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Getting stuck and how to react

In every complex project there are moments when you get stuck... as a project manager or as a team. Learn how to react early to keep on the move, and strategies to get back on track if you don't know what to do.

Photo by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash

Every complex project has its "down moments": everyone's working but the team's having no impact (the work done generates almost no real value); or the team is off track working in what looks like a fantasy land (the work has value in theory, but where is the real-life goal?). Two examples:

  • You're renovating a house, mostly by yourself, and the project is too big for you. At some point, you end up repairing plaster, painting a tiny room, fixing a light bulb or switch... while the ceiling's wide open, the doors are missing, and you have no bathroom. This sounds funny, but it happened to me.

  • Your team builds brand new software for a startup. The team fixes many bugs, improves a lot of existing features, and even creates plenty of new ones. That has a lot of value... in theory. Yet, if after a year doing that the startup has no users or customers, all this work is probably completely off track. Don't laugh, it happens all the time in the startup world.

These problematic situations build up gradually; it's not something that happens overnight. But the consequences can be dramatic: you could get burnouts in the team, or you could go out of business. So how do you see something like this coming early? And how can you react?

Signs that something's not right

Often we discover quite late that we're stuck. Motivation and engagement are already low; important goals remain strangely vague or unknown, or nothing big has been achieved for a while; there's a feeling of a lack of direction. If that's your case, you can skip this section (you are stuck) and go straight to reading the strategies to get back on track.

If you don't feel stuck, but want to make sure that you're not on your way there, here are three things you should be monitoring continuously:

  • Three goals test. At all times are you and your team able without hesitation to state your three biggest strategic goals? If not that might be a sign that you are off track or could be heading that way soon. In any case, even if you don't feel off track at all, doing the three goals test can only be beneficial to your team.

  • Real value test. For everything that you do - every task that you complete - can you immediately say why you've done it (refer to a related high-level goal), and who it benefits? Can you ask a real person to confirm that it generates something valuable to him or her? If not, there is a risk that you are actually working on things that do not matter. Accumulating these less meaningful tasks gets you further and further off track.

  • Last time you were proud. A lack of pride in what you're doing is a clear sign, both personal and for the team, that something's off. Think about it: pride from work being done, occurs when something valuable is created, especially when it's aligned with main goals (personal, team, or company). You should monitor individual and team pride regularly, without it becoming something everyone's obsessing over.

These are some simple signs and tests that you can apply to yourself and your team at almost no cost. It only takes a few minutes every week, or each work iteration, and says a lot about where you are. Regularly reflecting in this way actually helps to prevent going off track.

Sometimes it's too late and you and your team have lost it. The next section lists a few strategies that you can apply if this has happened to you.

How to get back on track?

Getting back on track is never easy, especially when it takes a lot of time to discover you're stuck. Whatever the strategy, there's no magic way to make it all better, so you need to be patient. Below are the main strategies that have helped me in the past. Being able to act on the top-listed strategies is a sign that you're not as stuck as you might think, which is a good news. If you need to go further down the list to find something actionable, you're probably in deeper trouble. In this case, pick an element from the bottom strategy, do it, and try to get back to the top strategy immediately afterwards: ask for help. If none of the ideas below make sense, please give me a personal phone call - I'd like to better refine my own strategies and I'll happily help you for free and learn along the way.

  • Ask for help. I've always been surprised how hard it is (for some people) to ask for help. However, asking for help should probably be your very first strategy when you're stuck. Not because someone else will make it all better - most of the time you'll get advice while you also need operational help - but because being able to ask for help means that you're no longer denying the problem, and that's key. You can ask for help to your colleagues, family, to external consultants, by posting on social networks... whatever you can think of. You might also be surprised: close people can sometimes do some of the things that you thought were yours, and that will get you out of the rut.

  • Write things down. I repeat: WRITE THINGS DOWN. Nothing can get you as stuck as only thinking about your situation. Every project needs thinking and brainstorming; it's necessary... but it's never sufficient. You also need to get the ideas out of your head, and this happens through words. Spoken words (including asking for help) and written words. To get back on track, start writing a specific plan: bullet points, klaro cards, a roadmap, a list of the three most important goals, whatever. It doesn't have to be a good plan, or detailed, or with items of the same type and granularity... it just needs to exist. DO IT.

  • Break things down. Early plans and lists tend to have generalised ideas and items; nothing really actionable. These plan elements can become a source of anxiety if they're kept too abstract. If possible, refine a couple of these general points, clarify them through an actionable to-do list, and make a plan of reasonable size and level of detail. Then start working on easy items, one at a time.

  • Unlock 3 items. If breaking things down doesn't work well, or if you can't escape feeling that you have too many general items that you don't know how to start, FOCUS. Select three of those items that seem more important or strategic (even big ones are ok), and unlock them: for each of them, identify one easy step that is absolutely necessary anyway, and do it. Then iterate between "Break things down" and "Unlock 3 items". Hopefully, that's what's necessary to get back on track again and unlock bigger achievements.

  • Do ONE thing. If you're still stuck - for instance if you don't have the energy to start any of the previous bullet points - then you're probably in deep trouble. Before getting further down this list, there is one strategy you might still try: do one thing per day (or per week, month, work iteration, whatever). Choose one - which one isn't important, it can even be a very easy one. And do it, if possible. Then stop and relax. Enjoy having done it. Do another one tomorrow.

  • Sleep. Lack of sleep is probably one of the biggest reasons we end up stuck. It you feel tired (physically, mentally, or emotionally) then just sleep, go for a walk, go for another sleep and another walk. Don't feel guilty about being stuck at work, but try to focus on something else, as often as possible. Then try taking this list backwards: do one thing that solves a reason why you are stuck. If it doesn't work, sleep again.

At first glance, the list above looks like personal strategies. If you work in a team or build a company, read the list again. These points can also be used as a team strategy: ask all members to read this blog post, then have a quick meeting with them and collectively decide what to do. Hopefully, not everyone is stuck with low energy, and a few ideas will pop up. From there, how to get back on track should become more clear. Your next step is to make sure that everyone knows the three most important goals... but that's another story!