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Project Fatigue: An Innovation Blocker

Great teams like to be productive, and a culture of innovation will support this desire. Unfortunately, day-to-day pressure to meet deadlines and fulfill expectations can lead to practices that directly undermine efforts at creating an innovative culture. What can you do to support a culture of innovation?

Article Nov 19, 2015

Rob Keefer

IT Executives throughout the US have many questions they are trying to answer. One theme I often hear focuses on building an innovative culture. These executives share their struggles with working to help people in their organizations try new things, collaborate across silos, and to view failure as a great way to learn.

Unfortunately, day-to-day pressure to meet deadlines and fulfill expectations can lead to practices that directly undermine efforts at creating an innovative culture. I experienced this first hand recently while working with a strong, experienced, lean team. This team had worked on a project together for months and had only released their work product once during that time. I could see they were tired, and it was impacting their work. So I took a couple of the team members to lunch to understand their fatigue first hand.

Through the conversation, three primary sources of fatigue emerged.

Immature deployment processes. Of the three sources of fatigue identified by the team, the deployment process is the only one over which IT had direct influence. While the development team is mature and highly disciplined in following their custom Lean software development process, an inexperienced infrastructure team was responsible for the deployment of the project into production. This added stress to the development team because they had to take on complexity that should have been embraced by the infrastructure team.

Changing business and technical requirements. Due to the discipline of the development team, it is prepared to handle changing business and technical requirements. However, the degree of last minute changes and a looming deadline caused the team undue stress. It is at these critical moments of a project that management has an opportunity to reinforce a culture of innovation. In this case, management supported reduction of scope and pushed out the deadline slightly, but drew a hard line on quality. The team could be late, but whatever it released had to be flawless.

Lack of business support of the lean process. A culture of innovation is often dependent on the business side of the house more than IT. Health IT management can influence change among stakeholders outside of IT by introducing change slowly, in small releases. Unfortunately, in this case, fear of failure caused the business to let the development team deploy only once over the life of the project. However, the conversations regarding an increased frequency of release provided a platform for IT management to introduce innovation into a culture, knowing that it will take time to infiltrate the rest of the organization.

Also during the conversation, the team members were appreciative of their management and mentioned three ways management had supported them over the course of the project. While they were tired, they knew the fatigue would be greater if they did not have three things in place:

Flexible, realistic timeframes. Management was willing to push deadlines back in order to keep the team working a reasonable number of hours per week. An increase in hours worked will lead to mistakes that jeopardize quality, and management refused to release a subpar product. While this did not sit well with the business, the message to the development team was that management believed in them and the iterative process, and also cared about their peace of mind. Management knew the team was learning and would come out of this project stronger and more prepared to innovate again on the next project.

Time-boxing and balance. The team utilizes the Pomodoro Technique for managing their daily tasks. The Pomodoro Technique encourages the team to complete the most important things first, while keeping the developers focused on the task at hand. This focus enabled the team to be productive even when panic began to set in, and to be encouraged by all that had been accomplished at the end of each day.

Freedom to choose tools. While not confined to a specific technology, the team members were given freedom to work with tools they are skilled at and enjoy using. By giving the team a goal and allowing them to self-organize on how each individual would contribute, the team members were able to utilize their proficiencies and increase productivity.

Great teams like to be productive, and a culture of innovation will support this desire. When blocks to productivity occur (e.g. an immature deployment process, unrealistic deadline expectations, etc.), morale can be affected. However, proper management support will energize the team regardless of the circumstances.

As you work to promote innovation in your environment, keep in mind that an innovative culture takes 3 to 5 years to emerge. Your decisions and reactions that arise each day along that journey will be the most predictable indicators of where your organization will be after that multi-year journey. That’s why these every day moments are the most powerful ways to build the culture you are aiming to achieve. By supporting flexibility and a reasonable work schedule, and by encouraging the team to use high productivity tools, you will minimize the influences that can undermine your greater vision.

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