Some years ago, I worked with team members who complained that others were given all the good projects. And even though I was certain that wasn’t the case, I found it difficult to address the issue. Since then, I’ve encountered different variations of the same theme.
Sometimes it’s team members who feel they haven’t been given enough guidance, information, or time to create great work. Other times it’s unrelated groups unhappy that their projects don’t seem as enjoyable or fulfilling as the work others are doing. Regardless of whether their perceptions are true, as a leader you must try to ensure your team feels motivated and fulfilled.
What do you do, then, if your team’s perception of the work they’re doing doesn’t support the potential of the opportunity? If you’re facing a situation like this, one way to navigate it with your team is to shift their perceptions. In dealing directly with this challenge, I eventually arrived at the statement below—it communicated my expectations in a clear and simple way:
I’m not looking for those who want to work on great projects. I’m looking for those who want to take whatever’s in front of them and make it great.
The difference between the two is that the first assumes there are specific characteristics or assets inherent in great projects that can be relied upon, while the second assumes nothing, and instead, challenges assumptions and explores novel approaches to creating powerful work.
I have relied on this statement to help me communicate what it takes to create great projects and be an effective team member ever since. Over time, I’ve also learned the following three insights into making sure team members bring vision and creativity to their work. These insights have helped me with hiring new team members, as well as motivating folks who are struggling—and I hope they can help you too.
Great Projects Rarely Start Great
The problem with great projects is that they rarely come neatly packaged. More often than not, you and your team create great projects from situations that are less than ideal. Achieving great outcomes in these circumstances requires people who thrive in ambiguity and make the most of whatever they’re given. It’s the difference between a creative mindset and a conventional mindset—and it applies to any line of work. As things become increasingly complex, the creative mindset will be the way forward.
Tip: Help your teams understand the real purpose behind their work. Not just what the work is, but the ultimate benefit it is intended for. Even the most basic projects are connected to a bigger purpose. When your teams understand that purpose, they are more likely to think critically and propose novel ways to achieve the objective.
Projects are Neutral, Outcomes are Not
That’s not to say there aren’t projects or circumstances that are so defined and limiting they make it impossible to do great work. There are plenty of those—but more often than not, engagements have hidden opportunities to redefine what’s possible. The projects themselves are neutral, it’s the approach and outcome that define whether the project will be perceived as good or bad.
Tip: Assess your great projects and choose one that can serve as a signature story to demonstrate how great outcomes are born from normal circumstances. Share the specifics of project setbacks and frustrations that were overcome in the process to give hope and empower team members to never give up on the potential of a project. This is especially important for new hires, but it also serves as an important reminder and motivator for those who have been through it.
Creativity Doesn’t Allow for Excuses
Teams with conventional mindsets have no shortage of excuses why projects don’t turn out well. Those with creative mindsets make no excuses because they know they have the power to influence everything they work on—no matter how challenging. And when they don’t succeed, tend to blame themselves, not the circumstances.
Tip: When hiring, seek an abundance mindset. Look for those with a passion to make the most of any opportunity and bring creative thinking to improve everything they work on. The best of these candidates will have been prolific in creating the kind of work and results you hope to see.
Ask questions about their work that reveal their mindset and approach: What was the real challenge that needed to be overcome? Did the customer see the challenge differently? What was the single most important aspect to achieving the result? Was their proposed solution challenged by the customer—and if so, how did they work through it? Can they describe the bigger purpose the customer was hoping to achieve and how their work supported it? And so on. Questions like these help reveal the actual role the candidate played, how much they contributed to the outcome, and how they might approach new challenges.
Ultimately, you can decide whether you prefer to work with teams who want to work on great projects or those who can take whatever’s in front of them and make it great. I always choose the latter.