Skip to main content

I challenge you to go run a mile.

Now I challenge you to run a mile…without shoes.

Now I challenge you to run a mile…without legs.

You see what I did there? I set a challenge. Then I made it harder. Then I made it pretty darn near impossible… but I’ve framed it such that if you can’t run a legless mile, somehow it’s your failure to meet my challenge.

In the past week I’ve had conversations with three different colleagues on this topic; the idea that organizations are continuing to “challenge” teams to do more with less… and that something has really gotta give.

But where do we draw the line between the challenge of no shoes and the challenge of no legs? How do we know when we’ve simply been pushed – or we’re the ones doing the pushing – too far?

And more importantly, what can we do about it, to avoid sending our teams and ourselves into the dark woods of Burnout?

I don’t believe there is one simple answer. But I have some thoughts.

Here goes:

1. Acknowledge this as real.

Burnout isn’t for suckers or losers or weaklings. “No pain no gain” stayed in the 80’s, with the Karate Kid (I mean Ralph – not the Smith kid). We can’t solve a problem until we’re willing to call it a problem.

So if we want to hunt for potential burnout, what should we be looking for – either as a leader or as a human? Well, in that sense, burnout may be a little bit like profanity… hard to define but we know it when we see it.

To start to tune your “spidey sense” here are a few questions you might consider…

  • Do I / people look/seem/feel exhausted much of the time?
  • Do I / people come and go at reasonable hours?
  • Do new ideas surface from time to time, or is frantic execution our business-as-usual?
  • Lunch? Is that a thing around here?

You see where I’m going. There are countless questions you can ask… but just putting up the antennae is a solid starting place.

2. Cross sh*t off the list!

It’s 10pm. Do you know where your priorities are?

My brother recently reminded me of an old South Park episode about some underpants gnomes. Stick with me on this…

In the episode, there is an epidemic of undergarment thievery, and it’s ultimately discovered that gnomes are sneaking into drawers and taking the undies. They’re following a 3-phased business plan that looks like this:

Phase 1: Collect Underpants
Phase 2: ??
Phase 3: Profit

What makes this so hilarious is, of course, the fact that there is no logical connection between phases 1 and 3. It’s a “ready, fire, aim” approach.

On a more serious note, however, I see this same approach taken in business all the time. I’ve worked with numerous clients who have clear and ambitious goals (Phase 3), and then a series of projects, tactics, and to-do’s on which everyone is frantically executing (Phase 1)… but what’s often missing is that bridge.

If you’re striving to deliver on a goal (perhaps profit), and you’re spending time on a series of activities, meetings, and to-do’s (perhaps stealing undies, or something more practical) can you draw the line that connects the activities with the goal?

Maybe you’re one of the few who can say yes across the board. But I’m willing to bet you can find just one thing to cross off your list: one meeting that can succeed without you; one email you just don’t need to send; one memo you don’t need to read. I challenge you. Find one thing. Cross it off. Do this across your team. Watch capacity happen.

3. Create the conditions

So now you’re aware of the risk of burnout, and you’ve scratched off a bunch of the low-value work (i.e., the stuff not serving your goal attainment).

Now it’s time to create the conditions that allow for the high-value work to be done as efficiently and effectively as possible.

So what are some of the techniques we recommend? Things like:

  • Building a culture of #SuperCandor that ensures your team is always alerting you to a problem, an opportunity, an obstacle needing removal
  • Delegating effectively so everyone is doing the right work for them
  • Turning big problems into sets of smaller, manageable problems that don’t overwhelm… and celebrating tiny victories along the way
  • Creating the space for new ideas – big, small, iterative, breakthrough – so we’re finding new ways to delight our customers

The above are just a few, but enough to get you started.