Overwhelmed project manager
Project manager at the end of her rope!

No one ever likes to admit they’ve taken on too much. No one ever wants to say, “I just can’t do this.” No one wants to quit. No one sets out to fail. But there does come a time when you may need to throw in the towel – maybe not just that the project has failed beyond the point of saving. Maybe it’s us – maybe we can’t handle this project. It could be technology. It could be the team. It could be the fact that we’re trying to manage five active projects at once and they’re all in the same stage of activity at the same time – like maybe all in fire drill mode. Let’s look at three situations where you might find yourself, as the project manager, in over your head and how to deal with each situation.

Technologically impaired

When we’re leading high-tech projects staffed by high-tech teams, it’s extremely important that the leader – the project manager – have some degree of technical background. Credibility with the team, credibility with the client, and credibility with potential software vendors are all critical. It’s nearly impossible to negotiate deadlines, deals and task assignments with any of these individuals or entities if we have no technical background or no understanding of the technology being discussed. I’ve seen many project managers frustrated to the point of failing or quitting as they attempted to lead detailed high-tech projects without the proper background. It’s important to understand our own limitations and seek assignments that fit our skills and to avoid those that could be career killers.

Fire drill mode

When you find yourself running multiple projects that all happen to be in very active stages at the same time, you have a problem. Seriously, no one can handle that. Ideally, when you’re managing five different projects maybe only one or two are in heavy work mode and the other three are on autopilot for a while. Staggering the heavy duty phases, if possible, is the best way to stay sane…but sometimes that perfect storm hits and every project you’re running is at its critical point and you have to do something…raise a white flag even and surrender one or two of them to another project manager. This is not a bad thing – it’s ok to admit you’re overloaded. But you have to admit it yourself before someone else figures it out. If someone else figures it out it means your work is suffering and then handing off projects can make you look bad.

Resource issues

If we’re running projects and we’re finding our team hard to manage, impossible to deal with, or difficult to rein in, then we either need to modify our management angle, replace one or more team members, or hand the project over before we cause it to fail. If resources are limited and the skill set we have is appropriate for the project, then replacing resources is not likely the best course of action. If rogue behaviour is happening, however, replacing the resource may be necessary or disciplinary action through the resource’s supervisor may be required. Discuss the behavior with the resource, but if headway can’t be made, then the supervisor must be involved and the resource likely needs to be replaced on the team. Finally, if it’s just an issue that our management style isn’t strong enough to handle high-ego project resources, we may just need more experience leading these types of resources. Training may be in order, but definitely going back to the drawing board and taking on projects that are less critical or visible and possibly shorter in length may help a project manager be more prepared to handle a high-profile project with a challenging team in the future.

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About the author: Brad Egeland is an IT/PM & Business Strategy consultant and author with over 25 years of software development, management, and project management experience. He can be reached at brad@bradegeland.com or you can visit his website at www.bradegeland.com.