A Guide to Burnout and Focus for High Growth Teams
This article was written by Robert Jakobson, for Avokaado.
But truth be told: as much as we in the start-up world would like to see ourselves as paragons of productivity, many of us are about as guilty of sending distracting messages as we are annoyed by receiving them. It gets worse. Not only are distractions annoying, research carried out by then London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that:
“Those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ, twice that found in studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. More than half of the 1,100 participants said they always responded to an email immediately or as soon as possible, while 21% admitted they would interrupt a meeting to do so. Constant interruptions can have the same effect as the loss of a night’s sleep.”
Some distractions, such as innocent jokes or memes on Slack, are inevitable when working for a growth company and often offer the variety that we crave. As is frustration with different ways different people communicate. But beneath that layer of everyday communication, it inevitably comes down to the big scary demon of all growth companies: burnout.
Think of it this way: if you can manage burnout inside yourself and within your team, you can also manage excessive information with relative ease. But if you cannot manage burnout, then excessive information and manual tasks add fuel to the wildfire.
Someone writing yet another short novella on Slack or having a 30-minute monologue during the monthly management meeting only becomes truly problematic when burnout is raising its head. Otherwise, people move on and forget about it near instantaneously.
Common assumptions for dealing with burnout
Much of the discussion regarding burnout in startups revolves around chastising startup culture. Karl Hughes has written a great article relating his experience and offering some often repeated solutions. Intuitively sense that something is wrong and that advice offered in blog articles such as his sounds good.
“When I joined my first startup almost ten years ago, most of the prevailing wisdom about startups said that you should be ready for an 80-hour per week grind. So, I made it my mission to work longer and harder than anyone else on the path to success. At that time, I didn’t have a family, significant other, or many hobbies outside of work, plus I liked my job, so it was relatively easy to put in long hours and work weekends. While I did a lot of tasks in those early days, looking back, I realize that I didn’t actually accomplish much.”
His words ring true for anyone who has worked at any startup for a longer period of time. Advice like “trust your team”, “don’t push people” are hard to disagree with but the issue is that all of this does not often translate into practice when deadlines beckon, cash is tight, new product releases are full of bugs and everybody’s emotional level runs sky-high.
Often it is the opposite, the more time your team spends digesting slogans or the new company culture or vision, the less left for their jobs. That increases pressure and is frustrating for people.
The hard truth is that the solutions are not self-evident and common corporate practices may not necessarily work. Distractions and burnout are caused by factors we overlook. Some may be even due to our behaviors that we as founders or leaders habitually engage in unknowingly.
Tackling burnout: the true reasons
Eric Garton, the lead of Bain & Company’s Organization practice and the author of Time, Talent and Energy found three root causes for burnout:
“When we looked inside companies with high burnout rates, we saw three common culprits: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, but they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration.”
Overloading your most capable teammates
While we all mean well, we often overload our best people, even when we know it is wrong.
It is easy to forget that the leading performers, for example, the challengers in sales teams
also have their limits. Research by Stanford University, that Karl Hughes highlights, reveals that there is a fundamental barrier after which this auto-magical trick stops working:
“John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours.”
This is devilishly difficult to do in practice for teams that have high growth goals in startups: targets need to be hit, promises need to be kept, and product updates need to be shipped.
By default, leaders tend to turn to their core performers to get stuff done until they break.
Why let go
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that people who make their own decisions can make things happen much faster and more effectively. But the paradox is: when you, as the leader, do not trust someone and are unsatisfied with their results, it is very difficult to embrace that one of the conditions to improving the results is to start trusting them with the decision-making.
Even more paradoxically, it is easier for people and companies with existing success in their business to trust all of their team members and distribute decision-making than it is for many startups and their founders. Case in point: Proekspert, a long-standing Estonian powerhouse, started implementing a flat structure already almost a decade ago and did so successfully:
“Our new structure has given much more decision-making power to teams. Many decisions which were previously made at a manager’s desk are now delegated to the teams. Management’s role is to support the teams and to see the big picture.”
But how can you solve the dilemma in real-life for your startup? In short, how can you let go for real?
Growth companies can seem ever-so fragile and giving decision-making away can feel “wrong.”
One way is to start by sitting down with your team and looking at ways you could automate smaller, routine tasks with tools like Zapier (say connecting Intercom with your CRM for customer support) or our own at Avokaado (for handling HR or sales contracts). This shortens approval cycles, gives the whole team a sense that they have achieved something real together, and helps to move on.
We have seen with our clients that once leaders realize that their people can handle routine tasks with ease, they will naturally share higher-order tasks across the whole team more quickly. The result? Everybody is more focused and there is less sitting around.
Wait, collaboration can be bad?
Somewhat surprisingly and contrary to conventional wisdom, collaboration can be as much a curse as a blessing. The cost of constant back and forth and context switching due to collaboration overload is huge:
“Our research found that senior executives now receive 200 or more emails per day. The average frontline supervisor devotes about eight hours each week (a full business day) to sending, reading, and answering e-communications…. switching to a new task while still in the middle of anothe r increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%. A Microsoft study found that it takes people an average of 15 minutes to return to an important project after an e-mail interruption.”
We have found that creating a separate workspace for a key process, like hiring, reduces collaboration overload remarkably. Your people need a layer above just your intranet or Google Drive or Dropbox and below Slack or e-mail. A place where they can log in to do their work independently while seeing what others have done without needing to communicate.
Start by mapping out your most important recurring tasks: is it hiring, is it sales, is it product development? And then start looking for solutions that can act as workplaces. For example, for product development, we suggest looking at Productboard. The reviews on Capterra tell why:
“..This is the first solution that's been adopted by the entire team, a big part due to the easily shared inbox for customer insights…”
“..The shareable roadmap is essential for the communication to other services (R&D, sales, support) and the UI makes it easy to use and to understand...”
“..The communication of our product roadmap to different stakeholders is much easier now thanks to the customizable and stunning views…”
As you can see, companies similar to yours can improve communication and reduce daily e-mail and Slack overload by an order of magnitude. The effect applies nearly universally. We have seen similar results with HR and sales teams with our product at leading growth companies as well.
When “working smart” does not work
Only a single look at the Amazon.com Time Management book section tells you: time management is big business. It is relatively easy to write a book with advice that rings true, contains a few social experiments done in favorable circumstances, and feeds our common hunger for working smarter and getting more done. The bigger the claim, the easier the sale.
Authors have also hacked the all-important rating system to perfection. So many five-star reviews for time management books create social pressure and sense: “Well, it has to work. And if it works for so many people, why does it not work for my team?” We confuse the five stars with the meaning that the book works but that is just the impression the book gave someone shortly after reading it.
It is also easy to consider the authority of something written down by someone with high prestige over the often incomplete and sometimes rambling feedback of our teammates who are busy at work and cannot afford to be eloquent. While books are carefully edited to sound good.
The overall outcome is that authors take advantage of our inertia to buy a book or a course, get a sugar-high from truisms, forget the implementation and repeat that cycle every time we feel that lack of productivity and focus becomes an urgent problem again.
A common reaction to yet another productivity guru or app after two weeks.
The solution we have seen that works to end that never-ending cycle is to forget books and courses to try to convince people to change themselves. Move on to APIs. Integrating different tools via API is an increasingly common way to change how teams work internally and with your customers externally. It is the only sustainable way to radically improve time management.
Yes, it is an investment. But in this regard, we have seen that FinTechs lead the way. Think of the way not only neo-banks but also legacy banks have improved internal processes by automating everything from opening accounts to handling leasing and loan applications.
Would you want to open an account at a bank that still has 5 people manually researching, working, and processing your loan application by hand? As a customer, it stands to reason that you would prefer an institution that has invested to make the process more seamless.
It is no different for your startup: while investing in improving internal processes via APIs can seem like a lower priority than adding new product features, the payoff can be just as huge. And not only for your team but also for your customers in terms of the impression you make and second-order effects of faster handling of customer interactions.
Dealing with huge distractions
At Avokaado, we specialize in helping growth companies find their focus. We approach it from an interesting perspective, by asking founders and leaders like yourself: “What is your team’s largest cause of distractions?”
For some growth companies we work with, the problem lies in sales proposals and contracts. For others, like our customer Starship Technologies, it lies in hiring. And then there are FinTech firms for whom error-free contracts served via an API are their lifeblood.
And again, what is your team’s largest cause of distractions?
Avokaado is a partner of sTARTUp Day 2022. Find more about them: https://avokaado.io/