Every strategic initiative and project team has its ‘wobbly moments’ – those times at which doubt foreshadows optimism, when the obstacles seem to be insurmountable, and the team begins to question its plans and perhaps even doubt itself. It may doubt its ability so succeed, perhaps even its worthiness. The validity of its mission or the worthiness of its goals may also come into question.
These can be scary moments for those who are leading projects or initiatives. They could be seen as a worrying sign, calling into doubts a team’s ability or even its commitment. That would probably be a mistake, however.
A project or team’s wobbly moment should actually be seen as a moment of truth for a team – as a surprising source of power and motivation. This goes against conventional thinking where talking about doubts, obstacles and setbacks was seen as negative and damaging to morale. Today, it is seen as an important aspect of building determination, resilience and grit.
The ability of a team to have such wobbly moments is a sign of strength, rather than weakness. Teams where people cannot express doubts or concerns will struggle to realize peak performance. They are not healthy or safe places where open debate and new ideas are welcomed, regardless of whether it is uncomfortable or not.
When an organization or a leader is gun-ho about a project, their enthusiasm and determination tend to silence skepticism and doubt. They can start to believe their own PR. For traditional leaders, wobbly moments can feel like taking a cold shower.
Leaders need to demonstrate confidence and belief in their strategies and initiatives. But the ability to listen to people’s anxieties could be one of the most powerful ways of demonstrating confidence not just in a project, but in a team too.
Wobbly moments are ‘Brene Brown moments‘, when vulnerability goes hand in hand with courage both for the leader and for the team.
In wobbly moments leaders need to take a deep breath and adopt a Zen-like manner. The leader could kill the conversation instantly by telling people to focus on solutions rather than talking about problems. They could sweep people’s concerns under the carpet and refuse to engage in the process of doubt. Most people would, no doubt, readily comply, silencing their thoughts and ‘going with the flow’.
The difference between a ‘wobbly project’ and a ‘wobbly moment’ is the ability of people to bring risks and concerns out into the open. Once they are out in the open they can be dealt with, but if they remain hidden so do the solutions. This is central to the concept of Project Safety (related to psychological safety) and the notion that most of the set-backs faced by projects are really no surprise. Somebody saw them but kept quiet – perhaps it wasn’t safe to do so, or perhaps they weren’t listened to.
Leaders can sometimes take it personally – seeing complaints about a project as complaints about them. They may also personalize the complaints by saying ‘typical, that person is always negative’. However, our research shows that skeptics and cynics are a powerful force and an essential counter-balance.1. Challenging thought it may be we must embrace them.
Having wobbly moments could make you and your team stronger. Talking about obstacles tests and builds motivation. It builds resilience making a team anti-fragile (where it gains strength from its fragility rather than being weakened by it)2. This is particular true in the case of teams that have sufficient autonomy / control as to be able to adapt and change their approach. Such agile teams become more resilient when faced with obstacles and setbacks3.
Wobbly moments are an opportunity to build supportive behaviors within a team. An opportunity for team members to demonstrate that they care about each other and their concerns. It is an opportunity for people to show empathy and to offer help and support.
Wobbly moments reveal what a team is made of. It is a moment of humanity – when people share their concerns and frustrations it has the potential to bring them closer.
Wobbly moments can bring a new level of realism. They can test levels of test levels of confidence and ambition. They may demand a reappraisal of project needs and priorities.
Recognizing obstacles and setbacks is key to planning, as it helps people to find ways around the obstacles they face. Wobbly moments can be a powerful moment of inflection for a team – causing people to rethink their approach, even their commitment. They can be a pivot point – a point at which the pain, anxiety or frustration reached such a level as to drive change.
Behind every wobbly moment is a risk that needs to be brought out into the open. It is important that the ‘risks register‘ or whatever means is used for tracking and managing project risks is updated as a result of any ‘wobbly moment’.
The best teams and the best projects have wobbly moments too. The difference is that they can turn those moments into renewed motivation and determination, as well as clever adjustments to their plan or approach.
Wobbly moments provide an insight to what the team is really thinking – the project narrative. It may be an accurate reflection of reality, or it may be what people are thinking and feeling – which is every bit as significant.
Keep in mind there may be other things going on for people, or things going on within the organization. This can get projected onto the project or team and reflect itself in what people are thinking or feeling at this time. It may reveal the level of pressure that the team is under.
The temptation exists for the leader to jump right in and fix the problem, but that may be a mistake. Sometimes the best thing for the leader to do is to listen empathetically. When people have had an opportunity to share their thoughts and concerns, then ask what help do they need, what do they want to happen next, what can be done to solve the problems or address the concerns? Read the situation, people may just need to vent – a cathartic moment where they gain psychological relief by expressing pent-up frustration or anxiety. Let them talk. The most important thing is to listen and show support. Then follow-up afterwards with people after the conversation.
There may be some instances where wobbly moments do not appear to be helpful: