THE BLOG

7 Insights for Unsticking When a Project Gets Stuck

04/23/2014 10:24 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2014

More often than not, consulting on a project requires being a dynamic "expert" on a wide variety of topics. This role can be a great balance between specialist and generalist that requires as much skill in organization, facilitation, and leadership (process-skills) as it does content-knowledge and expertise for task completion.

Just four years ago, I left my position as a non-profit leader to devote myself to a wider range of research and strategic consulting opportunities. When I did this, fundraising gave way to client development; administrative tasks gave way to business and operations management; creative meetings gave way to entrepreneurship; and reporting to my board gave way to client management. Every single day, success requires new learning, expanding my skill set, collaborating with a variety of personalities, and operating in vastly different sectors. Most of the time I see great productivity and exciting results helping public, private, and civic sector clients define, ignite, and implement their research goals, strategic directions, and project management.  All of the time I am learning and growing as a person and as a professional. 

In those moments, both frustrating and unavoidable, when a project becomes stuck, I have learned that unsticking often requires addressing the way things are being done in order to leverage forward momentum. Here are 7 strategies to engage clients (colleagues, and citizens) critically and creatively to develop or recommit to shared outcomes, to create new strategies, and to revisit how to collaborative in order to achieve our best possible results in changing constellation of challenges and opportunities.

Clarify outcomes.  When I look back at some of my initial consulting work, especially the most laborious projects, I see that much of this occurred not because we didn't clarify our shared goals. Oftentimes the direction was clear, but because the result was not. Different sectors can operate differently and identifying and clarifying results is not always common practice. This results-driven focus isn't always easily adopted. It can actually be a lot scarier to commit to a specific outcome than simply to a direction, a more amorphous term. Yet, when results are clearly defined, there are implications for clarity and accountability that can lead to great results. While not doing so can also lead to lack of clarity and a failure to launch. Define outcomes is hard work, it takes time and effort and know-how. But, when all parties are pointing in the same direction and walking along the same path, the work will go more smoothly and get you where you're headed.  

Clarify benchmarks.  Every clear outcome deserves a few good benchmarks.  Road signs are how we know that we're driving in the right direction. They're also an opportunity to reassess and change course when necessary. When I get stuck with clients or colleagues or don't see the connection between my piece of the work and the bigger picture, benchmarks can help to remind us where you're going, how we're moving forward, and who is at the helm steering the project.

Plan for headwinds. Any project worth doing will likely have a little turbulence. Plan for it.

Collaborate. Good collaboration requires a clear vision and strategic direction. When clients or colleagues are resistant to collaboration, I go back to number one (1), making sure that the outcomes and benchmarks are strong enough to withstand headwinds. But even with the best map in place, collaboration is a skill that requires transforming the way we work together, moving more deeply into reflection and conversation, and getting underneath the most comfortable and played-out topics. Collaboration is hard work but also a critical skill that makes us uniquely human.

Document and adapt. A practice that I have taken from my former work as a non-profit leader and board member is to take minutes for most meetings. When all goes well and I am totally synced up with a client, I never have to come back to those notes. But, when a project pulls over into park, I can use them to reflect on decisions made in the past, help clients and colleagues become more strategically clear about the thinking processes that guide the work, and refer back to them to confirm that course changes are intentional. Maybe the project focus has shifted and we need to revisit benchmarks and outcomes. Maybe there are new political, environmental, or personal forces that we need to take into account. Maybe something isn't working and we need to adapt. Documenting discussions, and striving for clarity helps to create intentionality, allowing us to adapt as a responsive need instead of a reactive force.

Transform. Difficult and meaningful projects provide an endless canvas for dealing with sticking points and stuck people. Stuckness calls for transformation, a chance to serve a higher purpose by searching for creative innovations to move beyond old difficulties. How can you change the form of a problem? How can you find new innovations and deeper cutting solutions?

Serve. Work, in its highest sense, is the opportunity to serve others. When we serve, we don't just serve our immediate colleagues and clients, we are also in service to ideas, to humanity, and to a higher calling. When this purpose underlines clear outcomes and a solid road map it can lead to the most positive and powerful work.

There is great opportunity to find meaningful ways to address creative solutions to the problems that plague the world, build bridges within our communities, and foster human caring in our work environments. But those solutions require that we understand how we work with each other as well as the answers we find to the problems that we seek to solve.

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