I recently read an article by Rosabeth Moss Kanter titled “Change is Hardest in the Middle” that clearly illustrated to me why so many of us get frustrated when we are halfway to achieving a goal. Kanter is a professor at Harvard who specializes in strategy, innovation, and leadership for change. She has had a successful career for the past 25 years providing strategic and practical insight to leaders of large and small organizations world wide.
Kanter notes that it is when we are in the middle of a change the feelings of failure emerge. In her words: “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.” I notice this pattern with my clients when they are in the process of accomplishing a goal. At first they are riding on the pure adrenaline of making a big move and planning the moves to put their goal in action. Part of this rush is the anticipation of the outcome, the glittering end game where you finally arrive at where you want to be. But when they arrive at the middle, they lose some of that momentum because the realization hits them that a lot of change and unanticipated obstacles are a part of realizing the goal. And for most of us, changing in the present; even if it benefits our future, can be a scary thing. It’s the problems in the middle that frustrate even the most ambitious, and it’s the place where it becomes easy to give up. But in Kanter’s words “stop the effort too soon, and by definition it is a failure.” Conversely, staying on course and working through the problems can lead to success.
There are of course times when it is time to pull out and devise a new plan or endeavor. It’s not always a bad thing to stop a project. It’s just a matter of identifying when it is time to persist and when it is time to move on. Kanter has some great questions to examine when looking at the viability of completing a project:
• Tune into the environment. What has changed since you began the initiative? Do the original assumptions hold? Is the need still there?
• Check the vision. Does the idea still feel inspiring? Is it big enough to make extra efforts worthwhile?
• Test support. Are supporters still enthusiastic about the mission? Will new partners join the initiative?
• Examine progress. Have promises been kept and milestones passed? Are there early indicators, tangible demonstrations, that this could succeed? Can the next wave of results sustain supporters and silence critics?
• Search for synergies. Can the project work well with other activities? Can it be enhanced by alliances?
So if you find yourself in the middle of deciding whether to abandon a goal or revise your plan, return to these questions and realize that getting stuck in the middle is a part of being successful. And if it time to move on, realize that the last project was not a complete failure, but a stepping stone to your next successful endeavor.