Oh, the ill-fated project. You know what I mean: the one your boss’ boss wants you to manage although it makes no sense, the project you think you may have seen in a Dilbert cartoon or an episode of The Office. It comes across your desk, and you wonder if you’re the only one who can see that everyone is boarding the Titanic. And yet, you’ve been elected project manager, so you don your captain’s hat and set sail…
At some point, almost everyone has been there. Here are a few of my personal insights into keeping your chin up even when you think the ship’s going down.
You = Valuable
At the risk of sounding like a motivational speaker, I will ask you for a moment to recognize the importance of You. When I say this, I’m not referring to you as a human being. I’m talking about the You who is a value-add on projects; the You that your team and stakeholders need; You the asset.
As we all know, assets have value, and things with value should be guarded. Right?
So my first survival strategy is a simple two-part harmony:
- Recognize that you bring assets to any project, and
- Guard them because they’re valuable and will be needed again.
Think of your assets like a good kitchen knife. Keep them sharp, and they will serve you time after time, but if you’re not active in their preservation, they’ll be useless when you need them next.
This is the basic premise for all my strategies. Over the years, I’ve personally identified what keeps me going, project after project, and I protect those things as I would anything of importance. For me, they are optimism, focus, confidence, and heart.
I’ll say up front that I’m not a natural optimist. I’m more of a realist. But, in being realistic, I do recognize the necessity for optimism. After all, without optimism, I’d believe that everything I do would fail, and no one can work that way.
So how do I stay optimistic while shepherding an ill-fated project? I do it, pessimistically enough, by acknowledging that not all problems can be solved by what I provide.
For me, recognizing this lack of alignment helps get me unstuck and frees me up to pursue other possibilities, to ask other questions like, “What else can I do for these folks? How else might this project be helpful? How can I be of service in some way?”
And that is optimism. Re-located.
Anytime I’ve been involved in a project that didn’t make sense to me, it was all too easy to become frustrated. But over the years I’ve realized that I need to temper my… temper because frustration expands to fill any available space. It commands my full attention if I allow it, which means I’ve removed my focus from the project I’m being paid to manage.
And that’s not good.
Am I saying that you should never get frustrated? No. But I will say that, ever since I recognized the inverse relationship between frustration and focus, I try to move beyond frustration as quick as I can. Indulging in it is a very seductive pastime, but it’s also time-consuming, unproductive, and robs me of something more important: focus.
Project managers are responsible for every aspect of a project, so it goes without saying that, as a project manager, you’ll routinely receive a good deal of blame. That’s part of the job, but over time it’s hard not to take that as the hallmark of personal failure.
For this reason, I’m especially protective my confidence. Yes, I’m responsible and do my duty, but I also strive to maintain a healthy perspective on what the project is, my role in it, and what I can and cannot do for it. And I don’t carry failures that don’t belong to me.
This is a critical point, so I’ll repeat it. I don’t carry failures that don’t belong to me.
Why? Because if I let my confidence take a hit every time something went wrong, I wouldn’t have any, and from there I would spiral down. Here’s how this works.
Picture yourself in a project meeting with several other people. The discussion turns to an idea that you know is bad for the project, but everyone around the table is excited about the idea and nodding yes. Could you vocalize an objection? Make an unpopular decision? Could you tell those people that they actually need to re-do the deliverable or work the weekend?
Not without confidence you couldn’t.
And here’s the rub. Failing to advocate for your project is how you become a bad project manager. That’s the downward spiral. If you internalize the blame for project setbacks, your confidence suffers. Without confidence, you won’t do what needs doing, and then you’ll fail for real. Carry too much baggage, and you can’t perform.
I love that song You Gotta Have Heart. One of the lines says, “You can open any door. There’s nothin’ to it but to do it.”
Our culture is very results-oriented, so how can you “open any door” when you know that there IS no door? Well, you can’t.
But there is something you can do—your best. Foster a connection between you and the work itself and take pride in it for its own sake. As I write this, I think back on a project I had before my time at Microassist. It was tremendously frustrating, but at some point, I got tired of my own complaining and decided that I would make the project about my relationship with the work itself. I dug in and did my best. I had heart.
And do you know what happened? The project crashed and burned—but I didn’t crash and burn. I didn’t feel beaten up or beaten down, and I went on the next project intact.
You know, since I have a Titanic theme going, I could reference Celine Dion’s award-winning mega-hit entitled My Heart Will Go On here, but I’m not going to do that to you guys. Instead, I’ll sum up. Part of what defines a project is the fact that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. So even when you’re in the thick of things, it’s important to realize that you will, at some point, be going on. It’s also worth your time to think about what assets you bring to every project, know what keeps your valuable self ticking, and actively do what you can to protect it. Keep those tools sharp and use them next time. And in the meanwhile, best of luck on all your projects.