Everything Looks Like a Failure in the Middle

(Republished from August 2009)

I’m involved in one client project right now where no one’s happy.

My relationship with this client is long-term and (fortunately) transcends this particular project. I was pointed at it last Spring to help get it back on the rails. The project manager and I came up with a problem frame—a container of the right size and shape to fit all of the seemingly random questions we were being asked—and identified several parallel work streams to make progress on all fronts.

We’re working cross-functionally within the organization, so there are relationships to be established and the concerns of bosses’ bosses to be discovered, sometimes the hard way. We’re working with new outside vendors, so there are negotiations and promises and documents and lawyers to review it all.

It’s really a research project, disguised as an information systems project. I used to be a research scientist, so I’m familiar with the feeling of pursuing a line of research that I know will pay off. But that’s not the client culture, and I understand that.

But the sponsor is frustrated. The team is frustrated. I’m frustrated.

So it was with relief that I read about Kanter’s Law: Change is Hardest in the Middle. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a named-chair professor at the Harvard Business School, puts it like this; “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

She explains why.

  • “Troubles increase with the number of ways the initiative differs from current approaches. The more innovation, the more problems.”
  • “Forecasts fall short, especially if the situation is novel.”
  • “There are always unexpected obstacles and hidden delays.”
  • Difficulties re-energize the skeptics. “Conflicts surface. Investors and friends ask why it isn’t faster. Critics attack…and the middles get even more miserable.”

She then gives a checklist for applying Kenny Rogers’ advice, “Know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.”

  • Do the original assumptions still hold? Is the need still there?
  • Is the idea big enough to be worth the effort?
  • Are the remaining supporters still enthusiastic, and are there still partners willing to join in?
  • Are there early indicators that this could, after all, succeed? Can the next wave of results sustain the supporters and mute, if not silence, the critics?
  • Does the effort benefit other projects? Can alliances with other projects strengthen it?

If there are more YESes than NOs, hang in there. “Stop the effort too soon, and by definition it is a failure.”

“Those who master change persist and persevere. They have stamina. They are flexible. They expect obstacles on the road to success and celebrate each milestone. They keep arguing for what matters.”

“And who knows what might happen?”

One reply on “Everything Looks Like a Failure in the Middle”

After leaving their Ph.D. programs, many former students said that they felt like a failure. “That’s part of what made it difficult,” Martinsek says. With so few women in physics, she had an added layer of emotion because she worried that she’d let her gender down. It helped when Martinsek reminded herself that her decision to leave “doesn’t mean that I couldn’t be successful—it doesn’t mean that women in general can’t be successful—but I’m making a choice for myself,” she says. It also helped that she was happy “pretty rapidly” afterward. “But it was still hard at the time because you go into a program expecting to finish.”

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