What is a Meltdown?
Meltdown, or breakdown, is an English term that was once used to encompass many mental illnesses. Nowadays it is used to describe a period of intense mental distress that leaves sufferers unable to function in everyday life.
Compared to our grandparents, we live a stressful daily life. A meltdown often produces depression, anxiety, and irregular sleep and appetite. These problems were once less frequent than today – or at least better hidden.
When you can’t stand any more physical or emotional stress, you can no longer make good decisions or think creatively, you’ve reached meltdown. There may also be physical symptoms visible on the skin or affecting internal organs. Developers, architects, and CTOs are often at risk of this kind of distress, and while the warning signs of an impending nervous breakdown vary from person to person, they can be difficult to recognise in advance, so it’s a good idea to pay attention to the issues that could leave you into this state.
This is not a medical article, so please take specialist advice on these issues. Nonetheless, what we can be sure of is that we are living in a time when medical knowledge is of the greatest importance – not only to help in difficult situations, but also in making simple everyday choices that allow our mind and body to use their self-healing capacity to best effect.
What is a CTO?
Starting out with a tightly planned schedule, then needing a boost is what often happens in both the developing and management areas of business. This is exactly what any developer or designer experiences many times a year in what can be a pre-burnout situation. This situation does not create big problems if you work in a company that can support you and share your workload among your colleagues. Unfortunately, freelancers – who only get paid when they can make creative decisions – are not so lucky.
A CTO is less fortunate because this is a normal condition in this role, as it is for any decision-maker holding an apex position – people who need to be focused and proactive 16-20 hours a day.
While coding gives you a one-dimensional kind of stress, a CTO experiences stress carved deep across multiple dimensions. Both a technical and strategic executive, a CTO must cope with stress coming from the teams, the other CxOs, and customers. Managing the company‘s roadmap, a CTO’s planning has to accommodate many different sources of constraint.
How to melt down any kind of CTO
The level of attention needed varies according to your style as a CTO. There are many ways to carry out this position. Some general classifications are described in this article. At a basic level there are four different profiles: the Challenger, the Influencer, the Owner, and the Enabler. The most stressful apect is the degree of control wielded by the individual CTO: the lower the control, the lower the chance of falling into a descending spiral if the complexity of scheduling increases.
The Influencer and the Enabler lower their own direct control, and delegate responsibilities to the most promising team members more than the Challenger or the Owner.
Although almost nobody fits one of the four given profiles 100% over a longer period, is it useful to understand how some characteristics enable high performance for the longest possible time. When discussing how to avoid a meltdown, one key point is to retain direct control of only the most difficult situations, and to structure your team in such a way that most functions can be delegated as soon as possible.
Consequences of a meltdown
Losing your efficiency has consequences for both your pocket and your career, and for the financial results of your company. There may also be medical outcomes to consider, but the focus of this article is the business aspects.
If you don’t make decisions, all related processes will require more time to be accomplished, so money, primarily from your company, will inevitably be wasted.
Not making decisions produces poor results when a decision needs to be made within a certain timeframe. Making the wrong choice – or failing to choose – and consequently experiencing negative outcomes means losing money, but much more than is lost through a simple delay.
A CTO must communicate with an enormous number of people: all team, suppliers, customers, and of course the other high-level executives inside the company. Not taking decisions results in problems with team members, especially if your style is not that of a delegating CTO, but that of an Owner or Challenger. The final outcome is less efficiency, thus wasting money both directly and through the delays introduced into the overall process.
Returning to your responsibilities as an internal communicator, remember that lower financial results are bad, but that the opinion of your peers is of much more importance to your career. Failing to communicate with the other CxO’s and the company’s President could be an irreparable mistake.
Warning signs of a CTO meltdown
The most valuable ability of a CTO is making timely decisions. Some decisions are dictated by public or private calendars, many are prompted by sudden input, most are made through processes hidden in the depths of a CTO’s brain, but all have their own time frame.
The related literature underlines three warning signs that can help you to predict an imminent burnout:
- not respecting the given roadmap/s
- lack of detailed plans
- losing the ability to say “No” to others.
Losing these abilities can mean that all current projects fail, and any outstanding projects still need to be managed during the meltdown. The longer the problem is denied, the more projects will sink; the more projects sink, the higher the risk of damage to the company and to your career.
It can be difficult to build a metric based on the first two points alone. It may seem easy to check whether everything is on track with your roadmaps/plans – at least the written parts – but plans are always in turmoil for a CTO, and a lowering of their ability to deal with this uncertainty is normal if the path is lost.
The ability to say “no” is a good metric. Focusing on this element requires a minimum of attention, which can easily be found even in the most difficult moments. Moreover, this is one warning sign that can also be seen by other people. A CTO talks to many people, so close collaborators can offer help and insight in this area. A good CTO is always open to criticism.
How to cope with a meltdown
A full life includes friends, hobbies, sports, and many other elements in balance. How many times have you heard somebody, maybe even yourself, saying “…but I’ve got no time”? This is the attitude that has pushed you to the point of meltdown, so find time for yourself. The only way to avoid a meltdown completely is never to go too far down the path towards one. Please find some down time – even fifteen minutes per day will do – even in the most stressful periods.
There is lots of help available to stop the meltdown process if you know your triggers – the sensitive points that make you sad or happy. It’s up to you whether you simply keep them in mind, or write a list, though I have to confess that I have a list and often write it down in a new order, to see if I can add or delete something.
Your trigger list will help you avoid the descent into the abyss. It can be a very slow change, so it’s easy not to notice that you are on the brink it until it’s too late.
Your mind and body are connected on many deep levels. When something hurts your mind, parts of your body will also hurt, generating muscle contractions. To avoid feeling this pain, people often adopt different postures that are unstable and place great demands on other parts of the body, creating a chain reaction. In the same manner, your brain forces you to avoid thinking about painful problems, so your mind finds different paths to express this, similar to the displaced contractions in your body.
There is no real cure for this: the only way is to avoid getting into this situation from the start.
A very common, and often unnoticed trigger is being pushed to do things you don’t like. From a simple conversation on a painful or stressful subject, or rigid communication rules, to finding time for physical activity, today’s social rules put us in many situations that stress our body and mind. In these situations, avoidance may be your best tactic.
The art of meditation is a very powerful anti-stress technique that can be used to prevent a meltdown. You need to find some quiet time for yourself. Spend some time learning this technique and follow the steps taught by your teacher (or book). The most difficult moment is always the start, but once past that point, it’s easy to go on.
No one thing suits everybody, so you may be the person who finds personal time in the day, but doesn’t find meditation relaxing. In this is you, don’t worry too much – there are other steps you can take. The new choice you have to make is to take this time for yourself, in a silent, restful place; solitude heals you, and your mind and body will help themselves. You could later upgrade this quietness by including simple repetitive actions such as a game of Solitaire, cleaning objects, or other manual activities.
No actions, no solitude? Again, don’t worry! Step number one: just sit down comfortably and close your eyes. You can add some breathing routines later that will really help your diaphragm to settle into the place it belongs, allowing all other internal organs to regain their positions, which will relax you. The positive triggers relaxation brings will guide you to the best follow-up: usic? drinks? Your mind will tell you.
How can you fix a CTO?
This is a great question that many experts have been asking for a long time. Forbes’ Dan Wood wrote a three-part article in 2013 to answer this question. His work still looks perfectly relevant and has helpful suggestions that can be applied not only when the CTO is stressed, but also in a broader range of undesirable situations; for example, a good CTO who’s not aligned with the needs of the business.
Thinking of a fix requires two previous considerations: is this CTO fixable, and am I allowed to fix him or her? The first question can only be answered by a few people inside the company, normally the CEO. If the CEO decides the CTO cannot be fixed, then it’s time to remove the CTO from their duties.
If anyone else thinks there are issues with the CTO, they need to consider whether or not he or she can help. The basis for moving forward should then be to analyze one or more situations, work out which can be fixed and how this can be done, map all the people and resources required, and tell the CEO. This is structured criticism; you know your CTO, and you have an idea of how he or she is likely to react to criticism.
Anyone who says to a CTO (or any kind of CxO) “You’re flawed and I want to fix you” must be hard to panic, and also be prepared to struggle and negotiate. There is obviously a risk in taking this route if you are not the CEO!