This essay originally appeared in Duke University’s Faithandleadership.com blog.
Planning a new project and seeing it through is tough. A lot of good ideas just die.
Why? There are many reasons. It’s as Tolstoy said of families, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Sometimes we cherish the idea more than making the idea reality. “Getting things done” is often derided by the idea guys or the deal-makers as “just details.” Or by people who want their things done well, but they could care less about other parts of the operation (Think of the brilliant doctor who never gets your billing right. Or the ace pilot who could get you to your destination safely if only you had the clearance to take off from the runway on which you’re both stuck due to poor scheduling.)
Young ideas are easy to kill. It can be as simple as a smirk when the idea is mentioned (shouts also work). Sometimes the idea runs up against another agenda.
Teams start projects and don’t finish them. This is so common it has a fancy Greek name, acedia, and was considered by the Desert Fathers to be a spiritual problem. Maybe the team is too busy being busy to work on a new project, however crucial. Other times people won’t give an old project a noble burial, however little internal passion it inspires.
There’s a reason we confess at church about needing forgiveness for “what we have done and what we have left undone.” God cares about what we do and the people who are doing them. Poor management does more than just waste time, money, and hurt morale. It has spiritual implications by teaching people it’s all right to conduct our lives this way.
There comes a time when it’s time to get the team rolling. This essay suggests six ways to improve momentum.
1) Christianity has a lot to say about remembering our goal. Amidst slow and tedious work, when we remember our goal, we remember why we started out in the first place.
2) Consider role models. Think about the people you admire who have gotten things done. Do you see them turning in early and being bored at meetings? Probably not. They were probably the ones who enjoyed staying late, couldn’t wait to get back to the project, and would change compensation structures on the fly in order to motivate the team. They don’t want anything to slow them down.
3) Emotional maps help. Knowing “everyone feels bad at these points” helps in getting work done. For instance, while working at a large public university I realized that people of good will became terribly anxious regarding new projects. They offered a predictable chorus: “It can’t be done. Not this new way.” If the plan went well, that same Greek chorus would say, “We love it. We will always do it this way, without exception.” When I diagnosed this behavior to my co-workers before it happened, we all relaxed. To be repeated next project.
4) Consider how you will attend to the suffering of your team. Your team may sacrifice sleep, energy, and personal capital with their families in order to launch an initiative. This can take a real toll. You need to attend to some of it. I’m no Old Testament scholar but somewhere it must say: “When you bust your ass, you have a busted ass.”
5) One team I worked with had a remarkable way of handling the psychic wounds of large events: poetry and song. When a customer would act in an appalling manner, the staff member privately jotted it down for a group ode. After launch, the group went to a bar and recited the ode. People laughed until tears rolled down their faces. The bad behavior, within legal parameters, was no longer tragic. Odes, when handled appropriately, are communal attention to wounds, and are a zero-dollar, bottoms-up, worker empowerment solution.
It’s February. The snow has fallen and it will come again. The sky is gray. I have often carried a prayer in my wallet for such times as these. It’s by Peter Gomes, about the serenity needed to sustain momentum.
“God of all our life, help us when the task seems hard, when the road seems long, when the skies are grey with clouds which return after the rain, and when there is no song in our hearts. Then show us the easy yoke, set our feet with new patience in the way of life, quicken our ears to hear the morning stars singing together, and teach us that God is where the shadow shows. Amen.”