Learning to Swim in the Deep End

Photo Courtesy of perezhilton.com

Photo Courtesy of perezhilton.com

Every project manager has been thrown into the deep end of the pool. By “deep end of the pool” I mean that you’ve been thrown into some weird, technically challenging, scary projects that you probably knew nothing about. How do you initially survive being thrown into the deep end with barely a pair of water wings?  If you’ve been thrown into a project like this, here are some tips:

1) Figure out how to tread water. What can you do right now to understand the project better? Can you review historical documentation? How about talking to current or former team members? At first the project will seem overwhelming, but you’ll need to put your arms around it quickly. What can you do right now to help you keep your head above water?

2) Figure out who your lifelines are. I call them lifelines because these people truly are your lifelines when you’re learning the ropes of a project, especially one that is challenging. I’ve had many lifelines over the years to whom I am eternally grateful and without whom, I would’ve fallen flat on my face! Lifelines can come in the form of a project stakeholder, a project team member or even a project sponsor. These are your go-to folks that can always be relied upon to help you as you work through the beginning phases of a project.

3) Stay organized. You’re going to meet some crazy challenges and that will be much harder if you don’t know where anything is. Trust me on this one!

4) Be honest. If you don’t know Ruby on Rails, PHP, Java or C++, own it. Don’t walk into your first developer meeting and try to go toe to toe with those folks, pretending like you know something you don’t. You’ll be found out in a heartbeat and it won’t be pretty. If you know enough to be dangerous, mention it, but let them do the talking.

5) Avoid crazy drama.  Scary projects can sometimes come with crazy drama. Crazy drama is not your friend. Don’t let it suck you into its vortex of craziness. If anyone says anything remotely crazy, say something like “hmmmm…” or “I’m still getting up to speed on the project, I wasn’t aware of that”. As a friend of mine once said, “you can’t fight crazy” and you’ll end up battling Will Ferrell’s maniacal Anchorman 2 shark (as perfectly depicted above!).

Now, take a deep breath and get ready to dive into the deep end gracefully!

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Dealing with Difficult Project Stakeholders

Photo courtesy of Grumpy Cat 

Similar to my previous post on “Dealing with Difficult Vendors”, dealing with difficult project stakeholders has a common theme which is “patience”. Being in project management now for over ten years (has it been that long?!), I’ve had (and continue to have!) some interesting experiences as I’m sure you all have had as well. How do you maintain your composure during conversations and meetings with difficult project stakeholders? How do you manage the stress effectively so that it doesn’t boil over into your personal or family life? Here are a few tips that I’ve found helpful when dealing with these folks.

1) Read Crucial Conversations: Talking When the Stakes are High. This is a great book that is very good at outlining the steps needed when under heavy project stakeholder fire.

2) Breathe, Think and Listen. This is my own mantra that I like to use when difficult stakeholders are peppering me with insults or unkind comments. Breathe in slowly, think about what they’re saying and listen.

3) Take a walk around the building before you send that email! We’ve all gotten an email from a difficult stakeholder that is inflammatory or downright rude. Before sending your version of War and Peace to them, save it as a draft and go for a walk outside. If you can’t walk outside, take a break in the breakroom, talk to a friend at work or just find a quiet place. When you’re back at your desk, open the email and think about how your response to a petty email could hurt your credibility as a project manager or your project team.

4) Remember, the work day will end. You may be having one of your worst possible work days on record, but remember, the end of the day will come. Pretty soon you’ll be hitting the pavement like Fred Flintstone and heading out the door!

5) Don’t focus on the negative. This is very, very important. If you take the negativity from your morning meeting or conversation with a difficult stakeholder into your afternoon project team meeting with your developers, you’ll be cranky and will only focus on the negatives. Similarly, if you take the negativity home to your friends or family, you won’t enjoy the time you have with them as you’ll be focusing on your day. In the end, this doesn’t do anyone any favors.

6) Use logic. This is my favorite. I think of Spock on Star Trek when I use this technique. I think, “How would Spock react?” Typically, he would have no emotion. He would listen to their issues and speak rationally on the subjects. He’s unflappable, as you should be. Never let ’em see you sweat!

Hang in there and remember, we’ve all been there!