Another Day in Paradise: Life in Project-Land

by Carl Pritchard, Pritchard Management Associates

Those who know me and who have worked with me in the past know the familiar title of this article. I'm often asked, "How's it going?" My response: "It's another day in paradise." Is it? Not always. Then again, it beats the heck out of the alternatives.

Think about the current state of your project and your project organization(s). Are they perfect? I seriously doubt that many of you actually answered yes. But do they represent the opportunity for significant improvement or change or continued employment? For at least one of those, I would hope that the answer is yes. The key to embracing your project as another day in paradise, I contend, is to redefine paradise!

When I was still in college, I was a fry cook at a local sit-down restaurant. This was not a fancy establishment, just a local eatery. Around me were many middle-aged and older women; including one I'll call Shirley. Shirley was the eternal optimist, ever ready with a smile or kind word. On your worst day, it was difficult not to smile back at Shirley. She had worked at the restaurant for years before I got there and probably worked there for years thereafter. There were no hopes of stock options, major advancement, or breakthrough opportunities. How did she keep that attitude? A major part of it was recognizing that she had a willingness (and in some ways, it seemed a personal obligation) to define paradise down to the current levels and to get others to enjoy the trip.

The Paradise Mindset

I had several near-cathartic events yesterday. On the eve of a flight out for a major long-distance trip, my computer began flashing the "blue screen of death." As we all know, that's never a good thing. The trick is to know how bad it is. On many days, I would have spent much of the day popping a blood vessel while waiting for and dealing with the help desk. Although it took a full 12 hours, five technicians, and three major multinational corporations to resolve, I maintained much greater composure than I had in years. I did so specifically because I had hope, based on two factors:

  • I developed a game plan for where the effort would wind up if everything continued to go wrong.
  • I was leaving for Hawaii in 24 hours with my lovely wife from the time the disaster started.

OK, I confess. The latter actually probably had more influence than I give it credit for, but even so, it was actually the source of the pain as well. I had to have a running laptop for the business opportunity on Oahu, so I was between the proverbial rock and hard place. With that going on, I still wasn't freaking out for one simple reason—hope.

Hope is an amazing thing. It ties into expectancy theory by Vroom. [Victor H. Vroom of the Yale School of Management. –Ed.] Vroom posits that if we believe that an effort will bring with it a positive outcome, we will work harder and have a higher level of motivation associated with that effort. Knowing that I would, no matter what, have to be on a plane in less than 24 hours led me to the strange belief that I would somehow have a resolution in that time. It also helped to keep me from losing my cool when professionals were expressing their belief that the system might have to be sacrificed to the computer gods.

There are multiple ways we can leverage this to our advantage on projects. The first is to remind ourselves and our team members that if we develop a viable set of alternative solutions, "paradise" is still a potential outcome. Part of that is to affirm what constitutes paradise. It may be just a state of survival without doing harm to the status quo. Part of it may be an opportunity to make even the tiniest of inroads on a much larger problem. Part of it may simply be a clear understanding that the goal, however distant, is ultimately worthwhile.

In order to accomplish that, we can start by clearly stating what today's version of paradise can be. Any situation that is not doing harm to us and affords an opportunity for growth can be defined or redefined as a paradise. In many environments, team members and project managers alike seem committed to the notion that defining the hellish existence in which we live as a hellish existence, leading to a Nietzschean paradigm: "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."

The reality should be just the opposite. "That which affords me hope makes me stronger." In a project environment, if we wish to engender hope, we need to cite the opportunities that exist in every work package and in every approach we identify. When disasters befall us (even as limited as my computer meltdown), we need to identify where the optimistic elements may reside. In some cases, the mere notion that we have a proposed route for survival is enough to qualify as paradise. The potential absence of suffering stands as an improvement over where we might otherwise be.

Project managers hold a unique position in their ability to drive individuals to a shared posture of optimism. They get there, however, by emphasizing the aspects of "paradise" in which the project is evolving. The more we can do to affirm that optimism and direct others to identify the alternatives which may potentially minimize any pain and angst, the further down the road to paradise we find ourselves.

At 8:15 P.M. last night (Eastern Time), I hung up the phone with the last technician. In the last 15 minutes of effort, we had rectified the problem on my primary laptop and had finished reconditioning my back-up laptop to the point where both could serve the need for the upcoming trip. It is now 4:25 P.M. (Hawaii Time). My wife and I are at 34,000 feet and about three hours out from the Aloha State, where I don't have to show up for work for three days.

It's another day in paradise.

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