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Everything Looks Like a Failure When You Are in the Middle

September 13, 2009

I have a friend who jokes that he’s going to quit his executive position and take a job as a school bus driver.

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

“Because,” he said, “That job would be so much more straightforward. At 6:15 a.m., I get in the bus. I know exactly where all the stops are, which kids to pick up at what time. Then I drop them all at the school before the bell rings. I go from A to B to C.” He is drawing a line in the air as he speaks, poking at each of the invisible points on his bus route. “I would come home at the end of the day feeling like I actually accomplished something.”

This, as opposed to being in management during the Year of our Lord, A.D. 2009, where each new day is a mystery meal of ambiguity, uncertainty and resistance, seasoned with a healthy spray of alarming revelations. So much is outside of your control, and so little is in your favor, it seems.

Like my friend, I hardly ever feel a sense of accomplishment at work any more. There is a constant blur of new projects, deals, initiatives, teams, and growth strategies coming my way. Some are of my own doing. Others are urgent priorities that simply must be addressed if we want to keep our business competitive, relevant and profitable.

It never ends. I can’t remember the last time that I actually finished something. More often, it feels like I am somewhere lost in the middle, in the no-man’s land of a once- familiar business territory, and I can’t quite see over to the other side, where it’s all supposed to end.

To an outsider, I imagine it would look as if I was standing in the midst of a whirling, chaotic sandstorm: dust and papers flying everywhere, the wind is howling, people flying past me, bumping into things, distractions, delays, problems. When all I really wanted is to lead the team to a big victory – a chance to step up to the top pedestal at the medal ceremony, where the pretty girl carrying the flowers reaches up to congratulate me, placing the gold medal around my neck, while the old man with the big glasses and foreign accent announces my name to a wildly cheering crowd.

The thing is, it’s so easy and fun to get a new initiative started, when there is a rallying cry of excitement, a compelling vision has been cast and unlimited potential looms large ahead. But soon enough the hard work begins, and within a couple of weeks the enthusiastic chatter begins to die down as you enter the great unknown. Days and weeks can go by without seeing anything that looks even remotely like success or accomplishment. Worse, things can very likely take an ugly turn in the other direction. The team starts complaining. People are disagreeing. Performance is stagnating. The original assumptions are not proving out to be true. Your leadership is in question. The energy has left the room.

Welcome to the middle.

                                  *       *       *       *       *

I caught an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago talking about the huge computer network company, Cisco Systems. The CEO, John Chambers, has created a maze of dozens of internal Operating Committees, Councils, and Boards of Directors made up of senior managers, with the hope that these teams will generate multiple new business initiatives. But to many outsiders Cisco Systems’ entire management structure is starting to look like a jumbled mess.

The theory goes that all of these ad-hoc, cross-functional teams will allow the company to creatively focus on evaluating many more new opportunities than would be possible in a typical command-and-control hierarchy. And, yes, just like in my own company, these team assignments require you to contribute above and beyond your regular job responsibilities. Some senior managers say they are spending up to 30% of their time on these new teams.

Critics argue that Mr. Chambers has created chaos, an unfocused hodgepodge of overwhelmed managers who now have a complicated system they must navigate when responding to immediate challenges. But Chambers counters that this discomfort is the new normal. He says these new teams will change how managers view potential problems and opportunities. He wants everyone to rethink what it means to come to work.

Right now, the jury is still out if this is the right move. But what caught my attention in this article was an observation made by the famous Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. “Cisco is in the middle of something that isn’t yet completed,” she said. “Everything can look like a failure in the middle.”

Well. That explains a lot.

Professor Kanter’s comment reminds me of a quote from another famous professor from several hundred years ago – one that was actually recorded in the bible, in Phillipians 1:6. The Apostle Paul was trying to encourage his friends who were in the middle of a mess with a start-up venture called The Church. “I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ,” he told them. In other words, Paul says our whole existence is really just a work in progress. We are always in the middle. Life requires some faith to see it through to the end. And the only way out is through.

So it is with our little situations at work. Sometimes when we are in the middle, and it seems as if things are not going so well, the only thing left to hang on to is faith – faith that God is with you and the project will pan out, that you are on the right path, or that it will eventually be revealed. Faith that somehow, some way, there will be an end result, even if it is not what you expected in the beginning.

What feels like a failure may not be so bad after all. Take heart. It’s just that you’re in the middle – of your project, your work, your life. You’re not done yet.  Soon enough, you will be complete.

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2009 2:36 pm

    Outstanding post! How often does it seem we’re so stuck in the middle we wish we’d not begun? Your reminder of God’s grace to complete what He has begun could not be more well placed.

    Seen on Twitter a few hours back:

    DanielDeckerRT @prodigaljohn: The phrase, “Don’t get your hopes up” is a subtle assassin of faith. We’re called to hope loudly. PR13:12 #SCLPRO

  2. donkimrey permalink
    September 13, 2009 5:44 pm

    As usual, an unusually exceptional, insightful, thoughtful, and helpful post.
    I think I’ll keep visiting just to see you screw up bad at least once. I mean, dude, you are human! ~donkimrey

  3. September 13, 2009 6:13 pm

    This is one of the best descriptions of work, management and leadership that I’ve run across. I know you don’t work at my company — but it surely sounds like you do.

    And while this may be true for a lot of people, Phil. 1:6 is the verse that was “given” me the hour I first believed. And I keep coming back to it over and over again.

  4. nancy permalink
    September 13, 2009 10:10 pm

    well, it looks like you finished this post!
    did you do this at work?

    this post is really good, but… it’s not a poem.

    i would like to see a poem with the words “alarming revelations”. i really like that!

    hey, do you want to take some “time off” in about month and come on out and help the guys with the crush?
    you would probably fit right in with the A-team. you could learn how to punch-down with the pat-down king from atlanta…while doing the hula!

    dante is gonna be the chef again this year…good stuff!

    peter is in vermont right now, and then he goes to d.c. on tuesday thru thursday. in d.c. he will be going to some accounts with the distributor, some club with a nice lawyer-wine lover/and now friend, and a good meal at a restaurant with a wine writer. this distibutor hasn’t quite got rule #1 down yet, but, the other guys do. rule#1. feed the winemaker.
    after d.c. he goes on to indy for his mom’s funeral service.
    then back to green green oregon for harvest.

  5. September 14, 2009 4:16 am

    Good insights, Bradley!

    I once heard someone saying that God is the center of the storm (‘tornado’ if you like). In the midst of the storm He can be the One you can trust, to put your faith on.

  6. September 15, 2009 5:44 pm

    brilliant. thanks Brad.

  7. September 15, 2009 10:52 pm

    Wow, Bradley! I chugged this post down like a strawberry milkshake. Satisfying, tasty, and substantial! 🙂

    “But soon enough the hard work begins, and within a couple of weeks the enthusiastic chatter begins to die down as you enter the great unknown. ”

    I loved how you tied this idea with Cisco and then, with Kanter’s quote. And then, you zinged us with Phil. 1:6.

    Luv, luv, luv it!!

    You are defintely viewing work through the eyes of faith.

    I SO needed that last finishing paragraph you ended this post with. THANK YOU!!

  8. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    September 16, 2009 4:41 am

    Glad this was encouraging to you all. It was to me, too. Who knew that Rosabeth Moss Kanter could be so spiritually inspirational?

  9. Michele Corbett permalink
    September 19, 2009 4:01 pm

    “dust and papers flying everywhere, the wind is howling, people flying past me, bumping into things, distractions, delays, problems.”

    It’s like I personally inspired this description. Welcome to my life!

    I love this post.

    One thought –

    Organizations would do well to identify who in the org was good at the vision casting and initiating projects and who was good at the deliberative, painstaking follow through. It’s not a good plan to expect the visionary to necessarily be able to do the implementation.

    It’s good that we all are wired differently or we might get stuck in the middle and never move forward.

  10. September 25, 2009 12:59 am

    The title itself is so thought-provoking. Anybody moving into a manager or leader role needs to prepare themselves for thriving on the chaos “in-process”.

    One should strive to seek clarity and completion but be totally at ease in the delicious ambiguity that precedes the attainment of (always intermediate) goals.

  11. Andrew Turner permalink
    April 8, 2010 5:41 pm

    Fantastic. A real encouragement.

  12. jjac permalink
    April 19, 2011 11:03 pm

    Pardon my ignorance but how on earth is faith supposed to help? Faith won’t change the chance of failure at all…I can’t just turn around and say, “I have faith that this will work out!” only for the whole thing to fall to pieces because God didn’t hear me.

    I don’t know if I have made it obvious enough but I do not believe in God, or even the idea of heaven and hell. Well, maybe hell. But, I believe the world we are currently in is hell. I’m not saying we all did bad things and ended up here but…a world where we have to live in this perpetual pain that is the working world? It has to be close to it.

    It’s like, holding on hope is a worse case of ignorance than what I am currently displaying. What can God possibly do for me? Absolutely nothing, because he is either busy with something more important than my frustrating project, or he is just a speck of dust fluttering in a church somewhere. He either isn’t real, or he doesn’t care. So, I am supposed to pull this hope and confidence from myself, is what is really being said, with this strange sense of security because something, somewhere out there, loves me. I just don’t think I can follow that.

    • April 20, 2011 10:26 am

      jjac, I truly am sorry that you are in a place of pain surrounded by suffering. I won’t pretend to understand your specific pain, but I certainly do understand the suffering that surrounds us in this world—suffering that is a result of the sin we humans choose. I wrote my first comment to Brad’s post at a time when I had just begun a descent into Hell on Earth. Back then, I thought I’d simply hit a pothole. Turns out it was more of an abyss. Without faith and hope, my way out of that abyss would have been a quick exit to a worse one.

      Words like Brad’s are the reason I’m no longer in an abyss. He has been one of many people who speak words of truth about faith and hope. If we are surrounded by words without faith and hope, we will believe there is none. When our own faith and hope wane, we most need such people of faith like Brad. When our faith and hope wax full, we are the ones to build up others.

      Though God is never invisible, He is only found by those who seek Him. He compels no one to look at Him now, nor does He compel anyone who hates Him during this temporary life to spend eternal life in His presence. For those who search Him out and cling to the faith and hope He offers, this life is as bad as it gets—and we need never be alone in our pain. For those who don’t, this life is as good as it gets.

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