What gets you out of bed in the morning? A question we’ve all heard before that speaks to our motivations and our long term vision. It recognizes that each day takes us one step closer to a larger goal. The question also hints at a more immediate gratification. We could certainly be focused on something that is months or years away but aren’t we most excited about it when the impact is now? Can we recognize our progress in order to increase our motivation? If we can view our objectives as a series of short term goals rather than one large one, perhaps we can capitalize on our enthusiasm to get over the finish line.

In one form or another, I’ve led projects for eighteen years. I started with engineering problem solving, shifted to lean-six sigma, was brought in to manage large capital projects, and then focused on product development. As my responsibilities changed from engineering management to marketing, I began to view just about every ‘effort’ as a project of some sort. Whether the project required many resources or just a few, the focus was to achieve an objective. Project execution requires continuous effort for an extended period of time, along with coordination and cooperation. Above all, it requires motivation to change the status quo.

Leading these projects, I was always aware of the benefits of recognizing short term goals. Calling them out helped to show the team that their work was having an impact and management the progress that had been made. Most milestones were identified at the start of the project and then celebrated when they were achieved. Whether it was a new machine coming online, a product qualification that was approved, or a pilot run that was completed, it was progress to be recognized. These small celebrations were not about the end result, they were about that moment and the progress made thus far.

Coming from this perspective, I felt I understood the benefit but it took some real life experience to recognize the true value of this concept.

After my wife suffered respiratory failure due to end stage cystic fibrosis, effective motivation became a central focus of mine. She was not going to survive without a transplant and because she was so sick, the chances of her getting one were slim.
walk pic
Many project leaders will agree that one of the most discouraging things for a team is working on a project with a low chance of success. Add to that, a high level of urgency, emotional stakeholders, and dire consequences for failure, and it can quickly become overwhelming. Receiving that grim prognosis for my wife magnified all of those factors. The experiences that followed revealed some effective lessons that applied in both situations.

It was New Year’s Eve morning when my wife, Rebecca, went into respiratory failure and was placed on a ventilator in a chemically induced coma. She beat the odds simply by surviving the first few weeks. It was not long before her immobility brought with it severe muscle atrophy. She woke from the coma after six weeks, still on the ventilator and so weak that she could not even reach up and scratch her own cheek. We learned that her only option for survival was a double lung transplant but she needed to be much stronger, physically, to be considered for one. Not only did we need to find the motivation to get through the challenges of the day, we needed to find the motivation to continuously work to rebuild her strength. She needed to be stronger, not only to qualify for a transplant but simply be considered for evaluation.

One thing I’d learned from years of leading projects was that success was rarely about one surprise victory, but about chipping away at a goal. I felt the risk of being overwhelmed by this foreboding challenge in front of us. Henry Ford once said, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” But what do you focus on when your goal is so far away? Both at work and in the hospital, there were many steps between where we were and where we wanted to be. If we could recognize each of those steps for what they were – successes – then the journey itself could provide motivation to keep us going. So when Rebecca was able to stand with the help of a walker, we recognized that as a victory. When she became strong enough to take a few steps, we saw that as a victory. When she walked 300 feet in one session, we knew that as a huge victory. Though it was unlikely that a transplant hospital would list someone in Rebecca’s condition, these short term successes motivated us to keep working.

I have to admit, in the beginning I was celebrating these milestones alone. Before she had gone into the coma, she could walk, talk, and breathe on her own. Now she could do none of this. One night after seeing all of the hard work she had done, I told her I was proud of her. She said,

“I believe you’re proud of me but I’m not proud of myself.”

It was hard hearing her compare herself to an impossible standard. I needed to address that ‘standard.’

At work, I had often seen the tracking of metrics as a necessary evil. A way to communicate with the team and with management that we were on track or to course correct if necessary. In the back of my mind, I feared it took time away from making more progress. My experience in the hospital changed that perspective. I found that tracking her metrics was motivating for us. It helped us recalibrate her expectations from the impossible standard she had for herself to the real world gains that she was making. I would highlight how many exercise sessions she had completed that week. I’d remind her of the number of sets and reps she was able to do of various exercises. I would also stress the walking distance improvements she had made. And as it turned out, walking wasn’t just an exercise; it was a demonstration of her strength. Much in the same way that our teams showed management our progress, she was showing potential transplant hospitals that she was driven. I witnessed firsthand as this new baseline, or expectation she had for herself, became a motivating factor.

Those little victories got us through some tough news. She experienced a partial collapse of her right lung…but soon after, became strong enough to pick things off her bedside table. The first five transplant hospitals that responded to us, all declined to evaluate her…but she had built up her strength enough that the sixth agreed to evaluate. After months on the ventilator, her condition declined sharply…but her hard work resulted in news that she was listed for transplant.

So often there is good mixed with the bad. And even if the bad outweighs the good, that is no reason not to celebrate the good. 

After six months on a ventilator, Rebecca received a double lung transplant that saved her life. She’s now 2.5 years post-transplant and breathing strong. During it all, we certainly couldn’t control all of the factors but we stayed motivated to influence what we could. When we walked ten feet, our next goal was to walk fifteen feet, not one hundred. We stayed motivated not because we were so close to transplant, but because we were close to the next step toward transplant. Recognizing short term successes helped us maintain a level of urgency and the feeling that we were having an impact. If this perspective could help us stay motivated through that ordeal, it has value when facing obstacles at work. The best thing we could do at the time was to wake up every morning and try. If it went badly, our best option was to wake up the next day and try again.