Let the System Break – No More Heroes

Written by: Yelena Proskurin

Heroism may feel rewarding in the short term but is detrimental and even catastrophic in the long term.

Projects are a team effort. Working long hours (including evenings or weekends) to get something done is not only inefficient, but also extremely costly to both the employee and employer. It is detrimental to regularly perform these kinds of heroics. It is better to let a process break and uncover a systemic issue (like the need for better tooling or an adjustment of priorities), than to have individuals try to make up for the problem. Management will never know there is a problem if an employee heroically stays late to fix it. For example, if a project manager based in San Francisco is constantly responding to client requests in the middle of the night, management will never know there is a problem because at their level, they see a happy and satisfied customer. Imagine if that project manager does not respond in the middle of the night and the customer is dissatisfied every morning because their request was not attended to. What will happen? Management will be forced to address the problem by implementing a follow-the-sun model and hiring another project manager to cover the “night shift” or EMEA or APAC time zones for example.

Individual heroics actually harm the organization.

  • Individuals often dedicate extended hours to address unexpected issues or meet challenging project deadlines that may not be feasible. Their efforts receive recognition, both in official and unofficial ways. The heroes often suffer from burnout.
  •  Systems continue to remain flawed. Whether they are technical systems that demand heroic interventions due to their failures or processes that result in excessively ambitious or understaffed projects.
  •  Organizations establish a recurring pattern where they rely on heroic efforts to sustain their operations. They consistently set overly ambitious objectives, impose aggressive project deadlines, and neglect addressing the underlying systemic issues that lead to emergencies.

Succeeding within the organization hinges on either becoming a hero or fostering heroism. Employee turnover rates (attrition) are notably high.

Break the cycle by letting things break.

Allowing things to break is unsettling and scary. However, acknowledging that a system or process is malfunctioning serves as a crucial indicator that we should prioritize the actual fix—not the band-aid solution. This recognition can help us avoid the need for heroic efforts in the future, enhance the stability of our systems, and contribute to the overall well-being and satisfaction of everyone involved. This includes but is not limited to happier and healthier employees.

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