Every day business leaders launch challenging, often risky, initiatives. We do so because that's how to get ahead, innovate, and stretch the organization. But let's be honest: These projects are always tough, full of unknowns, and highly demanding of the people who will (or won't) make them successful.

So what do most leaders do when they're about to launch an aggressive project? They pretend it's easy. In their desire to allay fears and encourage optimism, they come out with lame phrases like: "This will be fun," or "It'll be fantastic when we get there," or "This could be the making of us."

This is all very well intentioned but it's wrong. Why?

It's not true.

Unless the people working for you are idiots (in which case you have bigger problems) they all know that the project is going to be really, really hard. They can see at least some of the risks and pitfalls, and they're probably nervous. When you act as if the whole thing is going to be one great picnic, you imply that it's easy--so you're either too stupid to see the problems or you're lying. Both are bad. It's far better to be honest about just how difficult and scary the project is. That way you can inspire people to grow and develop--something everyone wants to do. And it makes you look like you know what you're doing.

The project might not pan out.

If you're building software to an aggressive schedule, you won't be the first company to miss your ship date. If you're trying to invent a new product or launch something brand new, just about everything can go wrong. At the very least, the work is going to be difficult. But if you describe it as a cinch, and then it inevitably does get hard,  everyone feels stupid and inadequate. They can't even pull off this simple assignment.

You waste an opportunity.

When you acknowledge upfront that a project is going to be very taxing, completing it will represent a huge achievement, one that can and should be celebrated. But if you position it as "business as usual," how are your collaborators going to be able to feel the magnitude of their success? Stretch goals are inspiring and rewarding because, when they're met, everyone can be proud. Illuminate the challenge at the outset and you offer the chance of excitement and reward.

Big challenges–the ones that stretch but don't destroy people–build businesses and reputation. But they can also boost morale and engagement if you're frank about how tough, but exciting they're going to be. Nobody was ever inspired to climb Everest on the grounds that it was a walk in the park.

Published on: May 11, 2012
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