As we get ready to celebrate Halloween I am reminded about the scary moments on projects and starting my project management career. Thinking back to my younger days I enjoyed dressing up in my Halloween costumes and “trick or treating” through the neighborhood to collect candy. I wasn’t so fond of scary movies and haunted houses! I recall the anxiety before entering the haunted house, the uneasy feeling in my stomach and fear about being scared. I also remember the feeling of calm after exiting the haunted house and thinking, “well that wasn’t too bad.” Then after a few visits it actually became fun to be scared and the anxiety waned as I knew that all would be ok. I didn’t have anything to fear from the scary gremlins and monsters in the haunted house.
I remember being a new project manager and feeling the same fears of the unknown on my first few projects. I wasn’t sure what gremlins were going to trip me up and derail our projects. It seemed like around every corner someone or something was waiting to shout Boo at me! I wasn’t sure who was a good guy to help out the project team or who was a monster lurking in the shadows looking to scare us or do us harm. Do you remember those days when you were afraid of the project gremlins?
Just as with my early haunted house experiences, managing projects soon became less scary. I learned that the gremlins and monsters weren’t real. I eventually found that projects were actually fun and not scary at all. But it took time to learn where to look for the project gremlins and to be at ease when they jumped out at me. I think I even learned how to scare some of the project gremlins so they didn’t try to scare me or the project team again. Even so, they still try to jump out at us and put a scream into us today after years of leading scary projects.
What are some of these project gremlins and how can we learn to not let them scare us off our projects? The project gremlin I find the scariest is the project sponsor! They can be like a werewolf. During the day they walk amongst us as normal humans, but at night they transform into monsters threatening our projects and scaring our team members. Most project sponsors are within leadership positions and certainly outrank us in the organization. They are Managers, Directors, VPs and sometimes C-suite Executives. The higher up in the organization the scarier they can be for new Project Managers. As a junior employee and new project manager I was always anxious when meeting with these project sponsors. I had that same anxiety in my stomach as the haunted house visits, nervousness, stumbling over my words, and not able to think clearly.
The project sponsors seemed friendly enough and some even recognized my anxiety and helped to put me at ease. But when we’d miss a deadline or exceed spending the werewolf would come out! I remember one werewolf who actually threw a shoe at us during a project meeting! The best trick for these werewolves is to remember they don’t like to hear bad news without some kind of warning. When they are alerted bad news might be headed their way they are able to control the beast within and not attack our project team. To keep project stakeholders in their human form it is best to communicate with them frequently and be honest with both good and bad news.
Another scary project gremlin is often referred to as Project Risks and Issues. These gremlins are harder to see and sometimes sneak up on us without any warning. They may not be as scary as the project sponsors, but every project seems to have so many of them. They have a way of popping out from behind every corner and scaring the project team when we feel like everything is going well. The best way to keep safe from these monsters is to shine a bright light on them. They don’t like being exposed to the team and try very hard to stay secret right up to the moment when they jump out at us!
I find it best to keep a record of these Project Risks and Issues. When you write them down and assign one of the team members to fight them off they seem to be less scary. It is also a good idea to look back at past projects and see if you can learn when they pop up and how to keep them hidden. Since they are all different, I suggest developing a strategy of how to mitigate the chances they scare us. I’ve also learned they like to come in bunches and scare us by overwhelming us in volume. Usually, if we can limit how many of these project gremlins jump out at us, we can minimize how scary they can be and our team can keep us safe from them.
The final project gremlin I want to share with you is the very frightening monster I call the Project Schedule. This gremlin is so scary because it has mind control powers. The project schedule seems harmless. We work with our team and build the schedule not knowing that soon our every thought will be consumed by this beast! The schedule can be a complex monster with so many connections and paths like a giant spider web trapping innocent team members in its clutches.
Once you know the project schedule has mind control over you it is extremely difficult to take back control. The best way to do this is to remember that you created the schedule so if you reach deep within your subconscious know it is ok to change it. The schedule will fight back and hide critical path and resource constraints. Know that you control the schedule when you stop fearing it. The project schedule, like most project gremlins really wants to be your friend. When you stop fearing it you will learn how to become friends and help one another.
There are other project gremlins, some more scary than others, and we can discuss them next Halloween. For now, my best advice is to know that all these monsters are only scary when we let them control us. The more we work with them the less scary they will be to the project team. You need to know it is safe to share stories with your team members and trick the project gremlins or perhaps even give them a treat to keep them happy. Either way, know that project gremlins, like the haunted house, aren’t so scary when you realize it is our own thoughts which are causing us to be afraid. We have the power to stay safe and keep the gremlins from scaring us!