Of Abuses and Schedules

Welcome! Is it wrong of me to start the title of my blog article with a preposition? I saw another blogger do it and it seemed cool and hip. 🙂

I have made a career in the field of technical project management. I’m a good corporate citizen. “I give good project management.” If project management is like herding cats, I’ve brought a lot of cats into market.

I think of Project Management as a service-based job. My job is to be of service to co-workers, management, and customers. When at my highest and best, I am helping others and achieving great results.

The problem is that we project managers have egos. When I attach my ego to the work output of others I become enmeshed. Enmeshment means my self-esteem is attached to the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of others. This may cause me to define my inner sense of self by the “impact I have on others.” By attaching my inner sense of self to the external accomplishments of the team I can no longer maintain a healthy relationship to others. My personal sense of worth is dependent upon other people to prove that I have value and am good at my job.

This leads to a lot of problematic behavior. Here are a few examples of areas in which I’ve struggled in the past:

  1. I struggled to accept the reality of the situations and outcomes. I acted like things were going “better” than they were.
  2. Even when honestly presenting the status I held too tightly to my project plans, predicting positive outcome even when actual reality wasn’t on track to my plans. I wouldn’t admit that my plans weren’t realistic. Ignoring the observations and knowledge of myself and others, and holding tight to my paper definitions and plans, I avoided having to admit that my plan was wrong.
  3. In my fear of failure I used my power of review and feedback to make others believe I would hold them accountable for the project failures. I did this in order to get them to sacrifice their personal desires and time to work harder. I “needed” them to live up to the commitments I had made.

With my timelines, schedules, and plans, I was effectively creating a virtual reality that I had given a huge amount of attachment to. I used these timelines and schedules as a way to not only make decisions in the moment but as a way to compare outcomes to success. I believed that actual reality must conform to my predicted virtual reality in order for me to be successful. When the real world differed from my project plan (virtual world) I believed that I had failed. Since the ultimate cost of failure is death, I sometimes felt like these gaps were a matter of life and death, when they never were.

When I felt disappointed, guilty, and worthlessness because my project was behind schedule, over budget, or incomplete when compared to my plans, I created my own hell on earth. I had created a self-made prison. In attempts to not feel like a failure, I sought out the support of others. I enlisted them into making commitments and gaining an attachment to predictions. This combined commitment and attachment made me feel safer.

Thus, together, others and I introduced into our shared environments the demanding desire to make sure everything went according to “the” plan. By having all “bought in” and “committed” to the plans, we effectively tied everyone’s sense of self-worth to the outcomes of a project. When this happened, we lost track of what was important for ourselves in the name of making good on the plan. We were good corporate citizens, but we were not practicing good self care.

You might decide from this observation, as some do, that the problem is inherent in the approach corporations take. You might consider that project management and the approach corporations take to solving problems is inherently oppressive and debilitating. You might think that in order to be free and self-empowered, you need to abandon these principles and live free of commitment. You may join the army of those who condemn corporations as evil.

The problem is that project management is not the cause of the problems, but actually contains tools to create solutions we most desperately seek. The very skills that we use to bind us into this codependent world are the ones that can set us free of it.

The ability to create a plan and follow that plan removes the ambiguity of what to do next. The communication of progress and issues allows people to take action and help each other. We can use the tools of project management to work more effectively and achieve greater outcomes, but in order to do so we have to separate our ego from the outcomes. We have to stop trying to enforce our planned outcomes onto the actual reality as proof that we are “good enough.”

I think of project management as giving a team of people a heads-up display that will help them do their jobs. It provides task lists, schedules, issue status, and mitigations to potential problems that the teams can use to focus their energy and be more productive. By helping people focus on the activity they have to do in each moment, we help instead of hinder.

The high-tech industry is slowly finding its way to a collective realization of this. We are adopting iterative approaches which take the focus off of the final outcomes and focus on the short-term goals. However, to fully evolve we must abandon the failure modality of thinking. We need to focus not on what was undone, but instead focus on increasing our results. We can learn through evaluation, but we must remain at our highest and best. I have found that the following techniques help me achieve the best results everyday:

  1. I identify the top three things I hope to achieve each day. If each team member achieves three results each day we will be amazed at how many things move along ahead of any projected plan.
  2. I focus on the outcomes and not on the people. I let go my anger towards other people and focus on the work products I hope to finalize. Even as a PM my focus should be on my work products and not on the “performance” of others. A status report need not be full of judgement, it only need be accurate.
  3. I live, love, and enjoy my work, finding joy in the making of things and in reaching desired outcomes with my personal efforts. I don’t abandon myself in the name of trying to make reality match the virtual reality created in a plan.
  4. I hold myself to my highest and best. By doing my best each day, I find that I am less afraid, and happier. A project may fall behind or get out of control, but if I know that I am doing my best I feel less fear of project failure.
  5. Finally, I do not judge my future potential or outcomes on my past ones. I am smarter and more capable as I learn from my past work. Thus I have the opportunity in each moment to do things differently. I can joyfully improve my skills and have fun getting new outcomes.

Project management has taught me a lot about myself. Success for me is not obtained from a command-and-control position. It is found through being supportive and encouraging. If you find yourself living in fear of missed deadlines and failed outcomes, you are only living in a self-made situation. Redefine your success in terms of things you can control and achieve. Focus on your outcomes and avoid the groupthink of project failure. You are a capable person who only needs time to develop and blossom. You can achieve more than you can imagine if you are able to let go of your fear and go for your goals.

I have found that by changing my focus from attachment to outcomes of others to focus on my accomplishments and outputs, I can go from surviving to thriving. I wish this for you as well. I tip my cup to a thriving self-empowered life!

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