The Big Team Project starts out with the loftiest of intentions. The boss brings everyone together and launches the new initiative. We are going to re-organize the way we do business! We are going to come up with a Vision Statement and a Set of Values that will define us for the next three decades! We are going to establish new paradigms in Customer Service and Total Quality Control! There will be brainstorming assignments, work teams, and No Bad Ideas. We will re-invent ourselves! So roll up your sleeves, because today we begin!
Everyone comes to those first few meetings salivating with anticipation, eager to reinvent, re-think, re-launch and re-imagine. But after a few months all the team wants to do is retreat. What happened? The energy has dissipated, the fresh thinking grown stale, the milestones fewer and farther between. Where’s all that the excitement? When did the air go out of the balloon? Who rained on our brainstorm?
Here’s how these efforts sometimes progress. During those first few meetings, fueled by great intentions, the team makes great progress and everyone seems to be on board. But then the questions become more complex. The issues grow more opaque. The take-aways become increasingly obscure. The impatience grows more obvious. The lofty goals evaporate into the fog of petty argument and passive aggressive “whatever” attitudes. That dreaded nemesis “Process Fatigue” begins to set in — a toxic condition where a few impatient nay-sayers are finally joined by a growing chorus of equally impatient colleagues asking with one irritated voice, “Can we please just get on with it??!”
Face it, Project Leader — you and your team are deep into the weeds.
Most of us have been there. I was once part of a Strategic Planning team that met weekly for a period of, as I recall, at least two years. We found ourselves in the weeds a lot, debating about the meaning of terms and the pointless details of timelines that would never be met. Ultimately there was an organizational change at the top and the whole project was shelved. Hopefully your project isn’t headed for that same dismal fate!
If you’re a Project Leader and your team seems stuck, the team needs you to help get things moving. So here are three things you might want to focus on. First, replace confusion with context. When a complex project goes awry it’s easy for members of the team to lose sight of the goal and start asking, “Can someone remind me why in heck we’re doing this? What’s the point?” That is the leader’s Central Question! You may understand the point fully, but your team might not, so you need to remind everyone frequently why this project is important. Make sure everyone comprehends where we’ve been and where we’re going. Put the project into a larger context and your team should become reinvigorated.
Second, overcome complexity with clarity. Some projects are just inherently complex, and you’ll never succeed by trying to “make it simple.” But you can make it clear. Use straightforward, non-technical language. Break big concepts into bite-sized chunks and, again, help people see how these smaller pieces fit into the larger task. If you’re a highly analytic leader, learn to use emotional terms to motivate your non-analytic colleagues. When you speak with enthusiasm, confidence and conviction, your clarity can overcome a lot of fear. Take charge and be clear.
Third, turn paralysis into progress. Leaders need to understand just how frustrating it is to be on a team that’s going nowhere! The fastest way out of the weeds may be to back up a bit — something strong-willed leaders hate to do. Figure out where things began to go off the rails. Maybe you need to re-frame the discussion, rearrange the teams or reconsider the timeline. Maybe you need to focus on one or two areas where progress is possible and leave the others for later. Momentum brings a kind of energy that can often sustain itself — just as the feeling of being stuck in the mud brings the fear that it will always be this way!
Context, clarity, progress — help restore these to your project and leave the weeds behind.