Every entrepreneurial initiative eventually hits a wall called the “valley of despair.” This is a point when the project gets bogged down, people are totally stressed, a negative attitude permeates the team, and progress slows to a crawl.

Team members will get discouraged, spend time complaining, give up, and some will even quit.

When you get to this point you will know it. Understanding what it is, planning for it, and dealing with it appropriately will get you through, but it isn’t easy, it isn’t always fast, and it will take all the energy and emotion that you have left as a leader to manage through it. Each project will hit a wall that will dramatically change the team.

The challenge is recognizing that most projects reach a point where they face their own “valley of despair.” Preparing the team for this and helping them through it will be challenging. They need to understand that it is a normal part of the process. They are transitioning to a new operating model and leaving the old model behind. There is anxiety in moving from something that is grounded and secure to something more fragile. Each person will react differently, but if they anticipate it they can deal more effectively with it.

In turn, it’s important that you prepare your sponsor and the CEO for this event. It will not only enable them to assist you through this process, but it also provides you with a sounding board. Like you, they must realize that the pressure and stress have been building to a point where the team can’t take much more. The team will be tired, short-tempered, and rude to one another. They will find fault with things that they totally accepted before. The stress and pressure are natural byproducts of such an effort.

The valley of despair is not an event but a process that builds up. A team will naturally be energetic and enthusiastic at the beginning. Once they get deeply entrenched in the project, they often lose sight of why they are doing it in the first place. They ask themselves if the stress and pressure are worth it. They begin to question the viability of what they are doing. Fear begins to run rampant throughout the team that they will not make it.

Like dominoes, one person’s fears play on an others until everyone is involved. The team slides further and deeper into the valley of despair.

At this point some people decide they’ve had enough and ask to go back into the core business. Others will decide it is time to leave. Either way, it has an impact on the team and organization. As the entrepreneurial leader, you will be trying to hold things together and find alternative solutions to fill the gaps. You begin to go through the same process as the team. You will need the support and encouragement of the CEO and sponsor to keep you energized. You may start having your own doubts.

As the team slides into the valley of despair, they will reach a transition point. This is when the team needs you the most. It is physically and emotionally draining. The team needs to stop and catch their breath. Pushing harder will only make things worse. They need to regroup and recalibrate where they are. They must put new plans in place to pick up the slack, find alternative resources to fill the gaps. This can be reenergizing and start to build back some of the confidence they have lost.

The team will then begin to build back momentum, turn the corner, and climb out of the valley of the despair. They have made the transition and have broken away from the core business. They are still scared and a little shaky, but they get back on track. These individuals will be changed forever because they made it through and reached the other side. They have created a new way of working and they have left the old systems behind. They can look back and see the core business for what it is and what they know it can become.

Each team member is personally and professionally changed by this event. They now see what is possible. There is no turning back.

You may never really understand what triggered the slide toward the valley of despair. It could be organizational pressure, time pressure, or self-imposed pressure. In most cases the team realizes that much is riding on the project and there is a growing feeling that they may not make it. It is as if you are stuck in quicksand or moving in slow motion.

Going through the valley of despair is part of the process. It will test the patience and resolve of the entrepreneurial leader.

Have you ever experienced the “valley of despair”? Let us know.


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