Times ago a tribe’s hunters took off into wilderness with shouts of joy. When they returned home with prey, the joy was even greater. The survival of the tribe was ensured. And even today’s hunters are being sent into the wilderness daily: into the jungle of projects. It is hot in there, narrow; full of dangers and most often there is not enough air to breathe anymore after a few steps already – not to speak of enough air to work. Instead of shouts of joy there are: sore collaborators, critical clients, and crazy timelines that do not satisfy anybody but cost heaps of money. The causes for that are most often not to be found in the sensationally well matured methods, but on the human level.
If we look at the old myths and quests of the heroes that were passed on from generation to generation without losing any of their effect, we recognize that they are all based on certain basic patterns. Myth researchers like Joseph Campbell explored these basic patterns. They call it the “Hero’s Journey”.
On his journey, the hero passes through specific steps of growth that bring him closer to his goal. Of course, not without testing him thoroughly before. The true hero has suffered before returning home to his people victoriously.
Even today there are heroes. Let us call them “Project Heroes”, and their journey looks about like this:
1. The Calling: The heroine receives her mission
The mobile phone rings: “Barbara, we need you INSTANTLY!“. Emergency at the client. An IT-solution is cranking out endless errors. The client’s clients are complaining. All efforts of rescue are fruitless, and respectively have caused even greater damage. Now it’s my turn to give it a go.
2. The Denial: The heroine hesitates
The case is delicate. Can I do that? Do I want this? Did they not find anyone else? Of course not. No-one wants to have his fingers burnt. And if I fail on this one, further projects are connected to it, and my employees too…
3. The Departure: The heroine goes on the journey
Well, okay, I’ll do it. If I tackle it analytically it could work. It’ll be okay. Self-motivation is everything.
4. The Tests: First problems arise
Well, “analytically” didn’t work out. How do I get all departments to settle around one table? Just as it always is: the purest bee-hive! And everybody is pissed off with the issue already anyway, because nothing has been moving for weeks … and now?
5. The Mentor: Supporters appear – human mentors and inner resources
Daybreak – light appears at the firmament: the head of the department has my back. His confidence has contagious effects on the others. Meetings become more and more relaxed. I take a deep breath and roll up my sleeves. In-between: I go out into nature, my source of power. And meditation. Both keep me going.
6. The First Threshold: The heroine fights against her own resistances
Gradually I see through. The project’s history is clear, the types of errors too. But this thing starts taking on huge dimensions… Can I really lift that weight? Regular sessions with my coach help in keeping the overview and different perspectives from time to time. He reminds me about my inner resources and what is really important.
7. Further Trials: The heroine is being challenged. And feels the power streaming in from her inner resources
Some days I feel like a beaten dog: even before one wound is saturated, the next one breaks up. Where to go, what to touch first without breaking even more? I remember my favorite tv-series “Dr. House”: just like him I withdraw into an empty room with a few project members, get a flipchart and keep pondering. The patient, respectively the project, is dying. What does it need to survive? Gradually and slowly solutions surface. I write them on the flipchart.
8. Transformation: The heroine receives the treasure
We are getting ahead! With small steps, but still. Alas, it is not about methods, but about human stuff: developing a feel for all participants, ask the right questions, use talents in the right way, rely on my intuition, motivate others… We all together go to the fair, eat, laugh and buy ourselves a project mascot: a pink balloon pig. The pig becomes our trade mark. At every mistake that we make one of us needs to make a round through the department with the pig in hand. This is so embarrassing that everybody really cares not to make any mistakes anymore. My humor, my intuition and my way of out-of-the-box thinking – once again my greatest treasure.
9. The Refusal: The heroine does not want to return
And all at once, everything works out. No errors far and wide. How is that now – that was all? It is over? It just started! And most of all: what does the next project look like? What struggles will be there?
10. The Leave: The heroine cannot help it – she has to return
More optimization is not possible. Everything is brilliant, radiates. No reason to stay anymore. I can go. After a year. A strange feeling.
11. The Return: The heroine steps over the threshold into the everyday world
The last meeting. Presentation of results. It is raining compliments and praises and it is said that I do not need to be present at meetings from now on anymore. The abrupt ending of a journey in which so much blood, sweat and tears flowed into.
12. Reigning over Two Worlds: The heroine shares her new knowledge with the community
The new knowledge wants to be integrated into the everyday life. I exchange my experiences with my team. I am happy and thankful that everything went so well. And suddenly I realize that normal project requests do not appeal to me anymore. I want issues that are not only challenging on a professionally subject-specific level, but also on the human level. And suddenly it is there, right in front of the door, the next assignment. And the journey begins again with the first step. Can I do that? Do I want this?
This is an example for a journey that develops according to the steps of growth and has an end in the sense of the mythical heroine’s journey. The reality, however, often looks different, e.g. when project teams stay stuck in an endless loop between steps one to four: at the very first bumps in the road people get back to step one. Project-Monopoly.
Other teams get through to level six, but then fail, because they are lacking self-reflection. Really successful are those teams who pass through all steps – with all the suffering and all the laurels. And even the laurels are to be cherished carefully, as:
The quest of the hero instead of heroism: The subtle difference
After a success is before a success. There are many heroes out there who are lifting huge symbolic project weights all by themselves. Usually, ego grows along with success: “I have done this all on my own (*patting my shoulder*), it all belongs to me, I don’t share with anybody!“. The real project hero understands that it is not about heroism (being a hero), but about the quest of the hero, and this means: yes, I am leaving on my own. I do get into and pass my own adventure. And then I share with my colleagues what new insights I have won. In doing this, my character and my strengths grow. And in doing this not only my success grows, but also our common success.
Hunted people become celebrated people: Do ancient rituals fit into modern enterprises?
Burnout has become everyday-life in many project teams, as we all go through the hero’s quest daily, without being aware of it, though! The rite around the journey has seeped away, fallen asleep, and an archaic, natural cycle has become a circle that we do not go through anymore, but rush through. Rat race.
The following approaches can help reanimate the effective forces of the natural cycle – for the individual and for the whole enterprise:
Contemporary witnesses: The cheering crowd
Beginning and Ending of a journey want to be exactly defined. Otherwise the boundaries blur, successes are not perceived anymore because the next stumbling block of the parallel project is lurking already. How would it be if a designated part of the team would send the hero on the journey with all the best wishes and receive it back with shouts of joy when he returns?
Active listening: much more than Smalltalk
The hubbub of voices in the office kitchen shows it every day: we all have a deep need for stories. What would it be like, if we would tell our stories in a frame that is specially designed for that, instead of just passing by the coffee machine? How would it be, to reserve a time frame that serves only the listening and in which the “treasures” (milestones, final results) are praised and acknowledged? Collaborators who are really perceived, seen and heard develop heroic powers.
Inner resources: Security belts for steep climbs
Many people are not aware of their strengths and values: who am I? What am I able to do? What keeps me back? What helps me to keep a secure stance? What can I come back to when it gets precarious? Knowing our own inner resources gives us the security to let us fully fall into a project. Who from the team (or from outside) can be used to strengthen the resources?
Discovered Treasures: Symbols of growth
From every journey, inner or outer, we bring something home. In which form can every member of the team tell his findings and express his personal growth through that?
Through the integration of such simple elements that cost neither much time nor money ,not only the individual, but also the whole project team, is being strengthened in its community. Deepest human needs are being satisfied, potentials undiscovered before come to light and dynamics appear that make the project a true success for all members involved.
The myth is alive. We are heroes and heroines, if we want it or not. Let’s get on the quest!