How to overcome confusion, frustration and false starts

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Complex doesn’t mean that you have to make it complicated. It often ends up feeling that way though!

Here’s a brief guide to why and how you can overcome confusion, frustration and false starts.

In a city not so far away, and not so long ago, two experienced heritage-sector partners decided to work together. They both brought solid experience to the table. They convinced a funder to support an ambitious project: gather, interpret and share a community-led stories from an area undergoing rapid development.


Despite the funding pitch running to several hundred pages (these things do) … as the team grew, some confusion and frustration set in. An initial false start is normal – it is part of the storming, forming and norming of any team. You do need to get through to performing though.

Here’s how we did it – and the insights here could apply to almost any project:

1) Getting everybody onto the same page

Why? 100+ pages is too much for anybody to hold in their head.

How: Through a series of team discussions we summarised the project down to one A3 page. We mixed things up a bit by using both text and sketches to convey as much as possible within the space constraint.

In the end the image had:

  • Context for the project
  • Resources – tools, skills and our theory of change
  • Audience, partners and participants
  • Outcomes
  • Intended impact

2) Organising for action – a focused conversation

Why? One page on its own won’t do anything for you. You will most likely still find that even that confusion can creep in – and with that it’s more unruly younger brother, frustration. That’s because things change over time as a project progresses, new people join etc.

People in the team reported that they were:

  • Unclear about how their work would link to that of others
  • Unsure of how and when to involve partners
  • Frustration with methods they were not familiar with

And sometimes we all went round in circles.

What to do? The picture needs action. To advance this we got everybody together one more time. Grounding our discussion in the ‘big picture’ we used a structured approach to talk it through.

Bid document Big picture Focused Conversation
Can be 100s of pages Just one page 30-90 minutes
Hours to read At-a-glance reference At-a-moment’s notice if needed
Hard to memorise Won’t have all the detail Dynamic
Essential reference doc Essential daily guide Essential bridge between the bid document and the big picture

We started by confirming that the overall vision developed earlier was clear. After some clarifying further discussion, we started breaking the ‘big picture’ into bits.

As the Chinese proverb goes: ‘Even the longest journey starts with a single step’.

The team worked backwards, starting with the impact sought – listing each area on one post-it at a time. Everybody then had an opportunity to clarify their understanding.

Next we listed all the outputs promised to the funder – again clarifying each one – and how each fits with the impact.

Next we added another column: methodologies available to us. This enabled us to have a frank discussion about which are best suited for maximum effect.

This specific project also has a set of partners and themes – so we added post-it columns for these as well. And now encouraged each other to ‘lead’ the group through an imaginary path, from participant >> to partner >> through to output >> and impact.

Or put differently: from objective facts enriched by personal experience and reflections, strengthened through group interpretation and clarification – concluding with shared decisions about what’s next.

All in all it took about 90 minutes, yet it’ll save hours.

3) Keeping it going, capturing learning: rinse and repeat

It won’t be the last time we’ll need to do this. We’ll rinse, repeat and continually re-align as the project progresses – and we’ll be sure to capture our learning to improve each time. For example through posts like this one.

Know somebody who might find this useful? Why not share it.

Footnotes for those who want to geek out – and dig deeper

  1. Truckman’s Stages of Group Development
  2. The Art of Focused Conversation
  3. A Framework for thinking about systems change