PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > The Project Leader’s Guide to Steering Clear of Karmic Debt

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The Project Leader’s Guide to Steering Clear of Karmic Debt

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

When a friend suggested that I might benefit from meditation, and generally taking a more "Zen" approach to project management, I had my doubts. How in the world was I going to get anything done while being tranquil?!! Too much serenity is bad for results. On a deadline-driven project the very words "tranquil" and "serene" have the stench of impending disaster. They are filed in my subconscious right alongside phrases like "no progress to report" and "we tried our best." Visions of status review meetings featuring updates like "everything is unfolding as the universe intended" and "it just wasn't meant to be" popped into my adrenaline-soaked brain. No way was I going to let thousands of years of introspective tradition anywhere near my projects!

From what I understand, Zen promises the cessation of suffering. No suffering? Project managers unite! This could be a serious threat to our livelihood, since many projects are intended to end one form of suffering or another—insufficient revenues from new products, excessive costs, inefficient processes. And I think a majority of experienced project leaders would agree that most projects either include or inflict a great deal of suffering.

Not that I don't appreciate inner peace, mind you. I wrote this entire article while sitting in the lotus position. I am always searching for ways to get in touch with that calm, quiet place within—but faster and with more surefire results than old-fashioned techniques like deep contemplation or lengthy introspection. (Did you ever notice that the word meditation is very close to the word medication? Coincidence? I think not.) But sometimes the only force driving a team forward is the nagging feeling that doom is just a couple of steps behind. And, practically speaking, what busy project leader really has time to linger in the inner sanctum of their subconscious? I've heard that you should meditate for at least 30 minutes a day, unless you are too busy, in which case a full hour is required. Ha! Imagine what the PMs of this world could do with 60 more minutes a day! Global warming would succumb to our collective might! Poverty, disease, and unfashionable dress among technically gifted engineers would fall before our cumulative strength!

In all honesty, I once did sign up for a guided meditation class—"guided" meaning that some self-proclaimed guru jabbered on incessantly about love, puppies, and bouquets of flowers in a mellifluous voice the whole time I was trying to commune with the innermost reaches of my soul. To add the anxiety of the whole experience, my roommate insisted on "helping" me get to the sessions promptly by repeatedly reminding me of the weekly appointments. I received at least two speeding tickets while rushing to get there on time. Imagine the puzzled look on the police officer's face when he heard that I was in a hurry as a result of being late for a meditation class. (Fortunately, I quickly mastered the ability to complete an 8-hour online traffic school in about 2.5 hours.)

Perhaps by now you have picked up on a subtle nuance: I have become a bit of a spiritual cynic, at least with regard to business results. It began when leading my first project at HP many years ago; a key member of my team there had a sign hanging at his desk saying, "15 years 'til retirement—pace yourself." I couldn't have been more irked if I'd discovered a picture of my mother with a moustache drawn in and one of her teeth blacked out. Pace yourself on someone else's project, buddy!

Here are a few of the dysfunctional spiritual lessons that I've absorbed from twenty years of leading and managing projects:

  • Ask and ye shall have to ask again and again. Every reasonable, well thought out request in support of project success meets with an immediate "No!" from overly busy executives besieged by supplications insisting that the world will stop spinning if they don't provide more people, more money, or more resources.
  • Everything happens for a reason—usually some idiot's poor planning, lack of follow-through, or flat-out incompetence. Find this project-risk-on-legs and rid your team of them before they wreak havoc on yet another worthy project with their well-intentioned bumbling.
  • Avoid those who constantly do unto others. Watch out for the sneaky bastards following this doctrine! They're lunatics masquerading as decent, civilized human beings. If you turn your back on them even for a second—to get your half-eaten sandwich out of the company refrigerator, for example—they'll stab you with a PDA stylus. Just because they have 23 pairs of chromosomes doesn't necessarily make them human. For some reason these diabolical beings feel threatened by anyone else's success or competence, and will do anything to assure their place on top of the clambering mass of humanity in the narrow stovepipe of the corporate hierarchy.
  • Forgive and regret. Regret that you made predictable and avoidable mistakes. Regret that you didn't see disaster coming. Regret that you were saddled with the illusion of staffing on your project—more body count than headcount. Regret that you blurted out "I'll do it!" when some persuasive executive asked you to take on the leadership of an ill-fated project when your defenses were down (usually due to some mind-expanding workshop on how to tackle and achieve impossible goals). Regret, but for pity's sake, don't forget! If you forget, you'll be in an even worse position to resist the next wave of corporate myopia.

In spite of the sardonic wit employed above, I have recently begun to suspect that evolution as a project leader may indeed be achieved by following a spiritual path. While floundering around on the WWW (World Wide Waste of time) I happened upon the noble eightfold path. These are the eight teachings of the Buddha that are the road to the end of suffering. If you check out Wikipedia you will notice that there are actually ten factors, not eight. (As far as I can tell, the last two are bonuses, and come with a free set of steak knives if you order before midnight tonight.) Remarkably, these ten factors embody a principle-centered approach to leadership that may resolve the dilemma of how to combine tranquility with absolute commitment to extraordinary results in a project environment:

  1. Right View – As an exceptional project leader, you need a clear vision of the future that you and your team are committed to, and the perspective to see things in a wider context.

  2. Right Intention – Effective project leadership starts with your intention to do the right thing, no matter whether you feel like it or not, in spite of multitudinous temptations to the contrary.

  3. Right Speech – As an extraordinary project leader, you need to speak the truth, without blame or judgment, and use your speech to create possibilities and build the confidence and commitment of your people.

  4. Right Action – Doing the right thing is the second shoe dropping on "Right Intention," and your highly visible leadership role requires exemplary conduct as you set an impeccable example for others.

  5. Right Livelihood – Leaders have a grave responsibility to use their substantial powers for good, not evil, directing their talents toward improving human existence and the condition of this planet.

  6. Right Effort – Admirable project leaders exert consistent and earnest effort in the right direction, in spite of lack of support, discouraging setbacks, and failures.

  7. Right Mindfulness – Consciously aware leaders attend to both the short-term and long-term aspects of the project, and artfully balancing their attention among the three P's—Product, Process, and People.

  8. Right Concentration – As a reliable and dedicated leader you must become absorbed in your work, focus your attention on the best interests of the project, and thoughtfully contemplate the opportunities and challenges facing your team.

  9. Right Knowledge – As a competent project leader you need to learn what you need to know to successfully carry out your responsibilities, and diligently discover the facts of any situation in order to base your decisions on something more than whim or whimsy.

  10. Right Liberation – If you lead your project to a fruitful end the beneficiaries will be freed from whatever suffering your project was intended to annihilate, and both you and your team will be liberated from having to work on it further.

In retrospect, maybe project leadership really is about the cessation of suffering after all.

Post your thoughts on this topic to significantly reduce your accumulated karmic debt. For more insights into the world of Scrappy Project Management, look for a copy of my book in the Spirituality section of bookstores everywhere. Looking forward to hearing your retorts!


– Kimberly

Related Items
What lessons has your team learned from previous projects, karmic or otherwise? Use our Lessons Learned Survey to poll the team on their ideas about what went well and what could have gone better. When you've collected everyone's input, the Lessons Learned Meeting Report can help you promote and guide open discussions about it and transmit those lessons to others, thus tipping the karmic scales a little further in your favor.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Well, Kimberly, I must disagree that PMs need to run around with their hair on fire as one of my bosses told me once. But nor do I think that quiet meditation will complete the project. While meditation (yes, I've done it...a few times rarely for more than 3 or 4 minutes!) can help, it serves to calm the spirit so that the person can understand the situation and take the right course of action. It doesn't magically complete tasks.

Many people don't think through what needs to happen, leading to lots of motion but no progress. PMs are no exception.

No, a better alternative is to make sure it is crystal clear what needs to happen, delegate and empower, monitor with enough lead time for corrective action, and hold people accountable for their commitments. I just concluded a program using this approach and it was one of the most successful, and calm, programs my organization has seen in a long time. I've been training PMs on this approach for the last year or so and a few of them have been able to let go while retaining control. Take a look at for more information.

So, you keep running with your hair on fire. I'll sit back, meditate, think through what needs to happen, and then take care of it.

Begin with the end (business objective) in mind. Stay focused on the deliverables that lead to that objective, stay flexible, monitor changes. Sounds very Zen to me.

Work with the subject matter experts to be sure the appropriate dependencies and DECISIONS are identified. Make sure a person OWNS the deliverable and work to ensure that any changes on the dates are communicated broadly.

Take Jose's course. My hair is only smoldering now

In a perfect world ‘cessation of suffering’ would only mean heaven or the good side of after life.

While we yet remain as mortals, I would say that the practice of the 10 R’s in Kimberly’s article combined with the inherent sound mind of an individual professional project manager may lessen if not avoid unnecessary suffering.

That is why we have the ‘Lessons Learned Report.’


You really do need to separate the world you think you live in, one that’s fast paced and exciting, and the one everyone else around has to inhabit. Your diatribe concerning meeting deadlines and how they drive you suggest to me that you have lost your personality in what you feel you must produce at work. By that I mean you need to get a life, preferably your own, and leave the work persona elsewhere. This is part of the process towards personal fulfillment, and the path may or may not lie in the Buddhist teachings, even Buddha says that each of us must find our own way.

I don't have any words of wisdom, I just thought the article made me smile and chuckle at times and that is worth the time it took to read it.

Kimberly, I really enjoyed your article. Too bad some people completely missed your intent to enlighten the audience with your dry sense of humor. Life is not presented in white or black, but in various shades of gray. Same applies to the project management. And as Geoff says it is up to us to find our own way. Kimberly's approach, sprinkled with humor, is admirable in my view. Keep up the good work!

Dear Kim,

In Zen tradition the master would probably laugh or strike you with the stick after reading your text. Zen is style of life which aim is to be aimless. And with being aimless you find yourself spontaneous, relaxed and centered. To understand the way you need a teacher or mentor who will guide you and show you how to come to the point from where you will realize that you are the way. Before that point all is suffering and after that point there is no suffering – you become the master. MU. What do you say?
Similarly to understand the way of project manager – leader – one needs a good mentor. I would say a realized mentor. With him you are safe. Without him you are lost. Unfortunately it is very difficult to find a realized mentor. So we all try and struggle by ourselves: lots of mistakes, headaches, late finish, no budget, no resources on time etc. That is suffering.
We can pass PMP exam and get all diplomas but that is not enough. Today's projects are more unpredictable, under constant change that we can hardly control so new approach is needed and for that we have to change our mindset first.
Meditation can help us to change our rigid linear mindset to so called quantum mindset to become innovative, communicative, intelligent and collaborative because that is what we need to cope with today's extreme projects.
But even meditation is not enough. We have to share our experience, knowledge and I would say realization with the team we are working with constantly.
That is a process where in an iterative (main characteristics of agile approach to project) way we come to success for the customer and for the stakeholders quickly and one pointedly.

A great article, I love your humor. I see all of the points from both sides, and you explain them so well, clearly and with positive recommendations. Thanks.

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