Projects inevitably veer off course at some point, so you better be ready to bounce back.
BY BUD BAKER, Ph.D., CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
Q What one personality trait is most essential for project managers?
A Jack may have been new to project management, but he was no rookie. Still on the shy side of 40, his functional credentials were first-rate. Soon after his early promotion to a leadership position, he was handed a challenging project and told to make it happen.
In hindsight, that's where the trouble began. With all eyes upon him, Jack made every newbie mistake in the book. A host of his hasty decisions had to be reversed by his bosses, harming his credibility and that of his team. Soon there was sniping from his peers, who evidently failed to grasp the wisdom of his vision. Humility was never Jack's strong suit: He saw himself as brighter than those around him, with his star definitely on the rise within the firm—and he was probably right on both counts. Why couldn't these miscreants just accept that and get out of his way?
The end came quickly for Jack, after a critical decision slowed down his project. The setback was regrettable, but not fatal, not even unexpected. What was unexpected was Jack's thermonuclear response, with his resignation announcement e-mailed to all concerned the next day.
In our world of “unknown unknowns,” project managers can be utterly certain that they will need to call on their reserves of resiliency—probably early and probably often.
The aftermath has been ugly. When a project implodes so spectacularly, it can be far worse than if it had never begun. Jack's team has been left to pick up the pieces and wonder what really went wrong.
And I'm left pondering the concept of resilience, the ability to bounce back from setbacks. It is, of course, an absolute necessity for the successful project manager. One thing we can be certain of is that no sizable project will ever go as planned. In our world of “unknown unknowns,” project managers can be utterly certain that they will need to call on their reserves of resiliency—probably early and probably often.
Where does that ability to recover originate? I've been doing a little research and some informal polling of project managers, and the results are intriguing:
Experience and Perspective. Watch the teenagers in your life: See how it's all drama and angst, with every hour full of all the outsized joys and pains that mark those years? The difference between us and them is just perspective: We've learned that today is generally better than we feared and likely not as good as we hoped. Most of all, we gain perspective from knowing—better than those kids—that tomorrow is a new chance to try it all over again.
Hardship and Struggle. Best captured in the 1888 Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” this principle underlies a great deal of experiential training. The Outward Bound concept, in which rugged outdoor experiences are believed to build character and resilience, resulted from an observation from World War II: When allied sailors were tossed into the North Sea after their ships were sunk, the ones who survived were not the youngest, strongest or fittest. Instead, it was the older and more experienced who hung on, leading to the conclusion that the crucible of life had prepared the older sailors to endure.
One project manager I talked to had just returned with his son from an attempted climb of the 20,320-foot (6,194-meter) Mount McKinley in Alaska, USA. They didn't make the summit, and he seemed disappointed about that. But thinking of my friend Jack, I suspect that there may be greater life lessons in turning back at 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) than in actually making it to the top.
Good Old-Fashioned Failure. There is a danger in waxing too nostalgic on the positive side of failure, but I don't think Jack had ever fallen short at anything. He was widely seen as having something of a charmed life, in every aspect—family, professional, social. Is it possible, even likely, that when faced with the first failure in his life, he literally didn't know what to make of it?
Religion and Philosophy. While some people find their strength in religion, others gain it from philosophy and education. Admiral James Bond Stockdale was a hero, the Medal of Honor winner who led U.S. prisoners of war in the infamous Hanoi Hilton prison during the Vietnam War. He later credited his U.S. Naval Academy philosophy courses—especially the ancient writings of Epictetus and the Stoics—as giving him the strength to survive.
Whatever the source, we know that project managers need more than the usual reserves of strength and resilience. PM
Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA. Please send questions for Ask PM Network to [email protected].
PM NETWORK AUGUST 2009 WWW.PMI.ORG