I just finished up a nine month project. It was a long road with lots of challenges, set backs, and obstacles – I suppose it was a typical project. As I look back I can see a few different kinds of stresses during that time, all interesting, all maybe less interesting in hindsight, but this is the time to learn the lessons deeply.
The first type of stress was being new to the topic and the environment, being out of my comfort zone. It took about 8 weeks to get past that phase, and the only thing you can do while you’re walking that path is to be patient and listen. Hard to be patient some days.
After that the stress changed to trying to make sure we had captured all the work to be done. It’s hard to be sure of hitting the finish line if you can’t describe the finish line. The fear is missing something, or misunderstanding something – both of which happened. It was very much a moving target, often because only by doing the work could we expose areas that we didn’t know needed work. Tenacity required here, keep pulling at threads, keeping reviewing the list,knowing that even if not perfect every time you catch something is one less risk,one less unknown.
Next was the stress of getting to the finish line. It was a battle, and for a good portion of the project we were behind the curve (as best we could estimate). It wasn’t until about 6 weeks from one that I felt like it tipped over into “can win” territory, and we still had to sweat every day after that. It’s tough to stay focused when you’re behind, when you’re hitting unexpected challenges on top of that, and then to try to find ways to accelerate to make up the shortfall. One day at a time isn’t a bad strategy at all.
If all that sounds like project management challenges, you’re right. I can think of 50 places we could have done better, should have asked a different question, etc, etc. For all that it’s just about impossible to have a deadline without stress, no matter how good the plan or process for doing the work.
I want to call out one mistake I made in particular, because stress is all about mindset. When we finally hit that magical tipping point after a lot of work and couple lucky breaks, I was astounded to be in the position – finally – of thinking we might win. I started thinking if nothing else goes wrong we can make it. I’m sure you can guess what happened next – something went wrong, then something else, and it took me a good day to get my game back. The right mindset is work the problem, followed by keep your eyes on the finish line. Giving in to fear of any kind, even the most human kind, puts you in a place where a stressor has extra leverage on your outlook – don’t do it!
I don’t know if I’ll have the same stresses next time. I’d like them to be different, but I don’t know yet if knowing them means I can prevent them.