Dealing With a Job That Makes You the Bad Guy
When the team doesn’t reach a milestone, the project manager is the one to blame. When a project is delayed, it’s project manager's fault. When a detail is missed, the project manager communicated it wrong. When a stakeholder isn’t pleased with the progress, it’s the project manager who has to take the heat. When the team is feeling like a deadline is not achievable, it’s always the project manager that didn’t predict the workflow and the timeline correctly.
A project manager is just the guy that asks you about the percentage complete on tasks. They generate burndown charts to further pressure you. At best, a project manager will ask how many more resources are needed to complete the task at hand not thinking about the work it would take to get the new resources up to speed and to establish a working dynamic in the team. A picture of a project manager should be next to a Wikipedia article about the worst things in the world.
How can it be that the only things that project managers do are generating burndown charts, setting unachievable deadlines and adding gifs to presentations?
Being a project manager is do it right and no one will notice you are doing anything kind of a job. It’s the get all the blame and none of the praise kind of job. To top thing off, you need to get things done without having actual authority and control of the resources needed. It’s not like no project manager has ever done any wrong but you got to admit it isn’t easy doing a job where the prejudice is shadowing every step you ever take and there is little to none positive feedback.
So how can you deal with a job that always makes you the bad guy?
Fix the Problem
Find the Flow
Praise Yourself (and Others)
First, let’s start with the things you can change. All these stereotypes about project managers aren’t coming from thin air. Not everything is possible and cannot be done by tomorrow. If you are having your weekly resource planning meeting, you don’t need your whole team to be present. You can easily do status updates with other PMs and nothing will be broken.
However, you if you are having a conversation that requires knowledge that you don’t have, you need to have the people that do have the knowledge in the room. You have to consult with those that are actually doing the tasks. If you don’t think you can have your team and the stakeholders in the same room discussing options, you need to stand by your team. You must ask the question they need answers to do their tasks right.
After the estimation and planning process, explain the choices made to your team. Don’t just give arbitrary dates and get on with it. Both, the stakeholders and the team rely on you to communicate what’s necessary to the other. As you can imagine, it’s frustrating to work on something just to be told that you have completely missed the mark and that’s not what the stakeholders were asking for. It’s also not good for the business to tell the stakeholders that you need to postpone the agreed milestones since your team was working on something irrelevant. Build a project communications plan that will help you keep track of all the whens and whats.
Rely on your team to know what they are talking about as they are relying on you to say the right things to the stakeholders. If your team is doing good, you are doing good. Ask them to insert used time so you could analyze the time spent vs time planned. Plan future tasks accordingly.
There are times when the wrongs of an organization will become the wrongs of a project manager. It can be easy to think that work is just work and it’s not supposed to be the thing that fulfills you. But it’s the thing you do 40 hours a week or even more. If the thing you do stresses you out and leaves you feeling unappreciated and empty for 39 hours a week, you must make changes. Being an advocate for change isn’t an easy task, but it’s for your own good.
Often, the deadlines a project manager is giving to the team, are the deadlines that the sales team has already confirmed and promised to the stakeholders. It might even be that the sales team promised something even more outrageous and absurd but the project manager did their best to get an extension. If you’re the project manager in this scenario, you can feel pretty good about yourself. You saw something ain’t right and you did something about it.
Your team, on the other hand, won’t feel any better if you say that the sales team had agreed on even worst deadlines at the beginning. Pointing fingers is never helping. What’s helping is actually making sure that it doesn’t happen again.
If you have been a project manager for a while, you must have numerous examples of things going south after taking on a project with unachievable deadlines. You are planning resources and you can instantly see that there is no way the tasks can be done by the time promised. Use those examples to convince the upper management that it’s a practice that needs to stop. Even if you feel like you don’t have the necessary means to convince anyone. Even if you know that if you won’t take the project, the client will find someone else to do it.
You have to be the one that raises the discussion since you are the one that gets all of the fire once the project is delayed. It’s the problem of the industry or even a problem of how work is perceived in general. No doubt. But it’s also your problem and you can make an impact even if it’s only in your organization.
A resource planning tool like Ganttic can help you with making the planning process more transparent. Since you are paying for the number of resources in use as opposed to the more typical per user, you can add as many users as you like with different levels of access. The sales team can see the workload and where there’s actually room for a new project. The team can see when the sales team and the stakeholders are hoping a bit too much or too little.
Since checking and fixing can take quite a lot of time, let’s get to the stuff that you can do while you are on it. One of the things that can help you, is finding the flow. Finding a flow is a way to make things you are already doing, and no one is praising you for, more enjoyable.
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience explains how life can be improved using the flow experience. He defines flow as a state in which people become completely immersed in an activity and their level of skill matches the challenge at hand. Other researchers say that flow can be experienced while engaging in very diverse activities such as mountain climbing, meditation, playing chess, or creating art but also while completing tasks at work. The state of flow is said to be linked to positive emotions, the development of skills, improved performance, and achieving a meaningful life. Learning more about flow, how to achieve it, and what its effects are can help you feel more positive emotions and sensations. Sound’s good, right?
In his later research, Csikszentmihalyi found that flow is a function of skill level and complexity of the activity. Flow happens when our skills are developed and we are sufficiently challenged. If we continue to develop skills without increasing the complexity of the activity, we will eventually become bored. If the complexity of the activity increases faster than we are able to improve our skills, our anxiety level will increase.
Project management consists of many routine tasks, so becoming bored and just doing because you have to do it is a very real threat. To avoid getting into the slum or to get out of the slum, you need to find parts of your work where you can improve your skill level. That’s your flow sweet spot. For many project managers, it can be the infamous soft skills. But it can also be something like resource scheduling or even getting the stakeholders or the sales team to understand who much completing a task or another will take. Or having has efficient meetings as possible. Or all of those things.
For each individual, the flow is triggered by different things. And everyone needs to figure out what works for them. A flow researcher Judith Glick-Smith says that to be able to consciously initiate flow, you have to understand what puts you in a flow state. You can achieve this by paying attention when you recognize that you are in flow. Ask yourself, “What was I doing just prior to this feeling? What were the conditions in my environment?” Sometimes, the flow comes from our decision to push ourselves a little harder through the activity, thereby introducing more challenges.
When you have found your triggers, get practicing. Just make sure you take enough time off to recover and rest. You are not a robot and while flow can sound magical, it can only work if you get some peace of mind when you are off duty. A good way to find that balance is to sync your tasks from Ganttic to Google Calendar. There, you can divide the tasks into smaller bits according to task utilization (if you are using one-way sync) and build up time blocks for assignments. You’ll know what to do and what’s already done and what’s waiting for you.
First of all, remember why you started. It’s cheesy but it can be helpful at times to visit the optimistic SOB you used to be. Get in the same mindset. If you once wanted the job and you're feeling frustrated with it now, find what has changed.
Think about the things that bother you and why it is so. You know, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging it. Think about what you can change. Think about how you can change how you are thinking about the problem.
For example, if you have to plan resources for 50 ongoing projects at once it can be easy to view it simply as a sh*tstorm. However, it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to nail those 50 projects. It’s a kick-ass thing to put on your resume. You can view it as a blessing since you actually have oh-so-much work to do. You can go as mushy as you like with it but the most important thing is that there is good in almost everything. And the good is the part you have to focus on.
If you celebrate the small victories on your way, you’ll feel more motivated. It can of course help if there are others to support you and give you the thumbs up but if there is no one else to do it, you are the best person for the job. Be your own cheerleader.
The other option is to use the cheerleaders you have back at home. Tell your loved ones about the wins at work. Lean on them to get the well-deserved praise. And don’t forget to reciprocate.
To get the round of praise going at the office, you still have to start from yourself. Be kind to yourself. Don’t get stuck on the little things. But also praise others. If someone does a good job you can leave a note to the task or even better, walk up to them and tell them they did a good job. If you are not used to it, make yourself used to it. If you continually praise others, it will become a habit and as an added bonus it might catch on in your team. A study showed that positive feedback, even in an unrelated task can lead to increased productivity. And isn’t increased productivity the dream of every project manager?