Be ready for it to go off the rails - Michelle Gibbings

How to be ready for when it goes off the rails

Have you ever had a time when you planned a project, initiative or piece of work, and it didn’t go to plan? It might have been that it took longer than anticipated, required more resources, was more costly, the benefits weren’t realised, or you discovered it didn’t come to fruition as expected.

The list of things that can go wrong, and often go wrong, can be long.

Often with the best intentions, we overestimate what can get done and in what timeframe. Particularly when it comes to change – whether big or small and in your personal or professional life.

When a project, a change you want to make or an initiative goes off the rails, you may wish to descope, push out timeframes, get frustrated, spend more money than necessary, give up and walk away or use other unhelpful approaches.

None of those tactics is beneficial. Instead, it helps to start at the beginning and accept that all change involves uncertainty and unknowns, so you best be ready for it.

Here are some ideas to get you started.

Contextualise your why
Change is easiest when it’s incremental and has a clear destination. That is, the change has a clear plan and steps to follow, and each piece of change builds on the earlier part of the change, all of which ultimately get you to your desired end state.

It’s more complicated when the end state is unclear, and your objectives and goals are fuzzy. It’s even more complex when the change is disruptive and thrust upon you by external forces. For example, technological advances or new regulations force you to shift how you operate, and you need more time to adapt than is available.

Regardless of what might have initially driven the change, put it into your context and make it relevant. Be specific about why it matters and what will be gained, and ensure there is a clear destination.

Identify the risks from the outset
Before you start, undertake a realistic assessment of the potential issues that may arise during the work program.

When you understand the risks that could arise, you can put in place plans to minimise the likelihood that they will eventuate and minimise the impact if they do. You can also establish early warning indicators to monitor if a risk starts to eventuate.

Experience shows that contingency planning enables people to cope better, and the issue is better managed because plans to address are already mapped out.

Manage expectations
When projects are initiated, there are many unknowns. Over time, an unknown becomes known, so the level of understanding about what’s practical, possible and probable becomes more evident.

Throughout this period, it’s not just about managing the expectations of stakeholders and your team. It’s about managing your own expectations.

From initiation to implementation, notice how expectations shape how you react and respond when things don’t go to plan.

Change can be challenging, so be realistic. As I’ve written about before in the article Are your expectations, hope and optimism not helping you? being a hopeless optimist won’t help. Instead, as Admiral James Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for more than seven years, advised, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be“.

Focus on the messy middle
We all love the beginning when everything looks exciting and full of potential. We all love finishing something and seeing the fruits of our endeavours. However, as Academic and change expert Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes, “Everything can look like a failure in the middle“.

She wisely advises that the hard part is the work in the middle. We can give up during those times in the messy middle when things appear off track, and you may be unsure how to get back on track.

This is when your resolve and character strength as a leader are tested. The messy middle will happen, so ready your mindset (and that of others involved) for its eventuality.

Know where to seek counsel
There will be lots of people who will have ideas about what you should do.

Know who you need to listen to and those whom to ignore. Be ready and willing to listen to the voices of dissent, as they can provide valuable perspectives.

As part of this, be conscious that you don’t need all the answers. The wisdom is usually in the group – so seek it out. Your role is to be curious and to ask the right questions at the right time.

Make decisions
In times of challenge, people can become reticent to make decisions. However, at precisely this time, the need to make decisions is at its highest imperative.

People are looking for leadership, and making a decision goes with the territory. Remember that when you fail to make a decision, you are, in fact, still making a decision.

Take time out
Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, writes about breaking the cycle. He suggests that “It only takes five minutes to break the cycle. Five minutes of exercise and you are back on the path. Five minutes of writing, and the manuscript is moving forward again. Five minutes of conversation, and the relationship is restored. It doesn’t take much to feel good again.”

You can apply a similar philosophy to times when things are going off the rails. You need to gain perspective and be open to shifting your perspective.

One of the best ways to do that is to take time out. Walk away. Get some air. Take a break. Do whatever you need to do so you can return to the problem with a different frame of reference.

Find the learning
Out of every failure or thing that goes wrong, there are immense opportunities to learn.

So whilst you may not enjoy the experience, you will undoubtedly benefit from it in the long run. Take the time to reflect on the learnings gathered at an individual, team and organisational level. Consider what you need to take with you into the future and what you need to leave behind.

Take care
Your team are looking to you for guidance and direction. Be available, supportive and encouraging to those around you. Take the time to listen and understand their concerns, while constructively challenging them if needed.

At such times, stress levels can become overwhelming, giving rise to short and longer-term health issues. Be alert to the danger signs for you and your team. Throughout any form of change, you want to ensure that your mental health and well-being start and end in good shape.

The American novelist, Henry Miller, wrote “One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things”, and that is one of the biggest benefits of any form of change.

Getting you ready for tomorrow, today®

Michelle Gibbings is a workplace expert, the award-winning author of three books, and a global keynote speaker. She’s on a mission to help leaders, teams and organisations create successful workplaces – where people thrive and progress is accelerated.

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