It’s impossible to avoid stress in our lives. There is an amazing amount of literature, discussion, and podcasts content out there giving us warnings, advice, and products, all to reduce our stress, assumingly to make us happier and live longer.
As this blog is dedicated to business and specifically project leadership, I’ll just focus on one tiny slice of this enormous topic: stress caused by a misalignment of what you see as your goals and tasks vs. the organization’s interpretation of your role and associated tasks.
That’s a mouthful, I know.
Longer said, it means that you, as Project Manager, have a good idea of what tasks will provide the most value to your project and the organization as a whole. This doesn’t always align with what your executives are asking from you. Working on required non-value-add tasks causes stress. And when this deprioritizes what you know to provide value, it can feel like you’re carrying your project to the finish line waist-deep through a mud field.
How can you fix this situation?
First, recognize the disparity. Sit down and think through your day: In your Project Manager role, where do you believe your focus should be? Part of this will depend on where you are in the project. If you’re planning, then you’re working on building your plan, arranging resources, etc. When preparing for launch, your world revolves around communication with stakeholders and coordinating all the elements that need to be in synch for a smooth transition. Write down the tasks that would provide value, regardless of whether you do them routinely or not.
Then list out what you’re actually doing with your time. Be honest about it. Look at your meetings. What is the focus of each? Do you need to be there? What value does each task on your to-do list bring, and why are you doing each one? This is not an exercise to improve efficiency, but to understand the value of each task during the day.
Now compare the two lists. How far apart are you? Do you have time to focus on those elements you know will bring your project to a successful conclusion? When I do this analysis myself, I usually come to one of two conclusions:
First, I’m more aligned than I thought, but the organization’s style or cadence is different than mine. In this case, I figure out where my tension is. Sometimes resolving it is as easy as saying, “Okay, they like to get all issues in Jira. Guess I need to stop wasting my time keeping it in Excel, too.” It might mean I need to learn Jira better, but I’ll save time and stress doing double-entry.
Of course, this duplication of effort can an example of the second conclusion: Their way is not providing value. Can you make the best project decisions with their required template, or does it need additional data to be useful? Conversely, we’re often faced with the demand for too-detailed metrics and a pile of frequent and redundant communication. This situation lends itself to two options.
One easy and a bit sly method is to enhance their “ask” and provide the value. Over time, start moving away from the pieces that are lower value. So if they should really focus on risk & mitigation for this project, start emphasizing this area during your updates, while still giving them their required budget metrics.
Option two should also be possible. If you have a good relationship with your executives, you can reach out to them with a value proposition. No pun intended here—review the elements that will provide value (with cause-and-effect examples) and try to show the value of the pieces you know are a waste of their time. (Remember, this isn’t about you, it’s about project and corporate success.) You will likely end up back with the first option, adding yours to theirs, but if you have given your SteerCo fair warning and you remind them each time you give an update, there’s nothing sly about it; they’ll be along for the ride with you.
So far, we’ve reviewed the two common outcomes from your analysis: you’re more aligned than you thought, or their way is not providing value (and you see a path forward). But there is a third outcome.
Unfortunately, sometimes you and your organization are too far apart, and you don’t see a way to fix the situation. While I encourage you to try to work through ways to improve the value from your tasks, it doesn’t always succeed. This is hopefully rare, but it needs to be acknowledged.
The final, and more drastic conclusion is irreconcilable differences. This is tough. No one likes to leave a job and look for another. The emotional impact is too much to unpack in this short article, so let’s just recognize that not everyone is a fit for every organization or department’s culture.
Hopefully, when you first arrived on the scene a few years ago, everything was great—you were making an impact, your mind was challenged, and you enjoyed your work. Today? Not so much.
What happened? Very simply, time happened. During your tenure, you’ve grown and accumulated experience. Your company has, too! It may have had a re-organization or shift in focus. Maybe they acquired a new division, and your comfortable 200-person company is now ten times larger. Conversely, they struggled through some tough times and now you’ve absorbed the work of three colleagues no longer there.
Back in the day, people stayed with the same company for their entire careers. That’s no longer the case. I don’t know anyone still working who is eligible for that “gold watch” for fifty years of service.
If you have given it your best shot but can’t align your skillset or style with theirs, recognize that it’s time to move on. Be satisfied that you tried to work through it and update your resume. Use the skills you’ve gained and the experience trying to work through your differences as a springboard to find a better fit for you…now. In this case, a “wait and see” attitude won’t benefit you or the organization.
While work will always be a source of stress, periodically reviewing your role’s tasks for alignment between you and your organization will keep you from straying too far apart. Not only will your stress level be elevated for a shorter period, but a smaller course correction is easier to fix.
One more note here: if you find it tough to sit down and review your tasks alone, grab a (non-colleague) friend, a pad of paper, and start with this prompt: How’s your job going?