that lets everyone know the project is finally ready to start. It doesn’t need to be an elaborate system. How the protocol is structured will depend largely on the organization, but it may begin with something as simple as letting the team know the project has been assigned its own capital budget number or that signature authority has been officially delegated to the project leader. Whatever the protocol entails, be sure it’s outlined for everyone in the Project Team so they know what to look for and will recognize it when they see it. It’s another strategy to help team members dedicate their efforts to other projects, comfortable in the knowledge they’ll be alerted as soon as the stalled project is ready to move forward.