Projects are challenging, and each phase has its special difficulties. The beginnings are abstract and ambiguous. The ends are exhausting and dramatic. But, emotionally, I think that the middles are the hardest. Project middles feel never-ending; we imagine ourselves as Sisyphus, cursed by the gods to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.
Every project starts with a dream — a fantasy, really — of transformation, of progress. We’re either running from something or to something. The trigger is either the vision of a novel opportunity for innovation or one of renovation, a chance to repair or replace something that is terribly broken, bad and wrong. Projects are formed in this hazy and heady stew of motivation and vision.
I think of them as being like the clichéd movie scene in which our hero approaches a vast chasm spanned only by a rickety rope bridge. He is either fleeing a band of evil attackers and must cross the bridge to escape certain doom, or he’s trying to rescue his true love, who’s in danger on the far side. Either way, he feels compelled to begin his transformative journey.
Whether we take the first steps on our project journeys with trepidation, terror or glee, we cannot really see the other side clearly, nor know the condition of the bridge. But venture forth we do. We tiptoe or run out onto that rickety span as far as we dare.
But invariably, at some point, things become clearer. Usually one of two things happens. One possibility is that the fantasy may be revealed to be just that — a dream that is either unattainable or undesirable. Halfway across the bridge, we see that what waits on the other side is not the haven or the bliss we seek. It may not be undesirable, but it is not the perfect progress we had hoped for. Alternatively, even if the dream remains, the difficulty of the journey becomes clear. The condition of the bridge turns out to be worse than we suspected. The work to be done seems overwhelming, and the obstacles insurmountable.
The moment when clarity hits is the beginning of the ungrounded middle. It is the emotional low point of any project. We feel exhausted, frustrated or perhaps even shamed by our prior optimism. It is also the most dangerous part of any project, because everyone reacts to the emotionality differently.
Some people just freeze. They stop, sit down and refuse to move until a new and better vision arrives. Others give up and throw themselves off the bridge, canceling the project. Some deny that the revelation ever occurred and plow ahead, clinging to the plan regardless of its relevance. And some begin a period of frantic and unfocused activity, either trying to shut out the pain or searching for a new route across.
When discussing success factors for projects, I most often hear managers talk about beginnings and endings. They recognize the importance of clear vision at the outset and brutal focus at the end. But these are the rational structures underlying a successful project. Managers also need to pay attention to the emotional ones.
The challenges of the ungrounded middle need to be better appreciated and managed. If you want to reduce the number of projects that are aborted or delayed or that deliver suboptimal results, look to the emotions of your team during the ungrounded middle and help them cope more functionally. You can’t eliminate their feelings or their reactions to those feelings, but by openly acknowledging them as a normal and natural part of the project life cycle, you can diffuse their power, freeing the team to make better decisions.
Paul Glen is a consultant who helps technical organizations improve productivity through leadership, and the author of the award-winning book Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2003). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.