How many times do you have a complex problem, idea, or vision that you think is easy to describe and solve, that seem to take forever to actually complete and deliver results. When you sit down to initially discuss this Project, your team agrees, easy peasy, let’s get it done! Then, three months later there has been zero results from the Project. When you dig in to see what’s going on you find the team mired down in defining “scope of work”, estimating effort, identifying resources and disagreeing on exactly what the Project really is. Wait a minute, we’ve had 2-3 meetings on these things already, why is everyone seemingly on so many different pages? Why is something that should take 4-6 weeks now at the 24 week mark and no results, nothing, not even close?
VALLEY OF DESPAIR: Before we can answer why everything seems to be taking significantly more time than expected, we have to look at how we define our projects, or changes, and the challenges related to that definition. Let’s take a look at how Motivation and Enthusiasm on a Project can be impacted with the development of a new idea, a new change or execution of a vision.
Take a look at the graphic above “Change: The Valley of Despair”. Early in my career, this was commonplace with pretty much every project I was involved with. Typically a manager with more experience, and often title, than me, would announce a problem to our group and solicit ideas to solve that problem. We would typically have several meetings on “the problem” and come up with some rational solutions to solve it and the Project is born. Depending upon the size of the challenge, everyone is usually pretty pumped up, with comments like “it’s about time”, or “this is really cool” or “Wow, this is exactly why I work here, making a direct impact is awesome”. Then, a month later, the attitudes start changing, and not for the better. Project participants start asking “Why am I here?”, “When is this thing going to be done, I have other things to do”, or “What are we actually doing?”. Sound familiar? Welcome to the Valley of Despair. Most change management starts off great, enthusiasm is high, you get to work on something new and learn, maybe, something new. Then you start wondering why you are even part of the project, disagreements may start with Project participants, and deadlines start to get missed. The Project seems off the rails.
DEFINING A VISION: There are two problems going on here. Defining THE Vision and Controlling Time. In my experience as a CEO, the former is difficult to define, manage and control and the latter is scary for most project participants. As a leader, it’s your job to constantly reinforce/empower both. What do I mean by that? VISION is the solution you are striving for, point 6 in the above graphic. The number one thing you must do is clearly, and simply, define Point 6 in your plan. You must lead and sticking to the Vision will be the most difficult journey to success.
Vision, according to Google, is the ability to think about or plan the future with imagination, experience and wisdom. Let’s start there. Everyone you work with has a “vision” of a project, but is that “vision” about the future? Is the “vision” filled with imagination? Does the person have past experience or even wisdom about the future? In many cases, no, they simply have an Opinion. We must be careful about the difference between Vision and Opinion, they are quite different and can bring you down into the valley of despair. As someone driving a project or change, watch what happens when you ask various participants “What’s your Vision for this project”? What you will invariably hear is “My vision is xyz”. Or, even tougher, “In my experience, the Vision is xyz”. What they are really saying is “My opinion is xyz”, not accurately defining THE Vision. Only one person defines, and sometimes redefines, THE Vision. Everyone else contributes ideas and opinions to that Vision. So in trying to get from Point 1 to Point 6 as quickly and cost effectively as possible, stick to your vision, THE Vision. Make sure it’s defined as well as possible, and only you, the Leader of this change, can tweak this Vision.
BENDING TIME: The second main issue avoiding the Valley of Despair is Time. Most change leaders, in fact most leaders in general, ignore time. Time is your friend and time is your enemy at the same time. Most people fear time. They’re afraid to estimate it, they’re afraid to define it, they’re afraid to commit to it and most importantly, they are afraid to talk about it. Time is not something to fear, it’s something to embrace and discuss. When it comes to process, I think about time in three simple blocks: Today, End of the Week, Sometime in the Future. So when planning a change, or helping to develop a project or even requesting an action be done by some value of time, I simply use one of the above. So the trick here is to first not let time overwhelm you with detail. Something either needs to be done today, by the end of the week, or sometime in the future, help me figure that out. Pretty simple and certainly not too scary.
Next, we need to not overthink time. Remember, when defining your vision, you are using imagination, experience and wisdom to come up with that vision. However, most of your project participants don’t have, or don’t know, those three things. Think about a Marketing Product Leader executing the vision of their CEO on a particular complex new technology product. Do you think that Product Leader has 20 years of experience like you do? Have they worked as a developer for the last 10 years writing code for your new product? Have they ever run a company and managed EBITDA or Top Lines? Most likely not, so what are they going to do to execute your Vision without all of that Imagination, Experience and Wisdom? Well, they are going to micromanage, scope and detail the heck out of the project, bringing all project participants down in to the Valley of Despair. The project will never meet any timelines, frustration will build and maybe even the project will wither away and fail. You can help with this by what I call “Building a Bridge” across the valley.
BUILD A BRIDGE: In order to control time, you have to think about your vision in a series of completion steps by asking yourself a few simple questions: 1. Do I know exactly where we are going to end up (usually now, 2. Do I know exactly how long it’s going to take (usually no, but you must have a general range), 3. Do I know exactly the skill sets I need to execute (usually no). Since rarely do you know exactly where you are going to end up, how long it’s really going to take and who all the participants need to be, why do we always want to construct a steel-reinforced concrete bridge at the beginning of every change or project? Maybe it’s human nature, maybe it’s because we are trying to execute change with participants who are afraid of change, or maybe it’s simply because it gets us over the fear of time. Who knows, but we’re going to skip all of that uncertainty and establish the “60% Rule”. In any change process, get it close first, 60% close to be more exact. Remember, that Valley of Despair image is not 2 dimensional in terms of real world challenges, it’s 3 dimensional. We know where we are today, we sort of know where we want to be tomorrow, but we don’t know exactly where “where” is, could be left, could be more right, could be higher, could be lower. The point is, we have to first construct a simple wooden rope bridge to quickly get to the other side of the “valley”, then refine our vision once and after we know a lot more about where we are going. This has two major advantages: 1. Get’s partial results immediately for your teams, and 2. Answers some of the unknowns much more quickly, like the where, the how and the when. Because once you quickly build that wooden rope bridge across the valley, you can scramble across and see what the other side of the project looks like. You can now realize, and visualize, what tools and resources you will need on the other side, how long it’s going to take and more importantly, start to actually SEE the Vision, not just think or talk about it.
Once you build the bridge, time comes into focus and it becomes, usually, a lot less scary for the project participants. You will hear things like “Ohhhhh, NOW I see what’s going on”, and excitement starts to build on your team. Wins start to happen as you identify new participants to the team. And those whom were originally hesitant start opening up and giving options, experience and even direction to move even faster. The next thing you know, you are driving your Vision to 70%, then 80% and higher. Your ultimate goal is to deliver results to some higher power. We all answer to some higher power, a Manager, a Board, our spouses, someone. By clearly, and simply, defining the Vision for change, then Building a Bridge to focus on 60% of that Vision, you will control your change more accurately, more scalable and most importantly, at speeds you never thought were achievable.