We’ve all been involved with projects that are not going well. We remember the cold sweat as the little voice inside our heads calls out things that don’t seem right. Unfortunately, all too often we do not heed the warnings and gamely fight on. Perhaps we don’t believe our concerns are serious enough or won’t be taken seriously enough. Or we hope that things will ‘sort themselves out.’ Often we simply don’t want to rock the boat, or we are afraid that we’ll get blamed for shortcomings we point out. Maybe we’re frightened we don’t know how to solve the problem so deny their very existence. Or deep down perhaps we did not really believe the project was deliverable in the first place and see setbacks as confirmation that we were right all along!
All of these are natural human reactions to things not going to plan. But they reduce the opportunities to intervene and get projects back on track. Leaders need to shift their organisation’s relationship to problems. Calling out concerns; creating a language and culture of ‘breakdowns’ instead of problems; and understanding that setbacks are essential aspects of any project or transformation are all fundamental steps in achieving breakthrough results.
The typical trajectory of a stalling project or transformation sees increasing commentary on what’s going wrong. Grumbling that focuses on emotions rather than facts. Problems rather than solutions. People looking for excuses and to apportion blame. The project itself becomes the problem. Crucially, everyone makes their own assumptions as to what’s happening, and the facts quickly get lost. Once they reach this stage few projects escape the death spiral. Stalled projects suffer retrenchment, extended timelines, and ambitions scaled back to focus on what is easily achievable rather than the original bold vision of what could be done.
But setbacks don’t make this downward path inevitable. Imagine instead a culture that celebrates breakdowns as integral to the success of transformational projects. Understanding that setbacks are inevitable and removing the psychological reaction to them paves the way to focus on facts and actions that quickly gets projects performing again. Three steps can make the difference between quickly getting back on track and rolling aimlessly into the siding.
The first step is to call a breakdown. Listen to your little voice, if something is not working, call it out! It is not a complaint or a whinge about things not going to plan, nor it is criticism or blame orientated. It must be an honest and transparent articulation that something needs to be fixed. And with the dedication to find a solution. It pushes pause on the project to allow everyone to assess the situation and creates space for a powerful dialogue to get at what is missing without the usual defensiveness that can surround these situations.
It is not an easy thing to do. Most organisational cultures unconsciously instil a belief system that there is “a way things should be” in their business, and therefore behaviours, actions and results that deviate from this set of “shoulds” occur as problems. Leaders need to cultivate cultures in which anyone can call a breakdown as they see it, knowing that a fair and thorough investigation of what needs to be done (NOT “who did this?”) will follow. The first step in doing this is to loosen the grip of “the way things should be” in your team or organisation to give your people the freedom and confidence to speak straight. The language you use is also crucial. This is not a failure, nor is it just a hiccup. If your car breaks down you don’t abandon it but fix it before continuing your journey. A project breakdown is the same. It is not a failure and does not mean the end of the journey, only that action is needed to overcome a specific issue so that it can continue.
Once paused, fully consider the facts. What has really happened, what are the verifiable facts? Too often, as projects go awry, conversations quickly descend into recriminations and blame. Simply put, emotions take over and individuals react to how they feel rather than the facts of the event. Everyone makes assumptions cultivated by their own contexts which only cloud the real causes of the breakdown. Everyone looks for someone to blame, anyone but themselves! To cut through, leaders should use open, coaching-style discussions to reset conversations with verifiable and agreed facts that quickly salve emotional responses.
All parties need to honestly evaluate their commitment to the project. Hidden or background commitments are the root cause of many breakdowns. For example, if individuals or groups are more committed to moving onto the next project asap, rather than fully achieving this one’s goals, then the project will suffer. Resetting is about unearthing these hidden, or even unconscious commitments, and addressing them.
Conscious realignment behind a shared commitment is essential to the success of the project. Ideally, leaders should take time and care to ensure all parties are enrolled and invested in a common commitment at the outset of any project, but breakdown moments present excellent opportunities to check, realign and reset commitments.
When aligned behind a shared commitment, all parties can look at the event with clear eyes to identify what’s missing and what’s essential to move forward. Resetting provides the essential foundation for open, fact-based discussion about what needs to be done. Responsibilities are clear and team and individuals can make promises and requests that build on a shared vision of success. The conversation becomes positive and action orientated. Suddenly what seemed an insurmountable obstacle is simply a challenge the team is more than capable of overcoming. Working together to solve issues strengthens the team and its abilities. The downward spiral has been inverted to become a self-reinforcing, positive cycle.
Moving quickly from discussion to action re-energises the project. The shift from stalling to performing is really one of mindset and language. Setbacks happen, and some can have potential to derail projects. Having the courage to call them out as you see them is the first step to dealing with them. Creating a culture that encourages everyone to call out ‘Breakdowns’ is the essential prerequisite. Language both informs and is shaped by culture. Breakdowns are not terminal. They are not failures or even problems. A clear examination of the facts will quickly identify how to fix them. Breakdowns catalyse projects by refocusing on the bold commitments that made them worth embarking on in the first place.
Leaders following the Pause-Reset-Go approach will see how they can avoid derailment of projects and increase successful outcomes. Rather than seeing setbacks as reasons to self-edit and restrict ambition, they see breakdowns as opportunities to build belief and foster breakthrough achievement cultures. So next time the little voice in your head identifies a setback, call out the breakdown, and use the fix to recommit and get a stalling project performing in no time.
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