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Succeeding through the middle

Posted by Aubrey Warren on 7 August 2013
She calls it "Kanter's Law": "Everything looks like a failure in the middle." 

In a Harvard Business Review article in 2009  Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote that "Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work."

It's an interesting thought and the principle does seem to apply to most changes or new approaches we take, whether in our business or our personal lives. The initial decisions and commitments take effort and sometimes cause pain, but they also produce a burst of positive energy as the direction is set and the initial steps are taken. That carries us along for a while, but then our work often becomes mundane and routine, progress may not be obvious, challenges arise ... and we start to wonder if our efforts are headed for burnout rather than fireworks.

This can be true both professionally and personally; individually and collectively. Whether it's a new approach to team communication, a different workflow process, a new marketing effort, a health and fitness regime, a course of study, or a self development plan, the road to positive change and success nearly always presents some potholes, detours and frustrations - especially in the middle.

Think of some of the challenges we encounter "in the middle":

Focus shifts. What was central, clear and compelling becomes less so as other things vie for our attention.

Problems arise. "No plan survives its first encounter with the enemy," said the 19th century German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke.

Doubts outweigh confidence. Because we have to attend to problems it's easy to be more influenced by what's not working than what is or has.

Progress slows. As the early burst of energy and enthusiasm dissipates, routine effort doesn't produce as much evidence of achievement.

Commitment wanes. It just doesn't seem worth it sometimes - the start of the quest is behind us and the end is not yet in sight.
          
The excitement of a launch and the celebration of a successful completion are connected by the perseverance, persistence and professionalism we show through the mundane and muddling middle. So, here are some signposts for the "muddling middle" stages.

Celebrate achievements. Don't take progress for granted. Celebrate not just early wins but also milestones. Also consider incorporating action learning by highlighting lessons learned and acknowledging effort.

Recalibrate. Be prepared to "tackle and regroup" - deal with unexpected issues and then refocus. We can't survive without realistic interaction with and response to our environment.
 
Remove the roadblocks. This is a key part of a leader's job. The inevitable roadblocks to progress are the responsibility of the leader. Anticipate, negotiate and navigate to ensure your team isn't unnecessarily held up "banging their heads against brick walls".   

Don't let negativity broadcast. You don't have to respond to every piece of pushback, negativity or criticism, but it is important to keep broadcasting your positive messages. Negativity is easy, cheap, fascinating and usually unaccountable. So it shouldn't come as a surprise. But there's no sense allowing it a free kick every time.

Keep up the communication. Whether it's celebrating achievements, signalling a potential roadblock, explaining a recalibration, rebutting criticism, or just reinforcing the task - don't stop communicating. Just because you're sick of talking about something doesn't mean everyone else has absorbed the message. People's attention is easily distracted, so don't be afraid of repetition, reminder and reinforcement.

Succeeding through the middle is the hard work. But it's where the real progress is made, lessons are learned, strength is built, and reputations are earned.

Author: Aubrey Warren Connect via: LinkedIn
Tags: change Situational Leadership Communicate Focus influence

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