Opinion: The project’s over: now what?

I’ve often heard people complain about intense projects: They’re too much work and emotionally draining. But oddly, I’ve noticed that people seem to have more trouble after an intense project than during one.

I think that there are three basic types of projects in IT. There are deployment projects, during which we disseminate a new technology either directly to the users or to the bowels of the infrastructure. Then there are maintenance projects, in which we refine some already deployed technologies.

One may be adding features or functions to a software package; another may be upgrading the software embedded in last year’s routers. And, finally, there are the creation projects, during which we define and develop something entirely new.

Although all projects require intense commitment and creative problem-solving, there’s something special about creation projects. When they go well, the team bonds with more intensity than other teams do. I think this is because, to be truly creative, people need to be willing to be more vulnerable — to share their best ideas even at the risk of being ridiculed should the ideas turn out to be bad. For the collective to be at its most creative, everyone has to be willing to be exposed.

As a result, people who share this mutual vulnerability and successfully navigate these dangerous emotional waters seem to connect to one another in deeper and more lasting ways than those on teams doing other sorts of projects.

This is why, when we reflect back on our careers, we find that certain projects, regardless of their actual size, seem larger and more important than others. Even though they may have lasted a relatively short period of time, they seem to occupy more mental space than other, perhaps larger projects do. These projects represent peak experiences in our work life. The intensity with which they shine through the years is directly related to the emotional connections that we forged with our teammates.

At the end of peak experiences comes the inevitable letdown. Usually a group has been pushing hard for months on end, living and breathing nothing but the project, spending more time with their colleagues than with their families. And then, suddenly, it’s over. The system is released. The pressure is gone. But the adrenaline remains.

How managers handle this letdown determines whether employees move on to other things and become productive in new roles or consider looking for new places to work.

Why would people want to quit after having one of the best professional experiences of their lives? Because they look out to the future and see that it doesn’t hold the promise of the same excitement and engagement that they’ve just experienced. So they move on, trying to reproduce a unique event.

Of course, they’re never able to do it, but it doesn’t stop them from trying.

Managers need to treat the transition from an intensely creative project with great care in order to retain the hearts and minds as well as the bodies of their most valuable employees.

People need time to decompress. But, more important, they need something to look forward to. Just knowing that work will not be as brutally intense as it was in the past isn’t enough. Appreciation for their efforts isn’t enough, either. Even more money isn’t enough.

What employees who have been excited by their immersion in a creative project need most is to see a future with a new opportunity to do creative work and a new group of colleagues to be creative with. The best antidote to withdrawal from engagement is the promise of future engagement.

Paul Glenis the founder of the GeekLeaders.com Web community and author of the award-winning bookLeading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology (Jossey-Bass, 2003). Contact him atinfo@paulglen.com.

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