A friend tells this story:

A group of us teenagers were on a trailer slowly being hauled through a marshland. The trailer was filled with materials for an outdoor event. One of the teens was driving the very small tractor on the path, which was a very narrow raised ridge of dirt. At one point we came to a fork in the road.

The driver supposedly knew which way to go, so no one said anything right away. He kept going straight past the right branch until after a few moments someone said, “Weren’t we supposed to go the other way?” It turned out the driver hadn’t heard about any turns, so continued going straight and figured if anyone knew different they would speak up.

It was quickly agreed we had gone the wrong way. Now the question was what to do? It turned out the driver completely lacked the skills to back up a trailer on such a narrow ridge of a path (he had been volunteered for the job). No one was sure how to get there if we went forwards. Eventually, we found the person with the most driving skill, had them drive the little tractor, and the rest of us got out and gave directions and guidance. It wasn’t pretty, but we got back to the right path and were on our way successfully in time.

The discussion that came about showed no one had really let anyone down, because no one had actually taken responsibility for the directions. But together, we knew what to do, and how to get back on track. There were no apologies, accusations or recriminations. Everyone was simply interested in getting back on track.

People work well together when the path is clear

When groups work together, there must be objectives (descriptions of things that need doing) and milestones (dates by which things must be done—deadlines). That way, people can say “We missed our turn!” and work together to adjust as needed to get back on track. In most projects, things are never as clear as a raised path with one possible turn 🙂

If no one says “We missed our turn,” the project will likely never get back on track. More likely, it will either be abandoned or turn into a half-baked version that accomplishes little. When you are building a business or a team or a relationship, the future is built on present efforts. Business in particular is time sensitive. Things like call backs, holiday season buying and events are time sensitive. You have to take a series of actions within a set period of time or the season is missed, the event never happens, the product or service isn’t ready within the customer’s time frame.

Another reason stating and sharing objectives and milestones is essential is that if there is just one person with everything in their head, no one else actually know when a turn was missed or not. There is no natural motivation to “get back on track” if it’s just one person shouting instructions to everyone else. With objectives and milestones that all know and agree on, everyone can be inwardly motivated and self-actuated, rather than feeling like slaves to someone else’s directions. It should go without saying that self-motivated individuals work smarter, more creatively, and more realistically on what needs doing.

How to keep things on track

The simplest way to make things work well is to review objectives and milestones compared to actual progress on a regular basis. A set schedule such as weekly where a team member or leader reviews goals vs. progress. is good. This gives everyone the opportunity to be a self-actuated worker who feels good saying “We missed our turn—let’s get back on track!” This is especially important because in many groups—and relationships—some people won’t say anything unless it is very, very clear what has been missed.

What about working with a spouse?

When you are working with a spouse or significant other, it is doubly important that expectations—objectives and milestones—are made crystal clear in a joint manner. One lecturing the other will not work. Then when issues arise that take things off track, the need to reset goals or make changes to get back on track can be pointed out as neutrally as possible. This makes is easier for both to agree when one says “We missed our turn!” rather than it being one criticizing the other.