Vacant stare? Check.

Nervous twitch? Check.

Profuse sweating? Check.

Yep, we’ve all seen it, either in others or ourselves. That heart-stopping moment when realization dawns and suddenly the words: “I am so #$#%&^ over my head!” dance across your eyes.

For a project manager such thoughts are deathly frightening. But in the world of project management, there are times when we run up against a project that has so many problems, or one critical issue, it just can’t be fixed by us mere mortals.

So what is it that’s confounded us; pushed us off the reservation; taken us out of our selves? Maybe it’s the technology; the team; the workload; or maybe, just maybe, it’s us…

Let’s look at some situations where a project manager may find him or herself in over their head, and how to deal with each situation.

Man vs. Machine. Technology is meant to solve problems and make us more productive – which is great, except when it doesn’t. As project managers, we are by necessity leading high-tech projects staffed by high-tech teams, which requires some degree of technical background and/or proficiency on our part. More specifically, we need to understand both the systems and processes needed for our teams to do their jobs, as well as the technology or infrastructure which make up the projects our clients have hired us to manage.

Sure, there’s an element of professional credibility in the eyes of our team, company, and client this knowledge commands; but lacking the requisite backend or project-level technologies puts us at a significant disadvantage when dealing with things like task assignments, deadlines, vendors or when things simply go off the rails.

This doesn’t mean we need to be subject matter experts on everything – that’s unrealistic. But we must maintain a working knowledge of technology and systems in general and know how to hire complimentary skillsets to our own to ensure projects are delivered as promised and to advance our own knowledge in the process. This requires acknowledging and understanding our own limitations and either seeking assignments that fit our skillsets or brining on the appropriate human resources to see that the project gets delivered. The former keeps us in our comfort zone and away from potential “oh crap!” moments. The latter helps us grow as project managers, teaches us new skills and makes us more valuable in the eyes of our team, company and clients.

Now I must kill each and everyone one of you! Hold on Dr. Evil. Before we liquidate the group for their insolence, let’s understand the dynamics at play and what we can do to bring cohesion back to the team.

Teams can be hard to manage, impossible to deal with, or difficult to rein in. And while it happens to the best of us, it is not the natural state of teams and can usually be traced back to one person or event, that if not dealt with appropriately has a splash / ripple effect through the rest of the org. So before we start doing tequila shots with Pepto Bismol chasers during project meetings, let’s look at a couple of the causes of team dysfunction and how we can deal with them appropriately:

  • The Rogue, The Rock Star and the Prophet of Doom – Sounds like a great movie title right? Unfortunately these three people, or God forbid, the same person have the ability to take a highly functioning team and turn them into a page straight out of Lord of the Flies.

The Rogue and the Rock Star are similar in that they will go off-script anytime he/she believes they have a better solution or way of doing things. Instead of enlightening the team with their suggestions and getting buy-in, the Rogue simply does what they want because they usually have no respect for the team; while the Rock Star does their own thing because they are more focused on personal glory than the needs of the project, team, company or client. The Prophet of Doom by contrast will typically follow the team script, but will be a constant source of negativity and disbelief in the project, the team and their ultimate success – kinda like a leech sucking the life out of its host.

Allowed to continue, all three typically result in disastrous consequences as the team becomes fractured. When faced with a Rogue or Rock Star, the project manager needs to ensure they communicate clearly to the team his/her expectations, the project goals and the procedures of the Company and through open dialogue ensure that while everyone has a voice within the team, there is no going off script or singing off a different song sheet. Period. As for the Prophet of Doom, while training may make a difference, in many cases it’s simply best to remove this person from the team rather than risk an unhealthy attitude brewing within the org. Life is simply too short.

  • The Client from Hell – Yep, not every project is full of rainbows, unicorns and a lifetime supply of shoes (Jimmy Choo’s if you please!). Many clients are wonderful partners in developing and managing projects; understanding their business intimately and the inherent limitations in moving a project through to completion. But others can simply be sources of frustration to the point where their actions actually impede a project from being brought in on time and/or under-budget, which impacts both your and their bottom lines.

Teams quickly pick up and can be directly impacted by negative client activity.  When that activity hinders, interferes or outright prohibits team members from doing their job, moral and dedication can quickly breakdown and become a cancer within the org. I’ve actually seen clients disrespect team member professional boundaries by calling them at home or on the weekend about the project or to complain about other team members. Needless to say this is a problem which must be addressed immediately by the project manager. Discuss the behavior with the client, inform them of the negative impact it is having on the team and project and how your mutual goals can be better achieved by having a more appropriate means of communication. You don’t want to close off critical team members from the client, but the client needs to understand how to work within your organizational environment if they are to get the full benefit of your and your team’s efforts.

Maximum Overdrive. When you find yourself running multiple projects whiich all happen to be in very active stages at the same time, “Houston, You have a problem!” Seriously, no one can handle that. For the most part, project managers know how to stagger heavy-duty project phases; but sometimes that perfect storm hits and every project you’re running is at its critical point and your attention is diverted in a hundred different directions. While you may appear busy, you’re likely accomplishing very little and such a pace is unsustainable. Knowing “when-to-say-when” is a key component to being a quality project manager. Just as you would re-allocate resources to meet a project or task need, re-allocating responsibility to a team member or a fellow project manager within your company is the mature way to deal with this situation. It’s not a bad thing to admit you’re overloaded. But you have to admit it to yourself before someone else figures it out. Otherwise the thing getting re-allocated is likely to be you.

No matter what the issue is, no one wants to feel like they are in over their head, and risk losing a project or a client. In such situations, it’s important for project managers (or anyone for that matter) to: (i) take a step back and breathe; (ii) identify and understand the underlying “core issue”; and (iii) get back to basics by starting small and working the core issue. Pretty soon you just might find things aren’t so overwhelming after all and by focusing on the signal rather than the noise, you’re able to address the issues quickly and confidently. That’s right baby. You Got This!

I got this...

“Nothing goes over my head…! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.”

~Drax – Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 1 (2014)