Finding ways to do more with less is always in style in retail businesses. As we shift from a record period of low interest rates and growth and see tightening wallets and a reduction in real spending, this is going to become a greater focus. From the ARA, “Australians spent $24 billion on Boxing Day sales, marking an increase of 1.6% from the previous year. However, when accounting for population increase and inflation, real retail sales have fallen by about 6% over that period”.[1]

The work of projects depends heavily on what we call discretionary effort. Discretionary effort refers to the additional, voluntary effort that employees put into their work beyond their basic job responsibilities and requirements. It represents the extra energy, time, and commitment that team members choose to invest in their jobs because they are motivated, engaged, and committed to the success of the project. Discretionary effort often leads to increased productivity, higher-quality work, and improved overall performance.

It can also lead elsewhere.

Darker Side of Discretionary Effort

While discretionary effort can be a powerhouse for productivity, it’s not without its shadows. Consider the tale of an e-commerce project we once spearheaded. The business in question had a crappy website and wanted to replace it with the newest technology to give them a boost. The vision was that e-commerce could become a large part of their future business.

One of the challenges they needed to overcome was that they had no one to work on a new site while the existing site was in operation. In a difficult situation, they decided to recruit for the role of e-commerce manager before they had the new website live.

So, that person’s job, for a period of time, was to work on the project. Once the project went live, their job was to manage the website and a team of people who were working on it. Smart move! It meant continuity of knowledge and ensured that the project had at least one dedicated person on it all the time.

The difficulty came, I think, when the website went live.

The person moved into their new role, managing the website. There was continued project effort that was also required (there were multiple sites to go live).

Things went a bit off the rails.

I don’t know what happened for this person, but I can imagine that they felt under pressure to perform on the project at the level that they had been doing when they were full-time allocated to the project, and they also now, in addition, had a new full-time role.

They started taking shortcuts.

Making promises that they could no longer keep. There was concern about their workload. It was discussed, but tasks would get done in the nick of time, so it continued.

They had started to covertly outsource their work to other people.

Fortunately, it was uncovered, but the disruption to the team and business was extensive.

I would say that this person probably wasn’t coping with the additional responsibilities that they had been given and had started to do some things that, in their better moments, they probably would not do.

I’m sharing this because, while we all want to do a good job and inspire team members to lift the bar, we also want to ensure that they’re operating safely and within the guidelines of the business’s expectations. Outsourcing your work to others creates difficult problems regarding confidentiality and privacy. It was fortunate that this was uncovered and addressed quickly.

Don’t Take Discretionary Effort For Granted.

What’s important is to not take discretionary effort for granted.

If we assume that people are doing the best that they can, then most leaders don’t want to push their existing employees to the point of breaking, which can often happen when they’re tasked with both a full-time job and project work.

The reality is that you must involve the people who are on-ground experts at the business level in a change project. You must involve them because, to create buy-in for the change, the people who live there need to make the decisions. They have the advantage of time spent in the business and a more accurate understanding of how business processes work, and they are more likely to foresee potential problems that will arise from making changes.

The horrible Catch-22 or rock and a hard place kind of experience that usually managers and key people experience in building a project team is that usually those people who you want to do your project are also critical from a business as usual point of view, and giving them double the amount of work to do doesn’t necessarily make it easy for them to function.

You double the effort. You also double the bind that you’re in.

It’s a balancing act.

Beware Burnout And Other Ills

Burnout has had something of a moment in the spotlight in recent times. It has garnered greater visibility and explanation. In no small part this is due to the work of Dr Emily and Amelia Nagosky [2]. Their research has focused on this area of health and well being that particularly resonates with women. They focus on completion of the stress cycle response as a way of taking action that will assist in recovery from burnout. I’ve had friends who have worked to recover from it; it takes a long and concerted effort to recover from.

As in our story of the darker side of discretionary effort, being on the lookout for behaviour that’s out of character is also a worthwhile effort. It’s a bit like the adage ‘if it sounds too good to be true it probably isn’t’ – the same applies to workloads. If a team member is getting through more work than it seems like they should be able to do, then they probably aren’t. At some level, we had twigged to it but it was too easy to let it slide when it felt like it was working.

What Can Project Teams Do?

The most important things that we can impact in a project team (where the team is temporary, and the resources borrowed) are:

  • Honest communication, which means being both clear and kind with our team about what we can and cannot achieve. Asking for what we need to perform at our best. This requires the leader to create a safe enough environment that people are not fearful of repercussions when asking for what they need.
  • Applying this honest communication to the role of project management, we need to engage with stakeholders frequently to understand and update their expectations. If there are long periods of silence, stakeholders typically assume that things are as per the agreed plan. If there are adaptations or changes, then communicate these as early as you can.
  • Do not agree to timelines that are set in a way that doesn’t consider the work to be done. We are all guilty of being optimistic about what we can get done in each time period. Temper this with what is truly achievable. It’s a critical part of project communication.
  • Promote trust and agency in project teams; that all elusive safety-first mindset that allows us to be at our best will give team members their best opportunity to contribute. Make sure that this is marked out with clear performance standards, so safety is balanced with a learning mindset.
  • Identify early warning signs indicating potential silent struggling among employees, including disengagement, decreased productivity, or downward trajectory of mood.

At 6R Retail, we don’t just manage projects; we nurture the human element within them. Our unique approach intertwines structured project management methodologies with a deep understanding of individual and team dynamics, ensuring that each project is not only a success in terms of deliverables but also a positive, growth-oriented experience for every team member involved. By placing equal emphasis on results and relationships, we transform potential stress points into opportunities for innovation and collaboration, setting our project teams and client partnerships apart in the ever-evolving retail landscape.

Are you ready to harness the power of discretionary effort without the burnout? Let’s talk about how 6R Retail can tailor our approach to your unique challenges. Book a call.