Steam trains and team strains

Steam trains and team strains

“It’s like we’re on a steam train that’s out of control, and we can’t get off”. 

These were the words of one Pecan client recently, a Head of Learning & Development in a financial services firm. She was referring to the ever-increasing pace of change within the organisation, and the knock-on demands on her team’s workload. Whilst they’re well used to delivering at pace, the last six months have seen even greater demands. She remarked that they were now delivering three times the volume of programmes compared to two years ago, and with 25% fewer team members. And where previously there may have been some slight troughs between the peaks, it now feels like they’re always working at or beyond full capacity.  

It’s no surprise. Many organisations have been accelerating their pace of delivery over recent years, whether to keep up with competitors, implement an ambitious strategy, or ‘simply’ to respond to external challenges such as the pandemic and Brexit. As a result, the organisational rhythm has sped up considerably. To use our client’s analogy, a steam train ride through gentle countryside now feels like a high-speed inter-city Pendolino, with no obvious endpoint. 

We talked with our client about what she was experiencing, and why. As well as the pace and volume of activity, she described how she felt out of control. As if someone else was driving the train… Or perhaps there wasn’t a driver at all, and the train just had its own momentum. She talked about the impact on her team, and how – although she felt a responsibility to help them look after their well-being – she wasn’t feeling able to give them the headspace they (and she herself) needed. Finally, she talked about how this pace and level of demand was probably a ‘new normal’, and so – if she was to stay aboard the train – it was down to her to find some new techniques to help manage the situation. 

During our conversation, our client came to see that although she felt she wasn’t in control of the steam train, that wasn’t wholly true. She realised that she’d lost sight of the levers that she and her team can use to shape how they direct and prioritise their efforts. Whilst they couldn’t stop the train entirely (and wouldn’t want to), they could get back into the driver’s cab and influence its speed and direction. 

There was another unexpected realisation – that whilst the current situation was challenging and stressful, the leader recognised that there was a degree of addiction to the adrenaline of riding the train and the short-lived relief of surviving yet another journey. We survived to fight another day! Well-documented neuroscience tells us that this type of persistent stress is bad for our health.    

We worked with our client and her team over three half-day workshops, helping them to:  

  1. Raise awareness: Surfacing and being honest about the assumptions and beliefs that are perpetuating their experience. Challenging the habits and practices that influence their team rhythm, including how new work is accepted and how initiatives are prioritised, sequenced and resourced. 
  2. Map the team’s activities: Identifying the current and likely future demands on the team, including ‘important, but not urgent’ activities that find themselves at the bottom of the list such as development, relationship-building and holidays. 
  3. Prioritise: Using two simple prioritisation frameworks to assess the importance and impact of each activity. 
  4. Stop or pause: Identifying lower-value activities that could be stopped, temporarily paused or delegated to other teams, albeit requiring a sometimes-difficult discussion with another part of the business. 
  5. Plan and sequence: For the remaining activities, breaking them down into phases with defined timescales and resources, and flagging any potential resource gaps or other delivery risks. 
  6. Re-group: Using the space and time to re-connect as a team and build sustainable ways of working to help them keep delivering high-quality outputs, at pace. 

As a result, our client and her team are back in control of their steam train. They are feeling energised and significantly less anxious about the months ahead. And they have fuel in the tank to build even stronger relationships with a wider group of stakeholders so they can add maximum value to the business. 

If this example has resonated, let us know. Perhaps your team’s steam train is feeling out of control as well, or you’d just like to be feeling more on top of the demands being thrown your way. If that’s the case, get in touch and we can share more detail about how we can help. 

Steam train on raised tracks

Photo by Adryan RA on Unsplash 

Subscribe to be notified when a new insight is published