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Here It Comes Again!

Coping with the Worldwide Economic Mood Disorder
and Other Recurring Problems

by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

The current global crisis, which I'm calling the "worldwide economic mood disorder" (WEMD for short), hit right about the time I was feeling that I'd finally recovered from the dot-com bubble bust of 2001. Although that period of business convulsions did reach beyond the Silicon Valley, my neighborhood was definitely "ground zero." I'm still sorting through the emotional baggage of that period of my life, and was just about to pay off the loans I used to finance starting my business back then, when the news came in over the wire: "The whole world's just gone to hell in a hand basket!" "Well isn't that a fine how-do-you-do?" I thought to myself. (Actually, my thoughts were quite a bit more obscene than that, but you'll have to fill in the blanks for yourself. See any guide to "How to Cuss Like a Sailor" and you'll get the idea of my reaction when I realized that we were poised once more to go on that roller coaster ride.)

Times may be tough, but project managers are used to such tough times. We face seemingly impossible challenges on every project. This is the perfect time to draw upon your ability to clarify goals, prioritize ruthlessly, create viable plans, and then execute them with excellence. We're used to balancing optimism about the future with a healthy realism about the challenges we're facing today. By applying the same discipline that we use in a typical project, we can find ways to succeed in dark times and be an inspiration to others.

Like economic mood swings, some project management problems tend to be difficult to avoid and recur periodically. Like bathing, or going to church, you can't just do it once and be done with it. While a lot of projects experience recurrent problems that are predictable and avoidable, some aren't. When prevention and avoidance aren't an option, it's best to have a strategy for rapidly identifying and dealing with them. We should expect that we'll need to deal with these predictably recurrent issues, and learn to handle them better every time. Human problems often fall into this category. Some of the typical human problems that crop up repeatedly in projects are:

  • Misunderstandings
  • Expectation mismanagement
  • Interpersonal conflict
  • Emotional melt-downs
  • Team member burnout

In the interest of space, I've left off the other 7,268 that I've personally experienced. If you're a project manager working with humans you can be sure you'll face such a problem in the near future. Rather than waiting with fingers crossed, hoping for the best, do something about it in advance. If you knew that you'd need to take a bath every day or so you'd make sure you had access to a shower, some soap and a little privacy. Knowing we'll face human problems on a regular basis, we need techniques that enable us to deal with them promptly, effectively, and . . . well, repeatedly.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Most of my work has been in Japan these days, where companies are facing similar challenges to the US, but taking a decidedly different approach. In a sense, Japan has been in a recession for over twenty years, so they just got used to functioning in an inhospitable environment. Most of my work is with native Japanese speaking people, and I don't speak Japanese (OK, I can order a beer and some edamame beans in a pinch), so I can pretty much guarantee that our team will experience one or more of the aforementioned problems, and many more, daily. Knowing we'll be hitting these stumbling blocks again and again, we've evolved some simple practices that have helped to keep these problems from wrecking our relationships and scuttling our teamwork. Here's what's been working for us:

Daily Debriefs – A lot of our work happens at a client site, doing workshops and consulting in an environment that sometimes feels like a pressure-cooker. One or two of us will be working with 15–20 people while the other person handles logistics and keeps communication flowing with our project sponsor. No matter how exhausted we are, at the end of the day we find time to share our perspectives on how the day went, specifically addressing these two questions:

  1. What worked well?, and
  2. What would we change that would work better in the future?

Sometimes we have to do it in a taxi, a crowded train, or a coffee shop, but a noodle house that serves tasty sake is my favorite. This really helps to clear the air and get ready for the next day's challenges. As simple as this is, it has greatly improved our teamwork. Everyone knows that they will have a chance to air their issues at the end of the day, so we don't feel the need to engage in distracting behaviors during the day when a solution can wait for the evening debrief. And starting off with some positive comments reminds us all of the positive aspects of our project and our team.

Most of the time we manage to identify and resolve issues with a minimum of grief. A daily debrief during intense times might be a net time saver for you and your team. Of course, sometimes someone gets defensive or argumentative, or has a complete emotional collapse, which brings me to my next point.

Create a "Time for a Time-out" Signal – When we push ourselves into the red zone, don't get enough sleep, and are powerfully committed to doing an excellent job, our personalities can get a little frayed around the edges. We can become unreasonable, emotionally fragile, irritated, or all of the above. As far as I can tell it happens to most human beings. Age helps, but until then, here's another idea. We need a way to signal that a meltdown is either in progress or about to occur.

A dear friend and colleague helped me create a name for my "other self," the one who is completely exhausted and starting to say and do things that I will regret and have to spend a lot of time cleaning up later. When I feel the onset of "Obakachan" (I think it is a friendly way of saying I'm acting like an idiot, but could also possibly mean I have a root growing out of my forehead) I say, "I've got to get some rest. Obakachan is coming," and then hightail it for a nice hot bath. If someone else notices first, they'll gently mention this pet name and I'll sheepishly stop being a jerk and take some time to think about things before continuing the discussion. How can you signal your team that it's time for a time-out?

Build Relationships and Trust Before You Hit the Skids – Spending some non-work time hanging out with people and talking about something besides work really helps smooth out the bumpy ride of inevitable conflict. I never go into the office without at least a few paltry candies to share at the team table, and I make a point of scheduling non-work social activities with people with whom I work most intensely. Spending a half-day walking through Kobe's Chinatown and waterfront with one of my key teammates, as I recently did, is not only enjoyable, but builds the kind of relationship that can withstand the next inevitable clash in styles or opinions. When was that last time you spent some time re-connecting with your team members on a personal level? Even a walk and talk at lunch with no action items or work agenda could strengthen your ability to weather the next storm together.

While these techniques don't rank up there with stochastic estimation techniques or Monte Carlo simulation as nuclear powered tools in your project management arsenal, they're practical, easy to implement, and they are proven to work even in the cauldron of cross-cultural collaboration. Give it a whirl and let me know what happens, and what else works with your team.

Don't Let Your Attitude Make Problems Worse

Ever since the Great Depression the world has known that the global economy goes through mood swings. And, while the seeds of these economic disasters are real enough, the majority of the destructive aftermath is self-induced—through an overreaction of pessimism and lack of confidence. If banks, businesses, and individuals would behave in a less reactive fashion we'd all get through this financial trough more quickly.

The same goes for human problems. Sure, they tend to be thorny and uncomfortable to deal with, and it's tempting to withdraw from the process when relationships falter. But, just like in the intricately interconnected worldwide economic web, our fates are inextricably linked. In every project we're playing a game only a team can win. If we want a healthy team environment, we've got to learn to deal with these issues day after day instead of settling for tense relationships, rivalries, and factions. We're all better off when we stay engaged, stay committed to the goals and each other, and work together to create a brighter future.

And as for the worldwide economic mood disorder, use your project management skills to create a pocket of possibility on the cloudy horizon. We're trained for this!

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