How to Respond When Your Program is Disrupted

If you’re leading a large new initiative and it just halted due to internal changes, what do you do next?

Maybe an executive departed and left you with no sponsor. Maybe there are open roles and you’ve been told to wait until those leaders join (and rewrite the brief). Maybe there was a layoff or restructure that drastically reduced your manpower. Maybe another initiative, something shinier, just stole the organization’s attention (hello, AI). Or just maybe there’s a murky conflict going on above you and for some reason, without warning, you were told to stop midstream. Maybe even all of the above.

Are you freezing the program, hoping for revival, while others in charge have abandoned it while avoiding the tough conversation?

Whatever the cause, you’re holding a brimming bucket of sunk costs and broken promises. 

Your choices now are finite:

  • Abandon the program altogether and move on
  • Freeze the program with the hope you can reanimate it at a later date 
  • Descope with the hope you can still accomplish some of the desired outcomes
  • Fight for the program and expend some political capital

Before you make that choice, take a beat and admit this sucks. Someone shook the Etch a Sketch and now you’ve lost an incredible amount of progress and passion. You’re probably feeling a loss of control, a hit to your ego, as well as confused about the organization’s strategy and your role in it. To make matters worse, you may also feel creeping self-doubt and isolation. These are all normal feelings but take a moment to acknowledge your state of mind, because your next decision shouldn’t be clouded by loss. Far too many times, leaders in your shoes speak out while still gripped by uncertainty and grief, and their concerns are easily ignored.

Organizational Change

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Now, with a level head and hopefully some support around you, consider the following:

  • Are you freezing the program, hoping for revival, while others in charge have abandoned it while avoiding the tough conversation? Maybe you need to trigger that conversation for the sake of everyone’s focus and sanity.
  • If the organization can abandon it, was it really necessary in the first place? What was the ‘why’ behind it? If it was never clear, is this a recurring pattern in the organization that needs to be addressed before the next initiative’s public kickoff?
  • If the reason behind it was indeed clear, important, and urgent, then how can you make some progress while conditions are less than ideal? Here you might need to descope it, even focusing on a single outcome, to both make gains and to signal that change itself is still possible. Just be reasonable with yourself and others about how much to take on. 

Lastly, if you adamantly believe in the effort and the reason behind it, you might need to fight for it by actively influencing and persuading others. One of the ways that you have to grow, if you want to advance in your career, is to embrace politics in the office. That sentence itself might be making you queasy or irritable, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s time to admit to yourself that:

  • Good work does not, in fact, speak for itself. Organizations are big, complex, and full of busy people with their own goals and aspirations. Few are going to stop and acknowledge good work, especially if you yourself won’t acknowledge it. Change, especially, requires a vocal champion.
  • There is no such thing as a “politics-free” organization. Organizations are driven by self-interest. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad or corrupt, it’s just that nothing gets done without individual motivation. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with people advocating for their needs and desires.
  • If you leave a political vacuum, others will happily fill it. Your initiative’s resources were probably handed to someone else who did advocate on their own behalf. Moreover, they may not have your noble intentions. Politics is only selfish when self-interest is the only thing motivating it.
  • Yes, you might lose. You might lose the argument and some political capital. Like in life, pick your battles wisely.
  • But compromising isn’t the same as losing. Progress requires compromise and dogmatists rarely make progress. Don’t let that sting of loss you might be feeling, or the sunk costs you made, lead you into a fight for elusive perfection. 
  • You really can do it, once you want to. Building a political coalition at work isn’t especially complicated: start by finding out what the people with power want and then look for ways to give it to them. But most people get stuck when they either see this as separate from the work or they adopt self-limiting beliefs about themselves and what they’re capable of. If you want to be a leader in this century, someone who will continuously need to influence others to respond to change, then you have to hone your political abilities. Why not now?
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How to Respond When Your Program is Disrupted
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