A good leader knows when a project has gone bad and is getting worse. I’m sure everyone can relate to an experience where a project rapidly moved toward failure. Failure is a good teacher and throughout my career I have had my fair share of good teaching experiences. One experience that had a memorable impact on me was the opportunity to assist my father on a project at his home. He had begun an extensive remodeling project on the exterior of his house. Due to unexpected scheduling conflicts with building contractors, we needed to remove some concrete stairs within 24 hours to allow the next building contractor to begin working. If the stairs were not removed in time, there would be a 3 week delay in the project.

I recall standing in front of these steps with my father asking me the question “Chris, what do you think? Is this something we can do ourselves? Or, are we in over our heads?” My response to the question after some reflection was a resounding “Sure! If it absolutely needs to be done by tomorrow, we could be ready to begin in less than two hours. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours to get the job done.”

“Benny” another colleague working with us had experience in operating pneumatic jackhammers. He agreed with our position and stepped in to help. Two hours later, a total of three people were ready to execute this project with an air compressor, jackhammer, and safety equipment. We looked like a professional crew who could cut through concrete like it was a piece of cake. But, before I go any farther, let me make it clear that my father and I don’t own a jackhammer and we have never operated one; but how hard could it be – right? We had “Benny” and his experience to guide us.

Before beginning any project a good leader will:

  • Make an effort to seek input from team members regarding the project
  • Check assumptions and outline a plan before starting an undertaking
  • Care more about the end results and outcome than who gets the credit
  • Avoid doing things that don’t contribute to the end goal or objective

The first 30 minutes of ear splitting work went very well, but took longer than expected. Once we had the edges of the steps broken off, we were left with the mass of a concrete block. The three of us rotated turns on the jackhammer. The progress we made over the next hour was minimal. During this time we changed our approach by using different speeds, different types of cutting bits, and tried cutting the concrete at multiple angles. We stopped and sat down for a few minutes. That’s when the leader stepped up and said “Gentleman, I think we are in over our heads on this project.” He said “This is not a project that we can execute quickly and efficiently – our time is better spent somewhere else.” Collectively agreeing with his comment, we wrapped up the project, made a phone call to the real experts, and went back to our area of expertise – training and consulting.

The expert showed up, took a look at the project, and said it shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours. At this point all of us felt good about the decision we made. Then, more than nine hours later when he had finished the job, we felt even better about our decision to let the professionals finish the job. After the work was finished, the expert said “I’ve never worked on concrete like this in my life. It is EXTREMELY HARD.” His last comment to us was, “You got a good deal from us on this job.”

Much like the business world, we often begin new projects that pose unexpected twists, turns, and unique challenges. A great leader is humble enough to change directions when a project is being driven into the ground like a jackhammer. Be smart, stop and seek input from team members, check assumptions, and change course if necessary. Next time one of your projects gets into a critical phase look around and ask the question “Am I in over my head?” If you know you’ve hit a dead end, bring in the experts. It might even be hard for them, but they should be able to get it done.


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About the Author
Chris Stowell
Christopher Stowell is currently serving as CMOE’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing where he works with multi-national organization to develop their people. His special interests lie in coaching teamwork, strategy, e-learning, and assessment design, and delivery. Chris has a special talent in helping companies assess their organizational effectiveness and identifying key issues and opportunities in order to advance their performance and achieve long term results. Additionally, he has extensive experience in designing, coordinating, and facilitating customized adventure based experiential training events for high performance teams.

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