4 Ways to Manage Tough Projects
Sometimes changes on your projects are totally out of your control. For example, a key manager at a client may move on and his replacement is less than pleased with your company. What can you do to keep your nose to the grindstone and power through these tough times? Use the following four insights to help you move through such changes with your head held high.
It was a great project manager job. I spent the early part of the week at the corporate office catching up on what was going on in the company, meeting with developers and managers on my projects, and going out to lunch with friends. The rest of the week it was important for me to be onsite at our largest client’s office, since we were so integrated into what their company was doing.
Not only did I enjoy the physical logistics of working with that client, it was a great opportunity to collaborate with the team. I had to be a bit more buttoned up and professional than at my home office, but being able to attend all the meetings where they were discussing my projects meant that I was accessible to answer (and ask) questions right then and there, and keep the lines of communication open. We worked with this company for years and maintained a positive working relationship.
That was until HE came along. The client hired a new Vice President that came over from one of our competitors. Since projects that I managed rolled up through his group, life became very interesting, to say the least.
He began by questioning everything we did. He challenged every project, program, process, and procedure that was in place. Billing at the end of the month became a nightmare as legitimate and reasonable fees were denied. Technological hoops had to be jumped through as he strived to understand what we did for the company. There would be 7 AM meetings, long days, and 7 PM meetings to complain about how behind everything was from his perspective.
It made sense that the new guy would come in and look under every rock for opportunities for improvement, cost saving measures, and adjustments to make projects run more smoothly. That’s expected. But, the zeal he had was unprecedented. Even his own people commented that they couldn’t understand what he was doing.
Needless to say, my job was no longer a great experience. It actually became a horrible experience. I relished being at the home office. I did not enjoy putting on my suit of armor to spend the rest of the week onsite. The clouds were dark, the relationships cooled, and the days dragged on.
I never thought I would get through the transition. Projects were now painful to manage, and didn’t seem to run as smoothly as in former days. He was constantly throwing up roadblocks that would impede progress or even sometimes appear as deliberate sabotage. It was an ugly time.
I’m not a quitter. So, I hunkered down and disciplined my thinking around four principles. Each helped me to power through those tough days:
1. Realize that Everything is Temporary
Think about all the other tough times you’ve been through in your life, whether professional or personal. They seem insurmountable. You can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel and each step you take feels like one step further into darkness. But, here you are and maybe five, ten, or even twenty years have passed and it’s only a distant memory.The people that were around at that time are probably not here now. You may have changed careers. The circumstances that were bringing you down may have changed. No matter how tough times get, you can be guaranteed of one thing…given time, things will change. It’s no different with tough projects or clients. When a mess has been created, and you just don’t see a way out of it, keep your head down and power through it. Things will change if given enough time.
2. Know the (Extreme) Details
Project managers are expected to know the details about their projects. However, they can’t be expected to know every little detail. Guess what? During the tough times that were described above, you do need to know every little detail about your project. This is a powerful tool when you are up against a bully that is looking to create a scene.Case in point: we implemented a ticket support system at the client’s company for any technical issues they experienced. It was a great tool for them to submit their cases, track progress, and then ultimately bring cases to resolution. The new VP used this as a weapon against our company. “See, you have over two dozen cases that are open! What’s wrong with your software?” he would ask.
True, there were over two dozen open cases. However, I knew the facts. I knew that six of these were all related to the same issue. As soon as that issue was resolved, those six would go away. I knew that another six were training issues related to new, untrained users on their side. There were a handful of legitimate bugs that needed to be fixed and the rest were cosmetic or extremely low priority, non-work interfering issues. What’s more, I knew that on average it took 18 hours to turn around a case (which was extremely fast), and that a patch was going in that night to resolve the major issues.
That’s the level of detail you need in order to stand your ground. By the way, you can’t blow smoke about the fact that there are legitimate issues that need fixing on your side. Anybody that has been around technology for any amount of time knows that this will happen. You’ll instantly undermine your credibility if you try and paint the picture that your company has zero issues and it’s all user error.
3. Never Lose Sight of the Ball
It’s a bit cliché, but also very true. Never lose sight of your project’s end goal. Someone like this VP is going to come along and try and knock you off course every now and then. They’ll push you sideways, pull you from behind, and block you from moving forward. If you don’t have a firm gaze set on the end of the project, it will be easy to be pushed off track. Have a deep understanding of what the project is to accomplish and the benefits it will bring.
4. Understand You Are Learning Invaluable Lessons
Honestly, not a great deal of true learning occurs when things are going smoothly. Once you’ve made it to a certain level of competence as a project manager, your days can go by effortlessly. Sure, there may be a crisis or slight emergency, but you know exactly how to handle it. You know what to do, who you need to work with, and that it’s not the end of the world. That’s a great place to be as a project manager. But, it also introduces the risk of becoming a bit stale in the profession. Without adversity you run the risk of getting a bit soft on your skills.True learning comes when you are faced with extreme situations. It forces you to think on your feet. You have to figure out the best way to make it through these tough times. You have to go down some paths that are dead ends or lead you to big, bold mistakes on your part. Once you’ve made a mistake while the world is breathing down your project manager neck, you will never make that mistake again, guaranteed!
Take a moment every now and then while you are going through a tough time to reflect on what you’ve learned. You’ll at least feel you are gaining some experience along the way.
Did I ever make it through this tunnel of darkness? You better believe it. The VP was only there for 12 months (remember, everything is temporary) before he moved on to another company. Everything went back to the way it was before he came on board and I was that much better for having gone through the experience.
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