Tough Times, Part One: Building Resilience

Leading a project is an exciting, challenging and fulfilling role. But it can be extremely tough at times. Setbacks and adversity can knock you back and, coupled with the pressures of time, personalities and the impacts of the issues you are dealing with, can be stressful to the point of damaging your health and diminishing your ability to think clearly and respond resourcefully.

This is the first of two companion articles about handling the tough times that may face you. In many ways these represent a summary of what I wish I’d known when…” Because for me, there was indeed a project where I started to lose perspective and emotional control. I only regained my composure and my ability to lead the project through extreme focus and the support of some valued colleagues.

Those events changed me, and my priorities. So, now I offer first this article, about how to equip and ready yourself for the possibility of tough times on your project. And in a soon-to-follow article, I will talk about how you can respond when tough times hit you.

surviving tough times in your project management

Personal Resilience to Adversity

Your first priority must be to build up your personal reserves of physiological and psychological resilience. These two factors, your physical and emotional health, are wholly intertwined, so be sure to set aside time for each of these.

Good Fuel

You are what you eat. This is not the place to lecture you on a healthy diet. There are plenty of alternative sources for that advice. But you probably know well enough the difference between junk food, gobbled up at your desk or rushed on your way home, and good quality, nutritious food, eaten carefully.

That’s right, it’s not just what you eat but how you eat it. Make eating pleasurable and a source of relaxation. If you don’t know what you should be eating, listen to Michael Pollan. His advice is scientific and simply put in seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Good Energy

Adding an exercise routine is another way to build longterm physical and mental health, and so resilience to stress. For some, sports or exercise come naturally. But for others this is less so.

Find an activity that you enjoy, like dance, gardening or swimming. Even walking is an effective solutions. Walking can cut costs and increase fitness with minimum impact on your schedule.

Not only will this enhance your long-term fitness, but it will also build habits that will mean you are more likely to continue the discipline when you most need it: during tough times.

Good Rest

There’s a false machismo associated with being a leader. Often they take pride in being the last to leave the office and the first to arrive, even if that means operating on less sleep than is optimal. They’ll travel thousands of miles at the drop of a hat, and be ready for the 6 a.m. conference call, just six hours after writing a status report. Something has got to give.

Time to rest and relax is crucial and sleep even more so. Just a small reduction below recommended sleep levels and your brain function drops to levels equivalent to having illegal levels of blood alcohol. Sustained sleep debt means you won’t think clearly when things go wrong.

Anticipating Setbacks

If you think you will deliver your project without any setbacks, you are inviting the universe to give you a sobering kick in the behind. Of course things will go wrong, and sometimes big things. Resilience does not mean averting these problems, but being ready to handle them effectively. To help, follow these three tips.

Risk Readiness

Your risk management process should be designed to identify and correct specific points of failure and to set up means to reduce the likelihood and impact of damaging outcomes. Getting this right will reduce your susceptibility to setbacks and prepare your team for handling specific contingencies.

Scenarios and Contingencies

It is equally important to think through more general scenarios so you build up the resources to handle a range of threats that you cannot foresee with precision. Knowing that, whatever happens, you have ways to respond will not only reduce the stress of anticipation but will also typically increase the speed of your response.

Looking Around the Next Bend

Too often, project managers see risk management and scenario planning as formal processes to schedule and conduct at particular points in their project. For me, one of the most valuable habits I formed as a project manager was setting aside time each week for quiet review and reflection. I like to take myself out of the project environment for half an hour to an hour, with nothing but a notebook and pen.

This is a chance to take stock of where you are in the project and look forward. Your brain is highly creative and excellent at synthesizing ideas from a vast array of information. But if you don’t give it some quiet time when the ideas can emerge, you will miss out on its insights. Many of my most important “catches,” spotting things we’ve neglected or trends that could impact our project, have happened over a quiet cup of coffee, away from my team, my computer and my phone.

Build your Resilience Network

The third pillar of personal longterm resilience is the people on whom you can rely for support. In tough times you may need to draw down on the bank of credit you have in these relationships. So, in good times you need to be making your investments to ensure that these relationships, like these three listed below, are strong and positive.

Your Faithful Supporters

Whether it’s your partner, your family or your close friends, I hope you have a few people whose loyalty and commitment you can call upon for unconditional support during tough times. These people are there for you when you need help.

But they need to feel this is a reciprocal arrangement. So, even when they do not need your support, make the effort to undertake the small acts of kindness and offer the generosity with your time that these relationships need.

Your Inner Circle

The second tier of supporters is made up of your trusted colleagues. It will be their advice, counsel and support that will help you put things into the right perspective, understand the subtleties and make the decisions when things get tricky.

In quieter times, start to build up this circle and get a sense of whose judgment you most value, and who can offer the right level of challenge to your thinking. You need to create a balanced group, with people who test you hard and ring out the best in you, on the one hand, and people who make you feel good and boost your confidence, on the other.

Avoid the temptation to gather simply people who offer endorsements and compliments. Instead, aim for at least half of the group to be smarter and sharper than you are.

Your Wise Guide

Keep an eye out for someone you can truly look up to. This is someone with that special level of experience, insight and gravitas, who can transform your thinking with their questions or their knowledge.

In normal times, this will be someone you spend time with to help you to hone your skills and reflect upon your experiences. They will combine an ability to gently transmit their experiences and effortlessly make you more aware to the meaning of yours. This kind of relationship will help you grow as a professional, from a smart operator to a level of wisdom that other will seek out.

In tough times, they may be your secret source of counsel. They can share their advice, but also listen uncritically to you as you work out your issues for yourself. Your partner may be listening, but with sympathy. Your inner circle may have ideas, but also an agenda. It is your wise guide who can remain wholly objective and help you balance all of the conflicting pressures that tough times can bring.

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