The Acceleration Trap – Organizational Burnout

May 12, 2010

The April 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review has an excellent article on corporate burnout.  We often talk about individuals burning out, but the authors, Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges, contend that organizations can burnout as well.

Due to the environment in which we operate nowadays we often meet the challenges posed by increasing the number and speed of activities, shorten innovation or development cycles, raise performance goals, cut costs, increase hours and so on.  At first, there are usually significant achievements, if not great achievements.  However, too many times, the leadership tries to make this frenetic pace the “new normal”.  This is simply unsustainable.

When performance begins to falter, leaders interpret lagging performance as lack of motivation, laziness, etc. instead of recognizing the root of the problem.  Often the result is exhaustion and resignation blanketing the organization and the best staff begin to defect.

The authors call this the “acceleration trap”.  They found that the organizations caught in this trap fare worse on various performance measures than their peers. The problem is becoming pervasive in this current environment of 24/7 accessibility and cost cutting.  They also found that most of the organizations landed in the trap after an exhilarating ride of some type.

The Habit of Constant Change

Over-accelerated organizations tend to exhibit at least one of three patterns of destructive activity:

  1. Staff members are overloaded with too many activities.  They don’t have the time or resources to do their jobs.
  2. Multiloading – Organizations ask their staff members to do too many kinds of activities. This results in the organization and staff members as a whole becoming unfocused and misaligned.
  3. The habit of constant change or perpetual loading. In this situation, the staff members see little or no hope of retreat for recharging their energy.

How to Stop

  1. Stop the action.  As Jim Collins, Tom Peters, and other organizational experts have recommended – develop a “Stop-Doing List”.  See what activities you can terminate.  Ask your staff for ideas.
  2. Be clear about your strategy. Kill things that don’t directly support your strategy.
  3. Decide how to make decision. Develop a system for making hard choices about what activities need to be terminated.  One company even initiated a stop-action review process.
  4. Declare the turmoil over. The CEO can simply decree by calling an end to the current round of changes.

The article continues on with some great observations.  The bottom line in my opinion is that it is a cultural issue.

What type of culture do you have in your organization?  What type of culture do you want in your organization? What do you need to change to close the gap from where you are to where you want to be?

May you be blessed today as you serve Him,

BG