Everything Feels Like a Failure When You Are in the Middle

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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I have a friend who jokes that he's going to quit his executive position and take a job as a school bus driver.

"Why would you do that?" I asked.

"Because," he said, "That job would be so much more straightforward. At 6:15 a.m., I get in the bus. I know exactly where all the stops are, which kids to pick up at what time. Then I drop them all at the school before the bell rings. I go from A to B to C."

He is drawing a line in the air as he speaks, poking at each of the invisible points on his bus route.

"You know what? I would come home at the end of the day feeling like I actually accomplished something."

This, as opposed to being in management during the Year of our Lord, 2010 A.D., where each new day is a mystery meal of ambiguity, uncertainty, and resistance seasoned with a healthy spray of alarming revelations. So much is outside of your control, it seems, and so little is in your favor.

Like my friend, I hardly ever feel a sense of accomplishment at work anymore. There is a constant blur of new projects, deals, initiatives, teams, and growth strategies coming my way. Some are of my own doing. Others are urgent priorities that simply must be addressed if we want to keep our business competitive, relevant, and profitable.

It never ends.

Stuck in the middle again

I can't remember the last time that I actually finished something. More often, it feels like I am somewhere lost in the middle, in the no-man's land of a once-familiar business territory, and I can't quite see over to the other side where it's all supposed to end. Days and weeks can go by without seeing anything that looks even remotely like success or accomplishment. Worse, things can very likely take an ugly turn in the other direction. The team starts complaining. People are disagreeing. Performance is stagnating. The original assumptions are not proving to be true. Your leadership is in question. The energy has left the room.

Welcome to the middle.

A few weeks ago, I caught an article in the Wall Street Journal talking about some questionable moves of the huge computer network company, Cisco Systems. The CEO, John Chambers, has created a maze of dozens of internal operating committees, councils, and boards of directors that are made up of senior managers with the hope that these teams will generate multiple new business initiatives. But to many outsiders, Cisco Systems' entire management structure is starting to look like a jumbled mess.

The theory goes that all of these ad-hoc, cross-functional teams will allow the company to creatively focus on evaluating many more new opportunities than would be possible in a typical command-and-control hierarchy. And, yes, just like in my own company, these team assignments require you to contribute above and beyond your regular job responsibilities. Some senior managers say they are spending up to 30% of their time on these new teams.

Critics argue that Mr. Chambers has created chaos, an unfocused hodgepodge of overwhelmed managers who now have a complicated system they must navigate when responding to immediate challenges. But Chambers counters that this discomfort is the new normal. He says these new teams will change how managers view potential problems and opportunities. He wants everyone to rethink what it means to come to work.

Right now, the jury is still out if this is the right move. But what caught my attention in this article was an observation made by the famous Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter. "Cisco is in the middle of something that isn't yet completed," she said. "Everything can look like a failure in the middle."

Well. That explains a lot.

Professor Kanter's comment reminds me of a quote from another famous professor, one that was recorded in the Bible several hundred years ago in Phillipians1:6. The Apostle Paul was trying to encourage his friends, who were also in the middle—they were working on a messy start-up situation called The Church. "I am confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ," he told them. In other words, Paul says get used to it, because our whole existence is really just a work in progress. We are always in the middle. Life requires some faith to see it through to the end. Because the only way out is through.

So it is with our little situations at work. Sometimes when we are in the middle, and it seems as if things are not going so well, the only thing left to hang on to is faith—faith that God is with you and the project will pan out, that you are on the right path, or that the right path will eventually be revealed. Faith that somehow, some way, there will be an end result, even if it is not what you expected in the beginning.

So take heart. You're not done yet, but soon enough you will be complete.

Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:

  • How much of your work feels like you are stuck in the middle?
  • When you feel stuck, when you feel like a project is failing, how do you find your confidence again? How do you persevere?
  • Look again at Phil. 1:6. What "good work" did Christ begin in you? How does this "good work" contribute to your daily work?