Project Practitioners > Three steps to getting unstuck: lessons learned from a ground squirrel

Three steps to getting unstuck: lessons learned from a ground squirrel

By Sinikka Waugh

Project Coach, Your Clear Next Step

Have you ever seen a ground squirrel in a window well?  Let me describe it to you...In central Iowa, some folks call these little guys "squinnies"...though I haven't done the research to figure out why...they look a little like chipmunks with a squirrel's tail. 

Now, picture a little, brown squinny, about four and a half or five inches tall.  This poor little guy has somehow gotten himself into a window well outside our basement window.  The well is just shy of three feet deep, and about two feet wide, forming a half-circle with a radius of about a foot.  The walls are vertical sheets of galvanized aluminum - no toe-holds here, not even for a squinny.

I arrive at the basement window in time to see him scrambling.  I've missed the beginning of the story (the part that answered the "how did he get here?" question), and I'm not sure how long he's been there.  All I know is that he's there.  And he's not going anywhere.

Watching him for a few seconds is almost comical.  He heads way over to one corner, hunkers down - you can see him getting all of his energy up and ready - and then he runs with all his might, as fast as his little legs can carry him, and at the last minute, jumps with every ounce of strength he's got in him.  This little guy is giving it his all.

But then you realize that he's never going to get out of the well.  No matter how hard he tries, he's not going to be able to clear that wall that's more than 7 times his height.  He's only getting about half way up, and that realization will just about break your heart.

So my husband and I watch this little critter run and jump and run and jump and run and jump for several minutes before we formulate a plan.  Turns out we have different plans for a brief moment.  Luckily, the plan that involves opening the basement window and trying to catch the rodent (which will no doubt involve him getting loose in my basement no-thank-you-very-much), is quickly overruled.  And we're down to a reasonable, viable solution.

By now, the squinny is getting tired.  His jumps are falling further and further from the mark.  And now, he's alternating his jump attempts with a few moments of just sitting there, looking stuck.

So, per our plan, I grab a long-handled broom from the garage, and gently set it in the window well, broom side down, angled as close to horizontal as I can get it, stretching from one corner of the window well diagonally to the other.  And then I step away.

Before I tell you the rest of the story, though, let me draw a quick parallel to where we wind up on our projects sometimes... 

Ever been part of a project team that creates a flurry of activity, but doesn't actually get anywhere?  Project teams faced with churn, racking up hours towards the project, but making little to no visible forward towards the goals?  I've seen projects that have planned or re-planned, baselined, or re-baselined more than 3 times in 12 months, and although they've not fully completed the initial set of deliverables, the project end date keeps moving further and further into the future.  The wall gets higher and higher.

Ever been part of a project team where the hurdle is so insurmountable, there's no way to scale it on your own?   Individuals start to appear immobile, stagnant, or seem resigned to taking two steps backward with only one step forward.  Team members fight amongst themselves ad nauseum, or simply give up the fight and going through the motions.  Brief moments of apparent progress are overshadowed by folks leaving the team, or surrendering their own good judgement because they're tired of fighting.

Ever been part of a project team that's in over its head?  That's stuck?

Our squinny was stuck.  And I think it's a powerful image of how our projects get stuck sometimes.

Who cares how we got here?  Is assigning blame going to make the window well any less deep, or the walls any less steep? 

And who cares how long we've been here?  Does it really matter whether it's taken us a moment, a week, a month, or a year to realize we're stuck?  Will arguing about it bring any of those hours back?

If you're stuck, you're stuck.  Once you get un-stuck, you can use your new insights to be smarter the next time around, but for at least a few moments, you've got to get your horse and cart in the right order...

STEP 1 - Acknowledge that you are stuck

Look around at the signs, and recognize that you are in over your head.  Make sure anyone who can do anything about it recognizes it too.  Acknowledge fully and publicly that you are stuck, and you need a catalyst of some sort to get unstuck. 

We liked the little squinny in the window well.  We never criticized him for winding up where he was - we just wanted ot help him out.  If you acknowledge that you are stuck, you can get help from the "outside" - someone outside your project, someone who is not, therefore, stuck inside it.  Someone who can help.

STEP 2 - Ferret out the nature of the problem (sorry - couldn't resist the pun)

What kind of stuck are you?

-too much to do with too little time?
-expectations that are unreasonably high given the skills and capabilities of the folks on the bus?
-imagining people will behave consistently in a way that is contradictory to their nature?
-being asked to climb Everest, armed with a windbreaker and a granola bar?
-forcing a round peg to fit in a square hole, with no gaps and no scratches?

Chances are, if you're stuck, you probably have a mismatch of people to people, people to tasks, or tasks to time and resources. 

Be sure to figure out the nature of the problem so you can best identify the right course of action.

STEP 3 - Commit to taking the first step towards a solution

It's amazing how powerful the first step can be - it really can be a catalyst to move you through any subsequent steps with ease.   But if you don't take that first step.  If you don't accept the help that's offered as part of admitting that you're stuck, you won't make it out.  Allow yourself to be helped.  Grab on to the life preserver tossed your way, and commit to getting unstuck.  Get past your wounded pride at getting "help" and demonstrate the initiative it takes to do something about it.

Back to our squinny friend, I'm pleased to say he climbed out, and we never saw him in our window well again.  Now, just because he got unstuck from our window well doesn't mean it was easy sailing from then on, but he was no longer trapped.  It had to have been scary to climb onto that new giant surface that suddenly "magically" appeared in the window well, but if he hadn't done it,  he'd still be in the window well. 

And that's the way it is with us sometimes - the solution looks scary and unfamiliar.  It involves getting out of our comfort zone, and trusting someone else to help.  But project recovery, project triage, getting "Unstuck" - it's about getting help.  Getting help from outside the project, to get the project unstuck.  And then having the courage to take the action that's required.

 For more help getting unstuck, check out www.yourclearnextstep.com



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