Serenity Ship
Serenity (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A project manager has to be able to be in the moment and calmly react to any situation in order for a plan to succeed. Reacting to everything that might go wrong, or things that don’t help to achieve the goals of the project doesn’t get us to the product of the project (our “ends” or project goal).

Because a project manager’s biggest job is keeping everybody communicating, it’s easy to get distracted with all the chatter and worries of everybody on the team. You have to weigh the value of the cries of the Chicken Little‘s on your team in order to figure out whether the sky is actually falling or not, and if so, what to do about that fact.

For me this is a bit like the Serenity Prayer (written by American theologist Reinhold Niebuhr):

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I have to know where I’ve been, where I’m going and be in the moment enough to handle anything that needs to be handled as it occurs. So an “emergency” occurs and the project is about to crash and burn.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

Can we do anything about this problem ? Sometimes the problem is real, and big, and in this moment all you can do is accept it.

And as a project manager, you often have to accept things, in part because you rely on OPW (Other People’s Work). You don’t really have any direct control over whether the work gets done or not, or if it’s going to work for the project because of that fact.

A company you were dealing with goes out of business. A product you already used to build something is defective. A key player on your team left. Nothing that you can do or say in that moment will change anything, you simply have to accept. And sometimes (for me) you simply have to accept that you’re not ready to accept that you can’t change it.

The courage to change the things I can,

And sometimes the problem is just thorny and big and nasty. You know the only option is to kick somebody in the butt. A vendor just ran off with your money and didn’t give you anything. You need more money, more time, more people, or you just know the project needs to be killed.

As a project manager, you need the courage to do the right thing. It’s not your job to make friends or save people from hurt feelings. It’s your job to be honest and change what you can to make the project successful, even when that means doing tough things like telling your boss or client that they are wrong.

And wisdom to know the difference.

And this is the hardest part – having the wisdom to know the difference between the things that we need to deal with (because we can) and those that we don’t (because we can’t). I think that by following the best practices of project management, and staying in the moment we really do have a chance to gain that wisdom. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before and armed with that knowledge, we have a much better chance at figuring which things are within our grasp.

I often find myself checking to make sure that things are really something “I cannot change” and not just something “that’s too hard to deal with right now”. Because in my experience, if it’s hard to deal with, it’s probably only going to get harder to deal with if you don’t at least plan what you’re going to do about it.

On a project I was on a while back, I came into a mess where there had been no real planning, there was no clear set of goals, and the team was demoralized (all thinking they were going to lose their jobs). Looking at the mess, it was easy to see that this was going to be hard. There are no easy ways to fix a broken project, and even fewer to revitalize a struggling team.

So what could we do ? Go back to basics: get the stakeholders involved, teach them the value of chartering the project. In doing this, the team finally gets to see that they have leaders, and what those leaders really want.

But the team was demoralized, so how to tackle that ? For us it was doing the hard thing: being brutally honest. Letting them know that their fate was in their own hands. Using escalating commitments and positive reinforcement to get them back up to being a highly functioning team.

I’d love to tell you this was a great success, but by the time we got all the oars in the water, the client had used up their budget, so I didn’t get to see the end of that project. I do feel that by simply doing the things that we could and being in the moment, we were able to get them back on track (and I believe they eventually completed the project without us – which is another thing I cannot change).

For me, the trick is staying in the moment and dealing with what is in front of you. The long term vision is important, but you don’t need to work on it unless it helps you make the changes you need to in order to get there.

Hi, I’m Rob Weaver