3 traps that kill strategy and crush us – Part 3: Landmines

3 traps that kill strategy and crush us – Part 3: Landmines

Work is littered with landmines of personalities and politics, traps that kill strategies and crush us. It’s an endless maze of complexity, riddled with hurdles and hoops. And more politics. This isn’t news.

Yet we’re still surprised by the messy, inconvenient, infuriating situations that surface regularly. I could say that we’re not paying attention. That’s true to an extent. What’s truer, however, is that we rarely admit a simple fact: things blow up and fall apart at work all the time.

If the traps of Loops and Distractions (Parts 1 and 2) arise from our unconscious habits, Landmines are the gut-wrenching consequences of these blind spots.

And we’re acutely aware how they affect us.

That awareness is a great thing.

Unlike loops and distractions, when we trip into a political mess or fall into social quicksand, we know that something has gone wrong. Even if we’re not exactly sure what, the signals are clear:

  • Work just… stops. And no matter what we do, we can’t get it moving.
  • We’re out of plays. The path forward is unclear.
  • There’s a of lot of emotion and turmoil, punctuated by circular meetings –and gossip.

We’ve mis-stepped, mis-calculated or blown it. Or, it had nothing to do with us.

The good news is how we feel guides us to choose how we react, from pragmatic pivots to full blown meltdowns. I’ve done them all.

The messier the emotions, the greater a threat we are to ourselves. Trust me: pragmatism is preferable to meltdowns.

Be pragmatic.

And make peace with the fact that weird and unpredictable stuff just happens. We omit a key stakeholder in a new project, not through any ill-will, but because we just didn’t know. Or, from out of nowhere, someone throws a wrench in a project we’ve worked on for months. Maybe we push back when we should have played it cool. Inevitably, another re-org forces us to prove ourselves all over again.

See? Landmines everywhere.

But whether we’ve tripped a landmine, stumbled into a minefield or already melted down, the most strategic and safest next steps are never what we expect.
That’s a hard thing for me to say as a strategist. It’s probably a hard thing to hear if you’re, well, you. We want to fix things. To strategize and plan and align and problem-solve. But when things blow up, which they will, what matters most is where you step next.

The work itself will evolve or even survive. But if you’re clobbered in the process or you self-destruct, you won’t.

So pause and pivot.

I once led a big initiative to integrate several lines of business. After months of cross-functional alignment meetings and plans, the executive leading the division killed the effort with an off-hand comment.

With more maturity and wisdom than I really had at the time, I realized my only play was to let the project blow up, and then pivot to a new one. That felt terrible. But better to take the blow than to spend another six months painting rocks or pushing them uphill.

Pivoting means treading lightly – a lesson I learned while narrowly avoiding a collision with a wise executive as we rounded opposite corners. While still moving, she craned her head to tell me she was cooling off after a contentious meeting by walking laps in the hallway.

In our brief encounter, she reminded me that work will blow up, but we don’t have to. Whoa.

Work will blow up, but we don’t have to.

That lesson kept me from becoming unhinged during a 12-week period where everything at work was blowing up for me. Instead, I began each day with 15 minutes of meditation, which helped me remain calm.

Wait, sorry. That was someone else.

Me? I was anything but calm. The minefield of politics, role ambiguity and my own inner turmoil seemed like torture. And I felt like a mess.

After failing to meditate one morning, I stopped for a chocolate-covered doughnut on my way to work. Eating the frosting like a six-year old, to my amazement, did help me relax. A little.

The following day, I ate another doughnut.

Over the next eight weeks – literally every workday for forty days – I began my day at work eating a chocolate doughnut. This new habit felt absurd. No one ever saw me eating a doughnut. Not in public.

But savoring something ridiculous created a tiny space of calm. And that calm was better than career-ending temper tantrums. More to the point, the chocolate-covered mindfulness reminded me to show up, when I’d rather be a brat.

So here’s the rub: we learn to navigate landmines and minefields at work when we stumble and when things blow up. But we can pivot when they do. And we can imagine a safer path forward while eating a doughnut.


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Photo by shari silver on Unsplash
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