Breaking the Chains of Project Management Stress
I used to worry about everything.
I used to have to plan every tiny detail, activity and contingency for everything I engaged in. Even an hour-long car journey would have to be meticulously prepared with backup printed maps, first aid kits, checking oil and ensuring I had breakdown recovery details.
So, imagine how I was as a project manager.
Pretty good. I was getting promoted with bigger projects and more responsibility, but it came at a price to me personally:
An all too familiar co-pilot for too many of us. I couldn’t settle down in the evening without ensuring I’d captured the thousand and one thoughts in my head. I had to pursue all workstream leads in detail to ensure they had plans for delivery. Every risk needed constant revision. I was overthinking everything and often stuck in analysis paralysis.
The Illusion of Control
So, what was the epiphany I had? Well, I had the most vivid dream.
“OK, weirdo, what was it?”
I’ll tell you. I came walking out of my house as a huge tornado ripped along the street. Black, menacing clouds whipped in front of me until I stepped in. The centre still had plenty going on, but it was calm and quiet. It was vivid and, to this day, burned into my memory.
Some part of my brain was trying to tell me something…
In the days and months that followed, I concluded that I never actually had control over anyone or anything they were doing. Sure, I had influence and could identify issues, anticipate problems, and try to tip the balance in favour of a successful outcome, but I didn’t have total control. It was a fallacy.
This realisation led to a fundamental shift in how I approached project management.
I decided it was more effective to empower team members to take responsibility for their roles. If they deliver, great, if they don’t, then that reflects on them, not me. But… I did start to shine the spotlight more intensely on people and their ownership of deliveries through updates in highlight reports, risk & decision ownership and being crystal clear on accountabilities.
The Importance of Delegation
The embracing of delegation was a game-changer. I started assigning tasks with the full expectation that they would be managed and completed without my direct oversight. Of course, this doesn’t mean I stopped monitoring the project altogether.
I still maintain regular check-ins to ensure the team is on the right path, but the emphasis shifted from micro-details to broader objectives. That helicopter view we all talk about so much but practice so little.
Ok, you are probably thinking, isn’t that what project managers are supposed to do? But, here’s my point: I knew it, but I wasn’t walking the path as I should.
Navigating the Sea of Uncertainty
I also stopped being preoccupied with capturing and revising every risk.
While it’s important to anticipate problems, there comes a point where too much risk management becomes counterproductive. It becomes risk ‘soup’, most of which are just additives with no value.
I learned to recognise which risks were worth my attention (I call them ‘the ones that keep people awake at night’) and which were merely distractions; sure, the data centre could flood, but let’s not worry about that.
Letting Go of Perfection
I accepted that not every decision needs to be perfect.
The fear of making a mistake had been a significant source of stress for me.
I learned that often, when decisions are hard to make, it’s because there is no ‘wrong’ answer. Accepting that it’s okay to make mistakes and that they can often be corrected was incredibly freeing.
I now embrace the concept of ‘ready-fire-aim’ (yes, you read it right) and avoid perfection in preference of having a bias towards action. It was lesson hard-earned.
And if I find myself in a death-march project, well, I’m not playing that game.
Accountability and Democratic Decision-Making
A notable cause of stress in my earlier career was the lack of clear accountability in decision-making.
Often, the team would attempt to make decisions democratically, leading to indecisiveness and a lack of progress.
The shift to a model where decision-making responsibilities were clearly defined ensured that decisions were made more efficiently. This was crucial for alleviating the stress associated with endless cycles of meetings and discussions and trying to get to a consensus.
Jim, have you heard enough? Yes? Great. What’s the decision then?
The effect of this paradigm shift was twofold.
On the one hand, my stress levels decreased dramatically. I finally managed to reclaim my evenings, no longer haunted by the relentless need to prepare for the next day.
I’ll be honest, I still do prepare, but ‘just enough’ is my mantra. My newfound ability to ‘switch off’ also had a positive impact on my personal relationships and overall well-being. I have more energy and focus to give the role in the ‘on’ hours.
In retrospect, the day I acknowledged the limitations of control in project management was when I set myself free from unnecessary stress. It enabled a more effective, collaborative, and successful project management approach. It’s a lesson I wish I had learned sooner, but it came at the right time for me, and I did have to learn it for myself.
I encourage other project managers bogged down by the minutiae of control and anxiety to take a step back and reevaluate their approach. Sometimes, letting go is the first step toward real control.
And the anxiety? I still struggle with it, it’s part of my DNA almost, but it was a game-changing day when I realised that if you invite it on, literally. And say, ‘Do your worst, you can’t hurt me’, it suddenly lost its terrible grip over me.
Step into that tornado. It ain’t so bad.
Victor Z Young is a Civil Engineer with 35 years of experience working alongside the executive team of various construction companies. Victor specializes in construction insurance, delay analysis, performance analysis and engineering. He holds a Doctor of Project Management from Northwestern University.