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Project Management: Harnessing the Chaos

Projects are inherently gigantic messes. They fall behind, lose resources, go over budget, and feel like they’ll never be completed. It comes with the territory with any living, breathing thing.

The first project of consequence I ever managed was the development of a robotic hardware platform to support the release of Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio 4. (The product has since been discontinued, but you can still see the details here.) Like any good, green project manger, I immediately put together a Gantt chart, got team buy-in, and scheduled weekly syncs. Everyone felt confident in our ability to deliver.

Then we missed our first deadline.

“No problem!” I said as I quickly rearranged the timeline. “We already had some slack built in.”

Then we missed our second deadline, and our third, and the fourth…and you can imagine how things progressed from there.

Approximate representation of my demeanor three weeks before launch.
Approximate representation of my demeanor three weeks before launch.

I was a nervous wreck throughout the life of the project, intently focused on how much we’d diverged from original timeline and how impossible it was to get back in sync with our original milestones. I was so single-minded in this that I failed to think outside the box for creative solutions to our predicament. I was letting the chaos overwhelm instead of empower me.

See, beautiful things happen when you’re navigating the chaotic world of a project under development. You can jettison features to make a product more relevant and useful for customers. You might modify what it means to “launch” and provide an opportunity to get more feedback from users before firming up a design. Every delay presents an opportunity to optimize.

As for that first project? We got a little creative in redefining “launch” as “opening for pre-orders,” and took the time to adjust and simplify the circuit board design. Guess what? The world didn’t end.

The bottom line is that unless you’re amazingly terrible at your job, the project is going to launch. This fact is just incredibly difficult to see when the chaos envelops you. So let’s stop getting overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and flex a muscle we don’t always get to as project managers…

…Let’s get creative.

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