Leadership Skills: How to Turn Around Failing Projects or Teams

Things often don’t go as planned with teams or projects, but they can go as expected.

Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter once beautifully restated a longstanding truism about projects and teams. She said “everything looks like a failure in the middle.”

What she means is that halfway through any project, chaos rears its head and suddenly things look bleak, hard, difficult, or just plain impossible.

She offers four causes:

  • Forecasts fall short
  • Unexpected obstacles pop up
  • Momentum slows
  • Critics get louder

I think she missed a few causes, especially where teams are involved. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Team members disagree
  • Management redirects focus
  • Budgets change
  • Team members change
  • Stuff doesn’t work as planned

And I bet you can add a few more of your own.

For as long as there has been research on teams and teamwork, it’s been clear that teams experience one or more breakpoints during their life.

Kanter’s point, and mine, is that one should always expect things won’t go as planned or hoped, and that it will be frustrating for many or all of the team members.

The measure of a successful team is its ability to break through rather than break down when these breakpoints arise.

More importantly, with regard to The Leadership Gift™, the measures of a great team member or leader include:

  1. her faith in breakpoints, and
  2. her ability to navigate the team to — and through — a breakthrough.

I’ve written previously about faith as one The Leadership Gift “rudiment.” Faith is one of the most powerful tools in my team building arsenal.

Those who don’t demonstrate faith thwart a group’s evolution to teamwork through their own high need for control, authority, or independence.

However, masters of The Leadership Gift are confident that teamwork will naturally evolve within groups when a few other basic conditions are present. Those conditions include clear and shared responsibility, and the belief that they can successfully address the task.

Here are a few tips for keeping the faith and navigating differences:

To keep the faith:

  • Expect that differences will arise and that these differences will threaten the team and project.
  • Have confidence that those same differences also create new ideas that can lead to a breakthrough.
  • Become comfortable not knowing the answer, instead trusting that breakthrough solutions will emerge — that’s what teams are about.

To navigate to and through differences:

  • Maintain your own belief in the project and the team. Your confidence will be infectious.
  • Let your teammates know that problems may not be planned but are expected.
  • Keep your teammates focused on the common outcome and shared responsibility.
  • Take a timeout and talk with your teammates about how you are going to work together to get the job done. Be prepared for breakthrough thinking during this conversation.

Get Started With This 5-Minute Practice Tip

Decide now: what three things will you do the next time a team or project looks like a failure in the middle?

Leaders and coaches: Get Christopher’s best team building and leadership strategies collected over two-plus decades of solving teamwork problems for smart people. Attend the acclaimed Creating Results-Based Teams workshop, or get this FREE Special Report while it lasts: The Five Flawless Steps to Building a Strong Executive Leadership Team.

Christopher Avery, PhD, is a recognized authority on how individual and shared responsibility works in the mind and an advisor to leaders worldwide.




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