Bear with me. I’m in the middle of something else. That’s right. I’m writing this thing for you here, but I just got a call from a client. I also have three Slack conversations happening with my team. And I just remembered that I started an email to one of my clients about three hours ago, but that got derailed when another client called me…and then I had to go into a meeting about a new project. Ugh, there goes Slack again.
I’m trying to keep it together, but damn, this is tough. I’m always annoyed by something or someone. I need to focus on one thing at a time. That’s it, I’m going to come back to this tonight…after the kids are in bed and I’ve had about 20 minutes to breathe and relax. This is a regular work day, and I have a suspicion that if you’re managing projects, it’s a regular work day for you, too. It’s part of what makes this role difficult, and why it’s not for everyone. It’s about damn time that someone talk about it. So I’ll start here.
It’s at this point that I actually want to dunk my bits in their drink and Hulk-smash them, simultaneously.
I like to think that I am a great multi-tasker who can handle whatever comes his way. And for the most part, I am. But there are days where meetings, messages, and everyday project happenings compound the way I’m feeling, and I just feel generally annoyed. No matter what happens, I can usually start my day “in the zone,” and that typically happens when I’m able to have some alone time to organize my thoughts and make my best attempt at planning my day. At around 10:30 am, it seems like all hell breaks loose and the emails, calls, and instant messages start rolling in. Maybe everyone is on the same schedule? That schedule is in place to get on my damn nerves, isn’t it?
There. I said it.
I live my career as a project manager, under pressure to keep the project on track and my clients and team happy and productive. Things never go the way they should, and I prepare myself for that. Sure, I have a list of things to do. I plan and re-plan, I look out for risks, and I still end up in about a foot of pure shit. Little things, big things, things that have nothing to do with me…they all somehow become my problem because I’m the dude who sits in the middle of the team and the clients, and the dude who is known to solve problems. I love that about myself and what I do—I really do. But that doesn’t mean I can do it all at the same time. And honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I have a new frustration every day.
We’re all frustrated
As a project manager, it is so easy to get caught up in the things that annoy us. It almost feels like it’s part of our job to be annoyed. Depending on how you look at it, it is. This is how I look at it: if I am annoyed by something, there is a problem to be solved. I’m annoyed because I have to fix it. That’s my job. If it was always easy, it wouldn’t be a job I particularly like. So being annoyed is something I thrive on.
But do other project managers feel the same way?
I decided to reach out to a few of my Digital PM friends to see what annoyed them about their role. All I had to say was, “I’m writing an article about what drives us nuts as PMs,” and I very quickly got a variety of great responses. I’m guessing this is the kind of thing that comes to us quickly, because we’re often annoyed and we love to vent. But what I’ve found is that being annoyed or frustrated doesn’t mean we’re not happy. In fact, we’re problem solvers who can come up with solutions on the fly to make people happy, keep budgets intact, and strategy in place.
This is how I look at it: if I am annoyed by something, there is a problem to be solved. I’m annoyed because I have to fix it. That’s my job. If it was always easy, it wouldn’t be a job I particularly like. So being annoyed is something I thrive on.
When I asked Adam Edgerton, a Senior Producer at Instrument in Portland, OR, what bugged him, he replied with this:
Project stakeholders who question your team’s estimates and scoping based on their own presumed knowledge drives me nuts! If budget is an issue, we can always go there, but there’s always rationale behind estimates, and unfortunately there’s no such thing as a five-minute task with multiple parties involved.
I’ve been there. There’s nothing worse than having to defend work that was already scoped. Clients often need things “yesterday” and don’t realize that delivering good work takes time. It’s up to us to walk our less savvy clients, whether we have time and inclination or not. If you’re a good PM, you will defend your team’s work, the scope, and the time you need to get it all done. So when I asked Adam how he would respond to the issue, I wasn’t surprised. He said,
It depends on the specifics, but ultimately it’s education of some sort. Whether that’s a breakdown of a generic estimate as an example of what goes into completing a task, explanation of the complexities they may not see, or even occasionally delving into the business realities of running an agency.
Adam is a PM you’d want on your team, because he would turn a stakeholder’s lack of understanding into a teachable moment that positions his team’s work as important, time-consuming, and quite serious. He may be frustrated by the fact that he has to do this kind of thing over and over, but he handles each case differently.
Respect the plan
Tera Simon, who is Head of Project Management at AtlanticBT in Raleigh, NC, brought up a scenario that we all face when asked the same question:
As a project manager, my livelihood is a solid plan. It makes me want to rip my hair out when a client doesn’t take the time to review our plan. When I take the time to map out all deliverables, dependencies, risks, reviews, holidays, and vacations into one solid plan, clients: don’t just read it—live by it. A project plan is the guiding document for any project. If a client doesn’t take the time to read it, they’re just screwing themselves.
Any good PM, including Tera, knows better than that: if clients don’t read your plan and stick to it, they are screwing you because you’ll have to fix the schedule when they go off track. So do yourself a favor and make the project plan an approvable deliverable. Present it to them, make revisions, and set it in stone. Revisit it often, share updates, and make it everyone’s problem.
When I asked Tera how she would handle this issue, she said:
With every schedule, I build in a contingency plan. If everything goes right, you have the ability to finish early. During the course of the project, communication and honesty are key. I always keep the client informed. If we have a slip, I provide them with the cause and effect. As long as you’re honest, plan with a contingency in place, and keep the communication open, you can succeed.
Building a contingency plan and communicating like a pro are qualities of a great project manager who is up for any kind of project challenge. The fact that a PM like Tera would even think about the risks—and devise a contingency—while creating a plan proves that we try to overcome frustration before it comes our way. Alas, planning for risks will lower your project frustrations, but will not completely help you avoid them.
Stop the whining
Fear not, it’s not just clients who add to our project frustrations. As much as you may love them, your team can truly grate on your nerves. When I asked Sam Barnes, who is a Development Team Lead at Global Personals in Windsor, UK, he touched on the internal struggles of keeping your project data on point…and how your team might not respect that.
Nothing is more guaranteed to annoy me than when someone moans about completing their timesheets for the day with a face that looks like I’ve just dunked my bits in their drink. However, if they want to see me get close to Hulk-smashing mode, after being told they do need to [complete timesheets], they’ll then dare to ask, ‘So where do I add all the time it’s taking me to add this time into my timesheets? #smugface.’ It’s at this point that I actually want to dunk my bits in their drink and Hulk-smash them simultaneously. Most DPMs I know commonly have to add way more items and detail than anyone else into their timesheets and never ever complain. This is the main reason I want to ruin some people’s drink in my own, oh, so very special way.
Sam’s bits will never hit someone’s drink. If they do, he’s in big trouble! But it’s easy to understand this frustration. As a PM, you spend much of your day making sure the plan is executed on time and under budget, and you always have the best interest of your team at hand. So, when they turn on you and don’t do what’s needed to successfully execute the project, you want to revolt. This is where a good dose of sarcasm or playfulness can help quell those feelings of frustration. It’s also a time where you can easily just tell your team what needs to be done, and what is expected of them.
When I asked Sam how he’d handle it, he said,
Generally, I’ll try to educate them. I’ll take the time to explain the impact on colleagues if they don’t fill out timesheets. But we also have other things in place to help me, like auto-Slack messages at 5:00pm for all those who haven’t completed full hours, as well as an auto-mail later that night. We also have the ‘Email of Shame’ that lists who didn’t submit their time, but it’s worded lightheartedly. The best thing about all of these is that they suddenly organized a self-imposed punishment for missing your timesheet. If you miss, you go out at lunch and buy the whole team treats. So we rarely have the issue now. And when we do, I launch into how DPMs have 40 entries a day with all of their tasks, and they are able to complete my timesheet just fine.
How cool is it when you can turn an annoyance into a fun activity? Of course, you’ll never get over people complaining about silly little things. But if you put them into perspective and explain those silly little things to people, they will get it. It all comes down to listening to people, understanding their point of view, and taking that into account when explaining why something may seem menial when it isn’t.
Git ‘er done
I could have asked 25 more project managers about what frustrates them, and they all would have had different responses. I can only imagine the array of topics: tools, people, process, meetings, accountability, and so on. But what I loved the most about these three responses was that, when I asked how they’d resolve or address the issue, they all immediately had a response that seemed sensible and actionable. At the end of the day, a job is a job. You’ve chosen to be a project manager because you’re good at it, or you find the everyday challenge of scheduling and wrangling is one that suits you. It’s likely that, no matter what you do, there‘s going to be something in your job that just gets on your nerves. There is nothing wrong with that. You’re an adult. A professional. You can be flexible and do what is needed to get the job done.
If you are having a hard time being calm while managing all of the details and people of several projects, I’ll leave you with five simple tips:
- Remember that not everything is your issue. Be sure to consult your team and management when issues arise; they should help you to fix things properly.
- Take a breath and remember to not react immediately. Your first reaction is not always your best.
- Set expectations about how quickly you can respond to any communications. Just because you receive an email, it doesn’t mean you need to reply to it immediately.
- Take some time to get away from your desk. While you may seem really busy ALL THE TIME, you need time away to stay balanced.
- Be yourself and have fun. When you’re at your most comfortable, you’ll be able to solve any problem life throws at you.
In my case, I’ll set better expectations for how I can communicate with several teams. I probably won’t ever show that I’m annoyed, because that could just ruin the tone of the project, and the important working relationships I have with my clients and my teams. Plus, it’s on me and I know this. And if things ever got so bad that I couldn’t deal, I would do something about it. But I won’t let things escalate, because like most PMs, I’m a nice person who likes to help others and solve problems.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back to the world of project wrangling. There’s no doubt that my To-Do list has doubled, my inbox is likely at capacity, and there’s a chance that I have a few Slack messages to respond to. I’m gonna take a deep breath and dive back in. But this time I’m excited to do it, because I know I’m not alone and I have a number of like-minded people to reach out to if I need it. Hey, this Digital Project Management community is pretty neat, huh?