In the late 90’s, my family and I had planned a trip to Michigan to take a week to relax and to spend time at the lake with my relatives. I was working as an IT Director for my dotcom and we were still in the phase of getting things really rolling. This was my first chance to step away for a bit from the stress of work and relax. We had our flights booked, and shortly prior to our leaving for the trip my cell phone rang. It was the president of our company and he was calling to tell me that our development team had walked off site and he needed me to cancel or shorten my vacation – now. My vacation was trashed and I was back to reality in sixty seconds flat. This was not a unique situation. There have been multiple times in my career when giving up vacations or working 24-36 hour straight-through shifts was required. I stand by each of these decisions as there are times when it’s required to really do whatever is required to succeed or to “sprint” until things are under control. So there are situations where a sprint is warranted. This is especially true in IT Consulting where failure is not an option.
Sprinting isn’t just an IT Consulting phenomenon. I’ve seen this in IT in general and I would expect that this is just a world-as-we-live-in-it phenomenon. Do any of these sound familiar?
“We’re behind schedule and need to get this project delivered on time.”
“We are in a bit of a jam and need you to…”
“We need the statement of work by the end of the week.”
“We need you on this sales call.”
You are taking conference calls in your car going between appointments and at the end of the day there is a list of things that still need to be done – today.
or finally do you hear yourself saying
“I cancelled my vacation – there just isn’t time to take it now. I’ll take some time off after this engagement wraps up.”
IT Consulting naturally lends itself towards living as if life was a series of sprints. The sprint starts when the engagement starts and ends when the engagement wraps up. However when the engagement ends there is another one that starts (usually the day after the last one ended) and the cycle begins again. So the first sprint never really ended and continues through the second sprint, and the third, and so on.
When you look at this from the outside it makes sense. In IT Consulting consultants are only providing revenue if they are billing. And if they are between engagements they are not billing. So the motivation of a consulting organization is to keep the consultants billable as much as possible. As consultants, it’s our job to provide revenue so we want to be as billable as possible as well. The challenge here is not that we aren’t designed to sprint – we are. The challenge is that we aren’t designed to sprint for years at a time which can often occur in IT Consulting organizations. This situation is like our bodies – we aren’t designed to continually sprint either – we are designed to work hard and then rest and then repeat the cycle again.
What do we do to break this cycle?
Recognize that IT Consulting is not a series of sprints – it’s one long marathon. The key is to set a pace which you can run with for a very long time. That pace needs to consider all aspects of life and how to keep them in balance while still achieving successful client engagements. How to achieve this is a big topic which I will later be breaking into separate blogs but these are the high level overview of my thoughts:
- Recognize that everyone has limits – think of the work week as a plate. Some people have large dinner plates for what they can do on a weekly basis, some have serving platters and and others have salad plates. Regardless of the size of the plate each is finite. Life is busy even when we just put only the key items on the plate. For me the key items include: Family, Work, Church, Community and Self (not listed in order of importance). I read an excellent book on this topic called Margin, by Richard A. Swenson, which highlights the concept of keeping all the items that you have in life above the line (positive). This sometimes means that effort in one area will be sacrificed to keep others above the line. Sometimes you even need to just take some things off your plate just to keep everything above the line.
- Draw some lines – I know a co-worker who does not work after he gets home until after his children have gone to bed. I know another who refuses to work on a Sunday unless it is truly an emergency. I know another consultant who turns off his cell phone at night. I have stopped checking my email on my phone at home after I get home to draw a line and keep some personal space. Each person is different but if you don’t establish where the boundary lines are there aren’t any.
- You are part of a team: Act like one – We were never asked to shoulder everything on our own. Lean on others and let them lean on you. There are times where things are running along pretty well and there is enough room on the plate to help others out – if you have room on the plate and they ask – help them! There are other times when they may have room and you don’t. By working as a team you can better balance what needs to be done. Don’t assume that the team is only your individual consulting team. IE: If I’m part of the Dallas Infrastructure team, I consider my teams to be the Dallas Infrastructure team, my company’s Infrastructure teams in other locations, the Dallas sales team, etc.
- Do not skip vacation – If you wait until you have time available to take it you may never take it and your family and stress levels will suffer as a result. I spoke with a co-worker last year who had weeks of vacation remaining that he had been unable to take because there was just no time during the year. If you schedule vacation be sure that the client knows when it is and if there is a project plan that the vacation time is excluded from the plan.
- Work-Life Balance – This is a topic for another post but it may be more than just a catch-phrase.
- The evil “No” word – Sometimes you just have to say no. I’m not saying to say no to everything but stop intentionally over-committing. If you don’t have the room on the plate say it. There may be others on the team who can help or there may be other less important items which can be dropped for the week.
- Recognizing and avoiding burnout – After working in IT for a while it’s pretty easy to identify the indications of burnout. These vary for person to person but for me it’s a high level of stress, frustration and a tough time even getting out of bed and going to work. Dealing with burnout is a bigger topic but let me offer one suggestion if you are in it now. Try taking a “weekend vacation”. Talk to you boss (and your client) ahead of time and let him know that you will be unreachable over the weekend. Turn off the cell phone, and if you are a geek like me who would sneak checks of email log into your router and block your work domain(s) for the weekend. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything – it can just be a weekend of reading a good book, playing with your kids, going out on a date with your wife, watching a movie or playing video games – whatever you need to do to take a step away and recharge.
There is a cost to breaking this cycle. A consultant may be able to sprint and bill 120% over a period of a year which results in a significant amount of additional revenue for the consulting organization over the year. However, I believe that there is a larger cost to not break this cycle. If a consultant ends up burning themselves out and quits the revenue benefit is quickly negated as an experienced consultant has left the organization. There is a loss both of an experienced consultant as well as the costs to recruit and train another consultant.
I believe that the marathon consulting approach is best for everyone involved.
- The client gets a solid consultant who isn’t burned out and is functioning at their best.
- The consulting organization retains employees instead of losing them to burn out.
- The consultant achieves a better balance between work and other aspects of life which results in a longer more fulfilling employment experience.
To the consultants and the employers out there, what do you think?