Why Stopping What We’ve Started Is So Hard

My chair was in the back of the room on the side. I was there as an observer. What I saw was a room full of IT executives, all polished and professional. They were asking a seemingly simple question of the leader in the front. “But how?”

The Backstory

The group was facing deep budget cuts and they all knew something had to give. They couldn’t continue performing current work while also addressing emerging issues. The leader was urging, imploring them to stop doing lower priority work. He didn’t want the staff to be overtaxed and stressed. He didn’t want to compromise on quality by spreading attention like peanut butter over everything. After the third or fourth person said, “but…,” he said, “Just stop.”

He was frustrated and so was everyone else. The energy in the room wasn’t negative—it just felt unresolved. “Just stop” might have meant something different to each of them. And because of the highly networked, interdependent way we work, it was hard to imagine the dominoes neatly falling in place to everyone’s satisfaction. “Just stop” had the potential to create chaos and confusion if everyone heeded the advice.

Stopping is hard. Plugging away on a project in-progress– even if it’s not longer the right one– is much easier.

Whether it’s on the right track or not, it’s hard to slow the momentum of a train in motion. Stopping requires upfront time and effort, which we know is difficult—the inability to find time and apply effort is why we’re having the conversation in the first place. Stopping means disappointing people, dinging morale, and creating a sense of time wasted. And as much as every executive wants his or her staff to have a reasonable workload, no one wants the collateral damage of stopping what’s been started.

So, how can you overcome the urge to carry on as before? The specifics vary for each organization, of course, and the answer depends on one’s role.

  • For the leader at the top, it is necessary to be an example. Choose what you’re going to stop (or stop asking for). Share your reasoning and your new expectations. These expectations might be to discontinue low priority or pet projects not directly impacting the organization’s mission, projects for which there might be a viable workaround or promising alternative. They might involve processes of accountability or governance that have become time-consuming and cumbersome. If you don’t read the regular report, stop asking for it. If you routinely skip the recurring meeting, cancel it.
  • For the program manager in the middle, convene a working group of your peers that are executing pieces of the projects you are working on. Together, briefly document the effort spent, contracts impacted, and percentage completion of these projects and identify at least one project that could be put on hold to save staff time and contract dollars. During this exercise, the group should remind themselves of the sunk cost fallacy: the investment made to date shouldn’t be a consideration in whether the project should be continued.
  • The administrator, developer, or engineer actually doing the work is in the best position to advise up the chain. It is important to reassure this employee group that their time will be reinvested in something else and that they’ll be offered reskilling opportunities, if needed. They might need some convincing. This is a critical time for managers to step up, be visible, and ensure smooth transitions.

Stopping what we’ve started is difficult. It’s why we continue to struggle during budget fluctuations by trying to do everything we’ve always done. It’s also why bad, dead-end projects keep going. When leaders set the example, managers do the needed planning, and staff participate in the process, it is possible to effectively change course for the better.

Robin Camarote is a communications strategy consultant, meeting facilitator, and writer with Wheelhouse Group. She is intent on helping leaders get more done with fewer headaches by outlining clear, creative strategies and solutions that build momentum and buy-in at all organizational levels. She writes about how to increase your positive impact at work. She is the author of a book on organizational behavior entitled, Flock, Getting Leaders to Follow. She lives with her husband and three children in Falls Church, Virginia. You can read her posts here.

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