Stuck in a Rut

Imagine you’re on a journey.

You’ve got a worthy vehicle.

You’ve got a gifted team with you.

You’ve got great momentum & direction.

You’re passionately charging along; “all cylinders firing” as they say.

And then you hit bump, you slow down, you veer off-course, and you can’t seem to get momentum back on your side.

You’re stuck in a rut.

It happens to the best of us. Business owners, salesmen, pastors, fathers, students, military leaders, presidents. Being stuck is not the issue that defines us, we all get stuck. What defines us is how we deal with the situation, at least that’s what I believe.

Two schools of thought on getting out of the rut:

  1. The “Push Harder” Theory.The Push Harder Theory states that the reason you’re stuck in the rut is because you’re not doing enough. So naturally we combat that by doing more. We start new things, try to reach more people, try to convince more people how impressive we are. Spend money we don’t have. Pull from resources that are long tapped, including people.Imagine a vehicle literally “stuck” in a rut and the driver just pushing as hard as he can on the gas pedal as he tells everyone, “It’s ok everybody, we’ll be out of the rut any time now, I just need some more juice!”. And you’re in the passenger seat watching the engine overheat, tires burn, and gas gauge hit empty. Not too smart, eh?

    Yet I’m surprised at how many organizations use this theory when they plateau, when the budget dries up, when people stop coming. You can almost smell the burning rubber as the leader pushes harder and harder, not realizing that in his efforts he’s single-handedly killing the organization. And usually no one has the courage to take the keys out of the ignition (that’s a whole nother post, or book).

  2. The “Access the Situation” TheoryThis is by far the less popular process. This means the leader has to first admit that she’s stuck in a rut. She has to swallow her pride and admit failure. The she must look critically at the organization and try and figure out what circumstances have caused the slow-down. What’s working, what’s not? Does she have a loyal team? Have they failed to meet their goals? Has the vision shifted? The questions are countless…Imagine that same vehicle, stuck in a rut. After a couple minutes of trying to gas her way out, she realizes that she’s really stuck (sometimes reality is hard to accept). She gathers her team, gets out of the vehicle and begins assessing the situation. She assigns people to look at what’s going on, and come up with solutions. After some research, the team decides that the best course of action is to open the trunk, take all the junk out, throw it under the tires, rock back & forth until the vehicle gains traction, then with the help of some people pushing, she is finally free.

    I believe the reason this method isn’t popular is because it requires slowing down, maybe actually stopping in order to assess the situation. Slowing down is so un-American; it’s so un-manly – “never give up, never surrender!” is the anthem we live our lives by. And we drive ourselves right into utter defeat. It also requires a healthy look at reality; admission of failure is hard for someone who’s always been winning. Yet failure is a sign of ingenuity – it means you’re trying things. We’re such a backwards culture. I’m not surprised at all that I don’t see this happening much – it’s the hard way, it’s the slow way.

I’m particularly surprised that churches fall into this trap most often. Of course there are the churches that never risk anything and thus don’t get enough speed to even find a rut (that too is another post). But I’ve seen and experienced this personally, and it’s painful, for everyone.

I don’t have the answer, but here’s my conclusions:

  • Pray for your leaders. Being in the drivers seat is more complicated than you’ll probably ever realize.
  • If you’re in the driver’s seat please try and remember that many others are depending on you and your decisions. Your ego, your vision, your drive does not trump people – remember, you’re a servant first.
  • If you’re a passenger, try and be solution oriented when you sense you’re stuck in the rut. Don’t complain, don’t bail, be helpful.
  • Draw closer as a team when you’re stuck in the rut – talk about it, innovate. Ignoring it doesn’t make it go away.
  • Don’t be afraid to stop and assess. Most organizations are moving too fast to have a healthy view of themselves and find out too late that there were signs all along of disaster (think Titanic).
  • Momentum only lasts so long. At some point the vehicle must be self-sustaining.
  • Learn from the experience. Watch for signs in the future so the next time you hit that rut you can get out more efficiently.

How have you handled being stuck in a rut? How have you seen other organizations handle it? What do you think?

All for now.

5 thoughts on “Stuck in a Rut

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  2. Vince

    Great thoughts as always dude

    I’ve seen churches ‘assess the situation’ for years

    • Alex McLean Post author

      Oh man, I agree with you Vince. Maybe there’s another post, “How many committees does it take to get out of a rut?”. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Chris

    Great article Alex! The ‘push harder’ method is, unfortunately, way too common. I think there is another trap where organizations are completely oblivious as to what’s going on around them. They can’t even recognize that there is a rut.

    • Alex McLean Post author

      Chris, that’s the “stuck in delusion” rut! I’ve seen leaders literally live in a fantasy world, and the people around them just fuel it more by never confronting the leader…

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