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InfoQ Homepage Articles Preventing Transformational Burnout through Collaboration, Transparency, Feedback, and Coaching

Preventing Transformational Burnout through Collaboration, Transparency, Feedback, and Coaching

Key Takeaways

  • Burnout isn’t only an individual issue, it happens in teams and organizations as a result of pressure for results, lack of trust and feedback, and poor collaboration.
  • One of the reasons for burnout-inflicting factors is a company transformation.
  • Distinct signs and attributes can help a coach identify the level and stage of burnout.
  • Participation and work in teams should be in the focus area, not only during transformation but also after its adoption.
  • Agile coaches can systematically help prevent organizational exhaustion by addressing strategy, management, team, and team members’ issues.

Burnout can be thought of as something happening in the progression of the routine. After a year of working from home, the so-called “zoom fatigue” has kicked in. It hits especially hard when everything seems to be blooming and calling your name to simply go out. However, there is one more factor that comes from a “mean no harm” idea—transformation, which is the leveling of organizational excellence, and optimization as a response to global uncertainty.

This article explores probable sources of mental breakdowns and lack of motivation and confidence along with types of burnout and describes the role agile coaches and organizational leaders can therefore play in addressing burnout.

How do agile and burnout relate to each other?

To answer this question, let’s look at the types of burnout: individual, interpersonal, and organizational, and notice grains of reasons to burnout already in the source—The Agile Manifesto.

Individual burnout finds its source in over motivation—I need to be the best, perform, and thrive no matter what. One of the principles described in the Agile Manifesto is a team of highly motivated individuals. This can be misread as, “if you aren’t motivated by yourself, you aren’t agile enough.”

Interpersonal burnout is led by toxic or unproductive work aliases—when the team members don’t have a shared understanding of how they work, what they share, and how they behave in a conflict. When was the last time you looked at your team agreements? Or are you confused by the fact you now have to share responsibility with someone you know very little about because the Manifesto says “Business and developers work together” without actually saying how?

A company can undergo burnout: a paralyzed state in which nothing more can be positively changed. Organizational burnout prevents innovation, and innovation should avert burnout. In his book on management errors, Gustav Greve first described organizational burnout in connection to uncertainty and/or transformations in which agile coaches specialize.

Burnout in agile transformations

There are many causes for organizational burnout, but the following are adverse effects of transformational projects:

  • The constant change of strategy from a desire to launch experiments with tools and techniques as design thinking, innovation days, and lean startup to formalization and standards of processes inspired by Toyota Production System. “Where there is no standard there can be no Kaizen.” —Taiichi Ohno, Father of the Toyota Production System.

  • Too much focus on the results of a whole transformation (“we need to reduce time to market”) leads to too much being invested in “here and now” and too little in strategy (“let’s talk about continuous improvement later!”) and in the end causes separation of the management level between organizational and operational. Pressure for results plays an important part not only in achieving goals but also in damaging teams’ morale as described in Breaking the Wicked Loop.

  • Lack of emotional commitment and personal identification of employees with the reasons and values of transformation when it is being enforced on them.

  • Blind arrogance of success when the management suggests KPI-based bonuses for something like an increased team velocity: Achievement and compensation make you sluggish and blind. So, every change and improvement is warded off (remember the “we have always worked like this” mantra).

Organizational exhaustion

Organizational exhaustion is first and foremost a systematic issue. It isn’t “them” or “us.” It is the game’s system and rules, especially when the whole staff has to change how they operate in new rules. All organizational constructions burn out without the participation of the characters involved. 

Indications of organizational burnout hold: 

  • a high rate of turnover
  • an increase in employee absenteeism 
  • low spirit, accompanying anger at superiors 
  • decreased productivity or delayed completion of tasks 
  • poor interpersonal connections among employees 
  • job dissatisfaction and hopeless/helpless attitudes 

Organizational coaches working with individuals and the team leaders will note how mood and morale change in time. Do team members understand how their actions lead to overall results or are teams depersonalized in what they do?

A good idea is to check in with team leaders on recognizing the individual contributions to the transformation and know-how everyone wants to be recognized.

Increasing participation

Participation can be viewed as a strain—it’s a tool that comes in different sizes and models and it is useful. Still, when individuals are forced to participate in anything that doesn’t resonate with their inner motivation, a leader is the one pulling the trigger of burnout. Note that passion is often thought to serve as a band-aid to the individual burnout when there is the perception that, “I care so much I must put all my efforts in the matter.”

In situations where management doesn’t wish to share decision-making control with others, where employees or other stakeholders are passive or apathetic (or suffering from individual burnout), or in organizational cultures that take comfort in bureaucracy, pushing participatory efforts may be unwise. (See Participation as the key to successful change—a public sector case study by O’Brien). Luckily, agile stems from participation and self-organization.

As you plan for employee participation in your transformation efforts, it’s important to have realistic expectations. Not all “potential associates” desire to participate and those that do may not yet have the skills to do so productively. As Jean Neumann found in her research on participation in the manufacturing industry, various factors can lead individuals to rationally choose to “not” participate. Neumann further notes, as have others, that participation requires courage. (See Participation, Individual Development, and Organizational Change: A Review and Synthesis). Courage is one of the Scrum values for a reason.

To increase positive participation, make sure to:

  • Train people on collaboration skills (i.e., show the difference between a user story mapping session with stakeholders and planning releases and features on someone’s own as a traditional project manager would do).
  • Allow people to bail out of participation (a good facilitator doesn’t force participation but creates a safe environment).
  • Provide practices and tools on requirements elicitation and delivery processes (i.e., a variety of workshops to start with).
  • Make sure that when participating, people feel safe to speak up and provide feedback.

Reducing the chance of burnout happening

Organizations must first look at leaders and high performers who are usually the first to be involved in piloting initiatives and looked at as “change agents,” which gives them extra workload. 

Along with the understanding of this, you can try out the following activities to reduce the chance of burnout:

  • Provide education and recognition to high performers (see the first paragraph on individual burnout).

  • Let high performers choose their assignments and/or teams and work in pairs. (A study on the effectiveness of pair programming shows that pairs typically consider more design alternatives than programmers working alone and arrive at simpler, more maintainable solutions and express more confidence when they pair program.) Similar results can be achieved not only where coding work is concerned, but any project-specific tasks can be paired.

  • Clarify new roles in teams and make sure people get trained on them.

  • Shorten the feedback loop of results. (Kanban is a great framework for fast feedback loops).

  • Send appropriate social signs (i.e., when a leader is sending emails at midnight, the teams may think they need to work overtime not knowing the context whereas, for example, the person’s day might have been interrupted by appointments or breaks that lead to late work on that particular day).

  • Recognize and appreciate the work done and efforts made in the way individuals want to be recognized (more on this in this Gallup Study on employee engagement).

  • Organize transparent workflows. (When it comes to processes, sharing “how things run” gives employees a better perception of what’s happening now, who’s handling it, and what’s next.)

  • The more everyone knows, the better they will work in a team. Beginning with the CEO down, implement transparency throughout the company to stop focusing on individuals and emphasize teamwork. (Kanban is based on visualizing daily or weekly workflows to help teams see all items that need to be completed during a given period next to each other to provide context.)

  • Most importantly, show empathy, compassion, and humanism.

Prevent exhausting organizations during a transformation

Coaches can guide teams on slack time and asynchronous communication, which is important, especially when working remotely and in distributed teams. Slack time is emergent and can’t be predicted. Good use of slack time is to do other tasks that are considered “important, but not urgent” but may ultimately lead to all sorts of improvements. As a coach, you need to consider two primary factors when determining the best use of slack time. First, the project goals and how leveraging slack time can help you complete the project on schedule. And second, the team’s ideas and suggestions on how they want to utilize the time.

Tools such as Nico Nico or Feedback Wall can shorten the feedback loop. Ask your employees or team to rate how satisfied they were during one particular session or meeting. Let them note down their feedback on a post-it note and stick it on the wall. The higher up the position is, the more positive their feedback. 

A coach can suggest facilitation techniques and interactive workshops, new formats of review meetings and town halls, and help the organization to realign on why each meeting happens in the first place.

Powerful coaching questions (not “what can you do next” but rather “how willing are you to do something next”) help the team build positive next steps—“what is valuable about our work together.” Appreciative Inquiry (AI) can be a good start in helping teams in retrospective sessions.

Co-active coaching can help in 1-1 coaching. (See the professional assessment wheel as a start of mapping your new product owners’ profiles and values and Scrum masters to what matters to them in an organization.)

I am a huge fan of AI-based retrospectives, below is an example of its structure.

How agile coaches can deal with signals of burnout or organizational exhaustion

The created atmosphere of trust and constant feedback sessions can help with visualizing the root cause of any signal. For example, you can use appreciative inquiry-based retrospective

The Appreciative Inquiry comes from David Cooperrider. It presents a positive and dynamic approach to change:

  • The Discovery stage allows you to appreciate the best of what is and to discover what works. 

  • Dream (or desire) is the stage in which imagination is called upon to collectively create an ideal based on success stories from the past. From this stage may emerge new possibilities and permission to dare dream of a desired future and to project positively in this improved version of oneself or of us.

  • During the Design stage, we determine this ideal situation together, taking into account the previous stages’ discoveries and desires to plan the process and create a bridge to this desired future.

  • The final stage is Destiny. We will identify how this desired future will manifest itself in a generative way to ensure that we co-create a process of real continuous improvement.

Coaches help diminish burnout by fully supporting employees with clear expectations, removing barriers to productivity, and establishing collaboration. Productivity, collaboration, transparency, courage, and respect—these aren’t only found in agile playbooks but in battling burnout as well.

Finally, let’s aspire to think and act beyond goals, strategies, and transformation success metrics in pursuit of organizational excellence and reach out to teams and individuals, to their values, needs, and recognition needs. Leaders can help in growth and safety and feeling of stability by working together with agile coaches.

About the Author

Anna Lavrova is a Brussels-based seasoned Agile and Organizational coach. The lead instructor for project management’s school, author of six training programs for leaders, project and product managers, is an international conference speaker. She has lived and worked in four countries where she ran projects in several domains and government sectors and launched several startups. She is on the mentors’ board of the 1991 innovation hub. Now she is transforming the largest bank in Belgium and is a coach of its top officials. In her spare time, she enjoys long trips to beautiful places, endurance workouts, and movies.

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