Overcoming the impasse

Ever felt that things were not moving forward at work? That your career had ground to a halt? That you didn't ‘fit' your job description any more? Most businesspeople get into an impasse at some stage in their career. Here's a guide to the way out.

by HBS Working Knowledge
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Timothy Butler, author of Getting Unstuck: how dead ends become new paths (Harvard Business School Press), explains that the key to turning an impasse on its head is to take it as an opportunity to try something new. "The meaning of an impasse, although it's usually first expressed as a failure or in an internalised notion of inadequacy, is a request for us to change our way of thinking about ourselves and our place in the world."

Butler says that we all carry a map of how we fit in the grand scheme of things - life, work, the world - although this rarely matches reality. An impasse is therefore a time to re-assess this position.

People get into impasses for many reasons, sudden or gradual change, personal or work-related. Butler says that businesspeople seem to be particularly thick-skinned to impasses because they come across dead ends so regularly. "[Their] response is to just muscle through. Keep on pushing and throw more resources at it," he notes. "But often what a clear impasse signifies is that you need to stop and realise that your model doesn't capture the reality of your business."

This sense of crisis is generally the first stage of overcoming the impasse. Butler says a sense of mounting panic often follows, with all the self-doubts and questions that go with it. When people finally realise that their model isn't working, they are entering the next stage. They then start to listen to suggestions, seek different perspectives and finally take action.

Butler says that the hardest thing with an impasse is that you don't know what the next stage is. "The whole basis of an impasse is that you thought you knew what was going to happen next, but you didn't. It's pretty scary, but also pretty exciting."

Source: Feeling stuck? Getting past impasse
Martha Lagace
Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, April 25 2007

Review by Emilie Filou

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