I finally got around to reading Norm Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives”:http://www.dorsethouse.com/books/pr.html. To me the most important insight in the book is his underlying assumption that people and teams need maintenance at least as much as the product they’re building.
Reading his chapter on _Post-mortems_ (projects that really have failed), I was struck by his recognition of the role of grief and the effect it has on people — how it makes them angry, depressed, difficult, and so on. In my experience, almost no organisations recognise this, which is why Kerth’s work is so important.
Even fewer organisations recognise the on-going effects of grief from events in people’s private lives. You might get a day off for a funeral, but it’s not the sort of thing that people broadcast (and get sympathy for) like a new baby. There are other less public sources of grief too, such as failed relationships or thwarted ambition.
As “professionals” we’re supposed to bury our emotions at work, but we risk having them resurface later when we turn into difficult colleagues without quite knowing why. Some people have a full depressive crash, which will trigger proper help, but the borderline cases are harder to spot. Reflecting on my own history and ex-colleagues, I’ve known people become angry and negative, drink too much, or become just too tired to contribute. The results are not pretty, but the situation is retrievable if people understand what is happening, and a rescue will bring you undying loyalty from the person you’ve helped.
Our society used to handle this better — given the mortality rates it had to. There were formal ceremonies and standard periods of mourning, complete with black armbands, to channel the effects of personal loss. Now we need to present ourselves as invulnerable, and that doesn’t work for most people.