When I was little (around 5 or 6 years old) I was terrified that our house would burn down.
We would spend every summer in a relatively remote area of New Hampshire (compared to the suburbs of Boston). The house was in the middle of the woods, and there was one time period when we were woken up in the middle of the night by the fire alarm multiple times. From then on I was terrified that something bad would happen.
My brain decided to prepare for the worst so I researched how I would descend from the window in my second floor bedroom if a fire blocked the door. My parents also ended up buying a fireproof box for me to keep my favorite stuffed animal in because I was so worried that it would be lost in a fire. I didn’t feel safe up there until we all had an escape plan mapped out.
Did anyone else have a childhood fear? Nowadays the daily fears are slightly different and usually a lot less life threatening. Even so, these fears can end up dictating how we act, feel, and interact with others. They can gnaw on you or your team members over time and hurt morale, productivity, and the quality of your output. Couple your fears with scary complex systems and there are days when you just want to crawl back under the covers and hope the monsters will go away.
The good news is that with some tricks you can re-frame the situation, plan ahead, and position yourself so that you and your team can be more successful in the presence of those fears. Below I outlined some common scary systems and fears that people encounter, along with some tips for dealing with them. I’m nowhere near immune to these fears but these tips tend to work for me when I feel them creeping back in.
The system was patchworked over time by different teams using different technologies and processes to the point where everything is tangled together and you have no idea how you are going to modernize or fix it.
How to deal: In the book “Aligning Modern Business Processes and Legacy Systems” the author, Willem-Jan van den Heuvel, talks about ways to approach modernization when you can’t just wipe everything out and start over from scratch. He advocates for combining top-down business process engineering methods with a thorough understanding of the current system’s capabilities. From that information you can more easily identify the gaps where new capabilities need to be built vs. where there are legacy components that could be reused.
Haunted house systems
You dive into a system, excited to make a difference but the more you learn, the more problems you see and it all becomes overwhelming. Behind every door is a new set of skeletons, dangers, and ghosts.
How to deal: One way to deal with this problem is to break it up into phases. In phase 1 pretend that you’re an explorer. At this stage of the game you’re just trying to understand what you have to work with, not building anything new or saving the world. Your job is to understand what is there and to investigate why that is and how this all came to be. Make a map of the system as you explore it using techniques like process modeling, taking notes of issues or opportunities as you go. Separating the assessment, planning, and action tasks should help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Buried alive under paperwork, deliverables, or status updates
You want to fix things and add value but you’re buried under a pile of paperwork. You feel like you are wasting time and not moving forward.
How to deal: Try negotiating by explaining the costs vs. benefits of creating those deliverables, and providing alternative options. Share the time that it takes for you to deliver that work and discuss which parts of the deliverables are nice to haves vs. need to haves. You may be able to reduce the scope of the work through just one conversation with the requester.
If you still need to deliver something, look for opportunities to make the reporting process more efficient. Perhaps you could adjust your note taking style so your notes can be exported and used as-is in a deliverable document. Or maybe there is tool that would automate the creation of reports. Another option is to find other people who can take on the areas that your expertise isn’t needed for. Maybe they can put the information in the required format if you provide the content.
Encountering zombie teams
They seem to be marching to orders that don’t make any sense to you. You have to react to them to be successful (or to survive).
How to deal: Even though it can be hard to remember after a marathon of The Walking Dead, zombies don’t exist in real life. Even large groups are made up of people who have incentives to behave the way they do. It can feel like you’re running up against a brick wall if your incentives and values don’t align, but recognizing that fact is the first step. Then you have two options. Once you have an idea of what drives them, you could try to change their incentives yourself or to find the people who can change them. An alternative option is to find a way to make their incentives work to your advantage.
The work will sit on a shelf gathering dust
This is a fear that all of your thoughts and hard work will end up locked up somewhere, never to be seen or heard from again. That the insights will get locked in a dungeon otherwise known as a white paper.
How to deal: Adding to the discourse can be helpful but there are other ways to make sure that the work gets seen by people and acted upon. Try publishing all or a portion of your ideas on a website or via your social networks to at least expand the reach and longevity of the work. Another option is to identify a small project to accompany the white paper such as a proof of concept. If you’re asked to participate in a brainstorming session or research project, ask ahead of time how the information will be used to inform of your decision of whether to go forward with the work.
The nightmare of being invisible, where no one is listening to you, sees you, or otherwise acknowledges your existence.
How to deal: If you’re feeling this way the first step is to diagnose the problem. Who do you want to notice you? Why? What kinds of needs, pain points, and drivers do they have in their life? What type of delivery do they respond to? What types of people do they respond to? How does your delivery measure up? Identify the gaps and create a battle plan. Could your delivery make more of an impact with higher quality visuals? Could partnering with a trusted voice help your case?
You’re stuck in this system, everything is horrible and there is no way out
You’re overwhelmed, your team is overwhelmed, and losing hope quickly. This is the point in the movie when you don’t see how the heroes will survive the mess they’re in.
How to deal: The first step is a mental one. It is extremely hard to be creative when you have no hope that anything can improve. You need to get a new perspective as quickly as possible. Leave the office right now. Network with other companies, chat with other people, and read books to put your problem into perspective. Most likely other people are dealing with the exact same feelings and doubts. Find out how they climbed out of it.
Now it’s time for action. Identify a small but visible change and make it. Be careful of the ratio of positive to negative comments you make around your teammates. Negativity will cause some people to shut down further. Being a cheerleader without getting your hands dirty will not help either. The ideal mix? Being hands on, encouraging others and holding regular retrospectives to focus on what is going well and what still needs to improve.
A change could cause catastrophic impacts
You spend so much time worrying about the bad outcomes that could happen that you don’t do anything.
How to deal: Take some time to reflect. What is the worst thing that could happen if you make a mistake? Often the outcomes aren’t nearly as bad as we build them up to be in our heads. To prepare for the worst-case scenario, build in safeguards so you can roll it back or apply workarounds if needed. Before you go live, think about the end-to-end process and how your solution fits into the entire life cycle of the product or business. That will help for anticipating impacts downstream. You can also try simulations or experiments to test out solutions ahead of time.
Someone else will steal credit or stab you in the back
You are afraid of sharing your thoughts and ideas because someone could try to use them for their own gain.
How to deal: Recognize when that is actually a good sign vs. when you need to stand up for yourself. When you’re trying to make a difference in a complex system you can’t do it alone. If people buy into your ideas and see them as an extension of their own, they will champion the concepts. Sharing your ideas and knowledge with others also frees up more time for you to focus on creating new value, which I think is the more fun part.
However, if you are also being overlooked or brought down then you need to adjust your tactics. Continue to share ideas with the offending party but protect other ideas if necessary and make sure you are sharing them in front of key people in meetings or publications. People can often read through others who may just be re-iterating a sound bite or stretching the truth for their own gain. If you take the high road, collaborate, and share your knowledge freely the right people will notice. If they don’t, there are plenty of other complex systems to fix.
Fear of speaking up or taking action because “you’re not qualified”
You feel like you’re not an expert on the topic so you can’t speak to it. That fear paralyzes you and prevents you from adding value.
How to deal: You don’t need to be an expert to add value. You just need to know more than the person next to you. Sharing the name of a book you read about that topic, a resource or the name of an expert to consult with is also valuable.
Fear of speaking up or taking action because “you have no power”
You’re not high up in the org chart so you feel like you can’t make a difference.
How to deal: People high up in the org chart also sometimes feel like they are powerless because they aren’t directly on the ground executing the vision. Instead, focus on what you can control from your role. Look around to what needs to be done that no one is doing. No one needs to tell you to do it for you to make it happen. If your response to that sentence was “no, I can’t do that,” think about why you feel that way. Can you link it back to a rule, policy, or something someone said? If so, try testing those assumptions by going back to the source to understand where the real vs. perceived constraints are. If you can’t pinpoint the reason why you feel powerless it’s probably a limitation that you placed on yourself.
Fear of drifting along and not leaving a legacy or sign of your existence
You’re afraid of not leaving an impact or that what you’ve built will disintegrate when you leave.
How to deal: Think about how you define “legacy.” Is it fame? Fortune? Sustainability? Your name in the history books or on a building? Some bad news is that the level of external recognition you will receive can be based on factors outside of your control. What you can do is focus on making sure the time you do spend is valuable and that the system will be successful after you leave. Create guides and help set up the tools, regular events, and processes to keep it thriving. Train your teammates and mentor others to be able to carry the torch.
What fears influence you in your journey to change the world? How do they influence you or your team and do you have any other tips for working through them?