From The Brink

From the Brink

Have you ever had a project in trouble?  Have you ever had a company in trouble?   I think we have all had that experience.  Things just never seem to hit their stride, and one thing after another just seems to stack against you.  We have all been there.  The question is how do you pull the project back from the brink of disaster?  This is one of the questions I am asked repeatedly, and I have found that there are many variations upon the theme, but it comes down to a few common sense rules.

• Do not panic.  This is a good rule for life, as well as a crisis situation.  There is always a solution to any problem, and we will often go down a wrong road or two.  Don’t panic, adjust.  You have only failed when you give up mentally and then physically.  Many situations become untenable not because they are truly lost, but because the people involved no longer believe that they will see the end.

• Remove yourself from the equation.  That sounds silly.  How can I solve the problem if I remove myself?  Simple, sometimes you are the problem.  Take that step back and do some hard soul searching.  This is really hard for most managers and executives to do.  However, if a person is too close to the issue, they no longer have the perspective necessary to see alternatives.  Those of us who are successful take failure personally, and so we become emotionally involved and thus will keep trying similar things over and over, when instead we may need a completely new playbook.

• No fear.  While this was a popular bumper sticker for a while, it is really something that we no longer have time or energy to indulge.  Fear of failure, losing the job, the company, reputation, … the list goes on.  All of these fears sabotage our ability to succeed.  I know this sounds really simplistic and from a “I’m ok” book, but it is probably the biggest reason things fail.  Why do CFO’s and CIO’s put others as responsible for key projects and only provides “oversight”?   Many times it is so they have a way to shift blame and protect a comfortable lifestyle.  This will never be the public or acknowledged reason, but it is the true one.

• Don’t be afraid to pull the plug.  Maybe the project was started at the wrong time.  Maybe the company, group or whatever is just not ready to make the types of changes necessary.  I would like my brother-in-law to stop smoking.  It is killing him, but he is not willing to make the changes necessary to quit.  Organizations have personalities and just like people, they must make the collective decision to change.  Once a company is started it will take on a life and personality of its own.  Initially and for a long period of time it will reflect the founder and board, but over time it will grow and develop.  That is why the leadership team is so critical to the success of the company.  So evaluate whether this was the right thing to do in the first place.

• Don’t be afraid not to pull the plug.  This is not a contradiction of the previous statement.  It is a conscious choice to keep going or to stop.  The choice is critical and often we find out more about ourselves by working against all odds.  There is something magical when a group of people come together knowing that the deck is stacked against them and striving and more often than not succeeding.  It is that determination that has people reach down deep into themselves and they will transform not only the company but themselves.  Those of us who have been in that situation and come out the other side will understand.

• Focus.  This is the last point that I will make.  What a crisis does is provide focus to a specific problem or task.  When people focus on solving that problem to the exclusion of all else they will achieve their goal.  There are hundreds of movies stories and tales of how to succeed by focusing.  George Washington was probably the master of focusing on the end not the current disaster.  He never won a direct confrontation with British forces and yet won the war.  The battle for New York when he crossed the Delaware River was to retake what he had lost from mercenaries.  At Yorktown he had the French navy providing a blockade.  By never losing sight of his objective he was able to achieve his objective by unconventional means.

It is possible to bring projects and companies back from the brink, the question is a matter of will and determination of those involved not to see failure and to try just about anything to succeed.  Next time I will talk about what executive involvement really means, and how it can prevent things from getting to the brink.

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