What To Do When Your Project Starts to Get Scary

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Whether it’s a breakdown in communication, scope creep, or just an unexpected twist — you were the client the whole time! (Gasp) — there’s no horror like a project gone awry.

But don’t fear. Being up against a project management monster can be scary, but there are ways to battle the beast and come out on top.

Read on to see which archetypal monster your project’s problem most resembles, and how to come out unscathed at the end.

The monster: Mummy

The problem: You’re getting wrapped up in the little things

Details are important, but we all know that getting too tied up in the minutiae can drag you down. Whether it’s admin distracting you from truly getting into your productive sweet spot, or you’re so caught up trying to make every tiny thing perfect that you lose sight of the big picture, sometimes you need to take a step back and see the forest, not the trees.

How to unravel the issue: Balancing your long-term goals with your short-term to-dos can be tricky. That’s why it’s so important to map out your strategy and keep your big picture objectives front and center at all times. Ask yourself often if what you’re doing right now is helping you to reach those goals, and if you’re finding that you’re answering with more nos than yeses, it’s time to take stock.

When it comes to creating your top-level outline of what you want to achieve, it can be as simple — and as difficult — as taking a piece of paper and really distilling your ideas down until they become actionable items that you can work towards, measure, and complete. Using the right tools can help you to plot things out and track your progress as you accomplish tasks that move you towards your targets (so satisfying), but even the best tool is meant to complement your strategy, not be a substitute for it, so getting this groundwork right is essential.

As for the daily admin grind that can often divert your attention from those long-term goals, try to counteract it by scheduling regular uninterrupted time to focus exclusively on things that move you closer to where you want to be. Set out a recurring block of time in your calendar to allow you to get into a productive flow, and let your colleagues know you’ll be unavailable. Then make a list of your top three goal-related priorities to get through and focus your energies exclusively there. Feel accomplished. Repeat. (And then when you’re done, remember to catch up on your admin.)

The monster: Vampire

The problem: The life is being sucked from your team

Does your team feel…drained? Lacking some essential lifeblood? Maybe one person’s attitude is dragging the team down, or maybe you’re coming up against low morale and you’re not sure why, or where’s it’s coming from. In other words: there’s a metaphorical vampire in your midst, sucking the life out of your team.

Your bulb of garlic: First things first: identify the source of the problem. Can you tell where the negativity is coming from, and why? Is it dissatisfaction with how a project is being run, frustration with a tedious process, micromanagement, or a lack of recognition? These are all things that can bring an individual or a team down, but it’s worth trying to address the source and turn it into actionable feedback that can be used to improve your workflow.

It’s also possible, of course, that someone is going through something difficult in their personal life. This is trickier, because you don’t want to overstep your boundaries, but if you feel comfortable offering to listen, that can often be more impactful than trying to provide solutions.

If there’s no discernable root cause but you’re still seeing a lot of negativity, a lot of the time, you might just be dealing with a negative individual. If they’re your direct report or you have to work closely together, it might be worth raising one-to-one, but if they’re not, the best thing you can do is limit your exposure and avoid contributing to negative talk (including gossip and negative self-talk).

Another thing to bear in mind: vampires can’t see their own reflections. If you can feel the presence of a negative vampire in your midst, but you can’t see one… perhaps this time… you’re the vampire?

That sucks, but it’s not the end of the world — and realizing it is the first step to remedying it. Check your language for any signs of underlying negativity, like blame games or less-than-positive comments about others, and try to challenge your negative thinking before it leaves your mouth. You’ll be back in the sun in no time.

The monster: Frankenstein’s monster

The problem: Your creation has spiralled out of control

You had the best of intentions, but once every stakeholder — and several non-stakeholders — got involved, your project mutated into something else entirely. You know what they say: too many scientists spoil the experiment. And too many makeshift project managers creep the scope.

Give it a purpose: Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t inherently a bad guy, he just lacked a purpose. To avoid scope creep, you need to outline the parameters of your work before you start, and be clear at the outset when something deviates from that plan.

This is especially important when you’re dealing with clients and shifting the scope of your project mid-way would have significant effects on the delivery of your work and, importantly, your bottom line. But it’s just as important when you’re setting expectations internally, too.

Be upfront: you can always say something like, “We’d be happy to take that on, but it’s not in the scope of our current project. Do you want to chat about what incorporating it might look like, in terms of costs and timelines?” But you don’t always have to say yes, either — if you don’t have the resources to take on work outside of what was originally agreed, just be firm and acknowledge that it wasn’t part of the plan you budgeted for.

That might all be well and good in an ideal world, but how do you de-creep the scope when you’re already in it? Can you un-Frankenstein your project?

In this case, you have some evaluating to do. Sit down and chart your project, including any new commitments that you’ve promised. Pare it down to the essentials: what do you need to deliver? What does success look like for your project? Identify what’s necessary, and cut what’s not. Then communicate this to your stakeholders, so they know what they should be expecting — and so you can limit any further scope creep down the line.

The monster: The house itself

The problem: You’re stuck in old processes

Cobwebs, creaking floorboards, lights crackling on and off entirely of their own accord… the structure that once served you well has now become your enemy. You’re clinging to old processes and ways of doing things, even though they’re clearly no longer fit for purpose. Frankly, it’s time to renovate — or move house completely.

Call the decorators: If your process is letting you down, it’s not enough to slap a new coat of paint on it and hope for the best; you need to fix the foundations.

If you’ve been using a tool to manage your work, now is a great time to make use of its reporting features to see exactly where and how your time is being spent. Are you finding that your team gets delayed at the same stage of your workflow every time? Maybe you get slowed down waiting for approvals from decision makers or clients. Or maybe you find that most of what you do every day isn’t even a part of your defined workflow, but instead comes in the form of last-minute, offline, or ad-hoc requests that are slipping through the cracks but eating up all of your time.

The first step is to find where the pipe of productivity is leaking and fix it. The (sometimes uncomfortable) truth is that, for any process to be effective, you need to build it around your actual workflow, not your ideal workflow. So if that entails a lot of last-minute or ad-hoc requests, you need to find a way of incorporating them, instead of pretending that they don’t exist and getting sidewinded and struggling to deliver.

Interrogate the problem by asking five whys until you get to the crux of the matter. In the example of ad-hoc requests eating up your time, you might find that this is because you don’t have an official task request process. Or maybe a lack of visibility over other people’s workloads means they think you’re more available than you are. Maybe they’re even lacking definition about your role and what it encompasses.

Whatever it is, if your process is letting you down, it’s not enough to slap a new coat of paint on it and hope for the best. You need to fix the foundations.

And finally…

Don’t split up!

It’s inevitable: bad things always happen as soon as our group of plucky heroes go their separate ways. You’re stronger as a team. Those project management monsters would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids.

Have you ever come up against a project management monster? How do you deal with scary projects? Let us know in the comments (but don’t scare us please, we’re sensitive).

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6 Comments

Anna Murphy

Thanks so much, Lisa! We’re so glad you liked it 🙂 We hope you had a lovely and (monster-free) Halloween, too.

Anna

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Katy

Wow, really insightful. I’m doing an assignment on project management at the moment alongside doing an actual project, and the way you’ve broken down problems makes me realise that the biggest issue in our organisation is the old haunted house. I liked what you had to say on incorporating the beast into workflow rather than ignoring it, I actually think this will help a great deal both personally and professionally. Thanks Teamwork

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Anna Murphy

That’s awesome, Katy! Thanks so much for your comment, we’re really delighted to hear that you found this post useful.

Good luck with renovating your haunted house — hopefully everything’s starting to look a little less scary and a lot more manageable 🙂

Anna

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