Ideas for Leaders #231

Avoiding the Acceleration Trap

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Key Concept

Is your organization stuck in an ‘acceleration trap’? If you demand that your employees constantly give you the same level of accelerated effort, however committed they are, eventually their energy will burn out and the company’s performance will suffer. This Idea explains how to spot this trap, break free from it, and avoid getting stuck in this harmful position in future.

Idea Summary

Perhaps at one time, ‘corporate burnout’ was attributed to few, mostly C-suite executives. Now, it is much more commonly experienced by employees at all levels of an organization. Increased competition and market pressures means organizations frequently take on more in terms of activities, goals, technologies, etc. than they can handle for a sustained period of time. This accelerated activity can bring about positive effects and success for a while, but problems begin when leaders try to continue at this increased pace, turning it the norm. Eventually, exhaustion begins to creep throughout the company; this is what Professors Heike Bruch and Jochen Menges refer to as “the acceleration trap.”

Through studies of over 600 companies over nine years, they found that over-accelerated companies exhibit at least one of three patterns of destructive activity:

  1. Employees are overloaded with too many activities and do not have the time or resources required to do their jobs.
  2. The organization asks its employees to do too many kinds of activities (“multi-loading”).
  3. Finally, the organization gets into the habit of constant change (“perpetual loading”), depriving employees of any hope of retreat for recharging their energy. To compensate, they end up holding back their efforts whenever they can, even if doing so hampers the company.

Fortunately, Heike and Menges suggest a few ways to break free from the acceleration trap:

  • Stop the action: try asking employees for ideas about what projects to terminate, rather than what new initiatives should be taken on.
  • Be clear about strategy: this requires CEO fortitude; they must ensure that the organization’s strategy is clearly understood throughout the entire firm.
  • Decide how to take decisions: find a systematic way to make hard choices, as not every project that supports the firm’s strategy will be of importance.
  • Declare the turmoil over: avoid continuous rounds of change, especially if that is what is causing the acceleration trap.

Business Application

Though the suggestions above are helpful if you find your organization stuck in an acceleration trap, ultimately it is just as important to ensure that it does not happen again. Heike and Menges make a number of suggestions in their paper on how to change a “hurry-up” culture in organizations, some of which include the following:

  • Focus on one thing only for a limited time: take the example of Lidl, which called for a companywide “new project ban” during the five-month period it focused on opening 29 new supermarkets in Switzerland. Such blinders can allow your firm to work on strategically important projects without distractions.
  • Institute time-outs: avoid introducing any more changes for a set amount of time (such as one year, as Microsoft do) after a period of deep organizational change. Such time-outs allow for creativity and exploration, and prepare employees mentally and emotionally for the next phase of high performance.
  • Indulge in successes: understand that achievements and outstanding effort deserve acknowledgment. Take a moment to reflect and feel proud of accomplishments, instead of rushing full-speed ahead into the next project.

Overall, the advice to CEOs is this: do not drive your company constantly to its limits. Relentless acceleration leads to loss of focus, an uncontrolled flood of activities, organizational fatigue, and — eventually — burnout.

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Idea conceived

  • April 2010

Idea posted

  • October 2013

DOI number



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