In some companies, there are never any “problems,” just “challenges” or “opportunities.” But what do you do when faced with an insurmountable opportunity? It could be a infeasible technology project, a marketing campaign with an impossible schedule—it doesn’t really matter. What do you do when you’ve been handed a project that you’re sure can’t be done? Most people respond with fear, wondering how they are going to escape blame for the inevitable failure. But you have a choice. You can instead decide it really is an opportunity. An opportunity to change the way your company does business.
I spoke with a team yesterday facing a difficult situation, for sure. Powerful executives in this large company are expecting a critical project to be completed on an expedited schedule—a schedule that few on the new project team believe is achievable. As dependency after issue after risk was aired, and the reality of the situation set in, the team began listing the “reasons why not,” and slowly the mood in the room started to turn to how the team could explain to the executives how the project could not be done, a task that no one wanted to take on.
Now sometimes, projects truly can’t be done. Executives can sometimes be unrealistic about what they expect. But often, it is we who are constraining ourselves.
That team might in fact be facing an impossible situation, but they don’t have enough information to really know that yet. At this point, what they “know” is that they cannot complete this project if they approach it in the normal way. If they follow all the procedures, if they keep their folks working on the other commitments they’ve previously made, and if everyone proceeds with business as usual. But who is placing these constraints on their thinking? They are doing that to themselves.
Instead of going back to the executives and explaining why it can’t be done, why not go back to them with a list of every standard procedure that must be thrown out the window to make this happen? And a list of every previous commitment that the executives must forgo? Why not give the executives the opportunity to move the mountains that block the team? Too often, we shrink from this approach because we think we’re not allowed to tell our bosses that they need to do some heavy lifting.
If you take this approach, you’ll find that sometimes the executives recoil in horror. They can’t abide the damage that would be done and the risks that would be run. If so, then you are off the hook. You were ready to go for it and the executive decided it wasn’t worth it. That’s great.
Other times (more rare in my experience), the executives eat it up. This really is a top priority and they are ready to do whatever it takes to make things happen. No, you usually don’t get everything in your list, but it’s OK. The executives give you enough of what you need and then you are on the hook to deliver, but at least it’s possible now.
And on a few extremely rare occasions, I have had executives tell me to “just suck it up.” Follow all the procedures and keep your existing commitments and do this new project anyway. And I’ve been forced to figure out how to do it. But in those situations, I tell the executive, “I don’t recommend this approach and I believe that it will fail. So if you want to proceed having me run a project that I believe will fail, that’s your decision, but after it fails I will be letting everyone know how we got in this situation.” Usually that changes the conversation.
Now it’s possible that an incredibly rare individual could listen to that speech and say, “I don’t care what you think. This is the way it’s going to be. Look at the org chart and see who is in charge of you. It’s my the way or the highway.” When people talk that way to you, choose the highway. I know that you can’t always leave at that very moment—that’s not important. What is important is for you to make the decision at that moment that you’re not going to tolerate staying in that position and you are going to find an alternative.
Or you can come to peace with your lot in life. You work for jerks and you feel you can’t escape. You may have your reasons. But don’t complain about it anymore, because you are making the choice to remain in that situation. As someone who has been in that situation, I understand it. But I got away from it as soon as I could, even though it took a lot longer than I’d have liked.
All the rest of the times that I was handed an insurmountable opportunity, I got the constraints changed so that the project could be done, or the project was modified so it could be done. Or it was dropped, because it wasn’t that important anyway. And each time we changed the rules to get this to work, I followed up by asking the question, “So why don’t we work this way all the time?” And more times that you’d expect, the executives said, “That’s a good point. Let’s permanently remove some of these constraints.”
So every insurmountable opportunity is really your opportunity to change the rules. Before you know it, you might find that your organization has decided to “do it wrong quickly” every time, instead of only in an emergency.