Project management is fast-paced, exciting, and fun, but there’s always a but; project management is not easy! Things often don’t go to plan.
The renowned project management practitioner and author Geoff Reiss once said, "Project management is like juggling three balls – time, cost, and quality." This is undoubtedly true, but on many projects, especially large cap complex projects, we should consider a fourth ball: project fatigue.
So, what is project fatigue?
The author defines Project Fatigue as “the effect, or damage inflicted, on a project management office (PMO) and its teams in achieving the client’s project objectives.”
When we consider that project managers typically move from project to project, this attritional damage can have a cumulative effect, ultimately leading to “Project Fatigue” at an individual and organisational level.
This then begs the question, how can PMOs successfully complete projects, back-to-back and beyond, while also effectively mitigating against the effects of Project Fatigue?
The author's key research objective was to gain a deeper understanding of the main causes of Project Fatigue and to provide a practical framework, with recommendations, on how PMOs can effectively mitigate against the effects of project fatigue while also continuing to deliver successful projects to their clients, with the continual support and positive, energised engagement of their project management teams.
Numerous factors can impact the level of project fatigue experienced by a PMO. The author outlines what he considers the six most significant contributors to project fatigue. To support this body of research, the author developed a framework called the “Project Fatigue Wheel of Mitigation”, which encapsulates the author’s perspective on this area of research.
Project Fatigue Wheel of Mitigation
Let’s take a look at the Project Fatigue Wheel of Mitigation framework to gain insight into how PMOs can successfully complete projects while also effectively mitigating the effects of Project Fatigue.
1. Project Manager
The project manager is a key project stakeholder, and their leadership is critical to project success. Throughout the various phases of a project lifecycle, the composition of project teams may change to meet the needs and skills required.
There are, however, many benefits associated with the continuity of the project management leadership team for the entirety of a project. Project Managers leaving a project early can have a destabilising effect on project momentum and continuity. There can also be time and cost impacts associated with project manager pass-downs or handovers to their incumbents. Conversely, the relay approach, with project managers coming in at key stages or phases in the project life cycle, also has many benefits, including renewed focus and content expertise.
The author’s research considers the optimal approach for a PMO on large-cap, complex projects is to adopt a hybrid model. At the programme level, the core leadership team should remain a constant for the entirety of the project lifecycle, while specialist project managers should also be brought on to projects for specific tasks. This approach will help ensure continuity and cohesiveness throughout the project lifecycle and assist in maintaining the required expertise, energy levels, focus and motivation of a PMO’s project teams.
2. Succession Planning
Resource displacement on a project can have a significant and often negative impact on organisational performance. This, in turn, can impact project performance, not least in the project close-out phase. The author’s research suggests that project management turnover occurs primarily in the execution phase of a project’s lifecycle.
Changes in project team composition during the project life cycle should be expected and planned for. Examples include team changes to match the specific skills associated with certain tasks on a project and natural team attrition through illness or otherwise. While such changes can decrease project stability, appropriate planning can help mitigate the negative effects.
Structured succession planning for short and long-term resource impacts is an important and effective strategy to reduce unnecessary stress and workload burden on PMOs and their remaining team members. Succession planning will also mitigate against the risks associated with single points of failure on projects and enhance a PMO’s ability to deliver a stable and successful project to the client. In some circumstances, turnover has a positive effect, such as ineffective project team members.
The author’s research suggests that ineffective succession planning can negatively disrupt project performance and overall success.
3. Risk Management
Most projects cannot be delivered from initial planning through to project closure without encountering some level of disruption. Issues or obstacles encountered can create uncertainty and often become risks. The sources of uncertainty can be wide-ranging and often significantly affect project execution. Managing uncertainty on projects is key to success. PMBOK® Guide (2021) point out that risk management is an important component of the overall project management plan and should be considered for each phase of a project’s lifecycle. Furthermore, a risk register can be an effective tool to help manage risk. The primary function of a risk register is to.
Document and track project risk
Assign risk owners
Detail appropriate mitigation and/or contingency strategies to manage each risk item
PMOs and their project teams should maintain comprehensive risk logs on their projects. Risks associated with resources are typically not included on project risk registers. Single points of failure and project manager stress due to excessive workload can, for example, be very detrimental to project stability and success. The advice here is simple: Please ensure that you log all risks, even those associated with resources.
Bad news rarely gets better over time! An active risk register is a key project document which should be regularly reviewed, critiqued, and managed by the project leadership team. Mitigation and contingency plans should be actively worked and logged in their respective project risk registers.
4. Knowledge Harvesting
Pressure is increasing from clients in the public and private sectors to deliver projects faster with improved quality and lower cost. Such pressures require PMOs to adopt continuous improvement processes and techniques to assist in how projects are executed. Valuable lessons learned on projects often become “buried” in project files and are rarely referenced. Such documented learnings should be living and breathing documents on a project, with regular referencing and appropriate updating. Lessons learned activities have become a common means of identifying improvements and innovations on projects.
The introduction of a project learning roadmap can also assist PMO’s in effectively managing the knowledge harvesting on their projects. It is important to note that knowledge harvesting is most effective when done from the early initiation phase right through to project close out.
Cultivating a culture conducive to exploiting the benefits associated with knowledge harvesting should be a key focus area for PMOs and will only be successful with consistent engagement and support from senior PMO stakeholders. Effective knowledge harvesting, in particular with documented lessons learned processes, can increase project success and help drive organisational learning.
5. Occupational Stress
Project managers have a lot to contend with, not least the ever-present effects of conflict and stress. Occupational stress, for example, can significantly affect the health and well-being of project management professionals and is often associated with low levels of job performance. Supporting and encouraging colleagues to create a more positive working environment can help reduce occupational stress. Another important consideration is that individuals often have different perceptions of workload and associated pressures.
PMOs are responsible for hiring experienced and skilled project managers who have a demonstrable ability to handle an appropriate level of occupational stress. However, PMOs should also ensure they “set their teams up for success” through appropriate resourcing and realistic project goal setting.
In addition, PMOs must recognise the importance of supporting their project teams through employee welfare programmes and open-door policies. The environment and culture cultivated by PMOs and their project teams are essential in the mitigation of excessive levels of occupational stress experienced on large-cap complex projects.
The author’s research identified that significant stress on project managers can, in some cases, lead to project burnout. Mitigating occupational stress and burnout in the early phases of a project can, however, prove very effective. Higher levels of job control coupled with co-worker support can help alleviate the onset of excessive levels of occupational stress.
6. Project Closure
A common theme identified is that project closure is considered administratively bureaucratic, cumbersome, and overly tedious. The excitement of a new project is often conducive to high levels of energy and enthusiasm. Conversely, closing out projects can be an energy-sapping experience with low levels of enthusiasm.
There can also be a perception that project closure is something that happens quite naturally and is, by its nature, uncomplicated. It’s clear that project close-out can, in fact, be problematic, often leading to project failure. It is worth noting that the skills required to close a project can be different to those required to set up and run a project.
Project closure should be planned, budgeted, and scheduled in the same way as the earlier phases in the project life cycle. A project termination checklist can be an effective way to ensure the important close-out phase gets the appropriate level of attention. Effective project controls from project initiation, development and execution will also facilitate an effective project close-out phase.
PMOs should consider assigning a project close-out champion or specialist to manage the close-out of their project effectively. In addition, improved planning, implementation, and execution processes, including comprehensive documentation, will significantly reduce the challenges associated with closing a project.
Adapting a model like the “Project Fatigue Wheel of Mitigation” will help PMOs improve the well-being and effectiveness of their project managers and teams on future projects. Acknowledging and mitigating the effects of Project Fatigue will significantly enhance a PMO’s ability to create a more positive, less stressful working environment with a culture of continual learning and development, thus promoting job satisfaction, coupled with greater retention of staff. Achieving these objectives will help PMOs to consistently deliver more successful projects time and again.
Bernie, C. (2019). A Framework to Mitigate Against the Effects of Project Fatigue: An exploratory investigation into the key factors influencing the level of Project Fatigue experienced by PMO’s on large cap, complex projects. [Masters of Business Administration thesis, Technoligical University Dublin].
PMBOK® Guide (Seventh ed.). (2021). Project Management Institute, Inc.
Reiss, G. (1995). Project Management Demystified: Today's Tools and Techniques. E & FN Spon.