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How to Get Out of Project Overwhelm

~ By Adele Sommers

Business life workaholic overloaded under papers holding up a help sign

It's two weeks before the deadline. But your project is at least six weeks behind! Everyone is sweating bullets. As project leader, you're wringing your hands. A volcano of surprises has erupted since the project launched three months ago. And in contrast to everyone's prognostications, no one foresaw the lava flow of trouble ahead.

Your dilemma: Information that was supposed to be available in week two won't be known for another month. Parts of the system that were designed to work one way are really working another. An expert you needed to provide critical details went on extended leave right after the project launch. And that's just scratching the surface!

So today, that simple-looking undertaking that your crystal ball said should only take four weeks of work beckons from a distant horizon. The funding may soon be cut off. And management will surely panic if it's not finished for the scheduled unveiling. You sense disaster looming, yet everyone feels helpless. So, what can you do?

This article explains how to get out of "project overwhelm" and restore sanity to your endeavour. It may be time to regroup and swiftly chart a new course.

But Wait! Couldn't You Try a Last-Minute, Heroic Manoeuvre?

Well, you could, but should you? Yes, it's only human nature to want to pull out all the stops, work 24/7, and pray it will all come together. Is it still possible to finish on time if you speed up your efforts, put more people on the project, and/or require the team to work 14 hours a day? And if you do, can you ever get completely caught up?

Let's get real. You and your team will probably need to admit that there's no way to achieve the original goals in the expected time frame. There are just too many loose ends. Key people and information sources are missing, and that creates gaping holes. Further, parts of the system aren't working correctly. How long will it take to fix that?

A misconception about projects is that you can remedy every late delay by adding people or increasing effort. In certain cases, you can. In others, adding people at the eleventh hour, or working at a frenzied pace, brings chaos, frustration, and errors.

A project delivered with major gaps will seem seriously flawed if everyone compares it to the original plan. Here's a powerful strategy that can make all the difference…

It's Time To Reframe Success!

Reframe success? What exactly does that mean?

Well, initially, you and your team defined a set of requirements for completing the project. There were four types of criteria involved (some of which may have been simply implied):

  • Time (the speed or schedule for doing the work)
  • Cost (in terms of the funding, the resources, or a combination)
  • Quality (how well the effort needed to be done)
  • Features (how many components or deliverables there were, and how complex)

On this project, however, it seems you've run into a common situation in which the features (and perhaps quality) have collided with time. Too much to get done on too short a schedule. It's really no one's fault; everyone was doing the best he or she could. There were just too many dynamic variables in play. When every aspect of a project is a moving target, it often feels like skateboarding on molten rock.

So the "disconnect" in your situation is that you won't be able to complete everything you started out to do per the original schedule. The answer is not to hide behind your desk; it's to re-plan the tail end of the project so you can smoothly carry over the unfinished tasks to a later phase.

It's a lot like ending a meeting on time when you still have unfinished business left on the agenda. Yes, everyone can agree to continue talking until all topics have been discussed. Or, you could choose to stop the meeting gracefully by deciding what to carry over to the next agenda. In fact, the earlier you can anticipate any potential need to do this on your project, the more your team and organisation will benefit.

Here is a simple but effective strategy for applying this sanity-saving approach. Review all outstanding tasks and requirements, then sort them into these categories:

  1. Must-have within the remaining schedule, because you need them very soon
  2. Nice-to-have within the remaining schedule, but they could be carried over
  3. Can't do yet, even if you wanted to, as there isn't enough information available

Review this reprioritised list with your team and management, making any changes needed. If you execute your plan accordingly, you'll sleep soundly again at night!


Adele Sommers, Ph.D. is the author of the award-winning "Straight Talk on Boosting Business Performance" programme. She helps people "discover and recover" the profits their businesses may be losing every day through overlooked performance potential. To sign up for more free tips, visit her site at LearnShareProsper.com


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