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My Story: Working Smarter; Not Harder

~ By Susanne Madsen

Woman thinking with a light bulb drawn on a blackboard

A number of years ago I was, like many other project managers, working hard on a project that seemed to become increasingly complex, with tighter and tighter deadlines. I was stressed and overworked, and I was not leveraging my capabilities in the best possible way. I spent most of my time planning and tracking tasks and dealing with urgent issues. There was not much time left for being proactive, thinking ahead - or spending quality time with team members or stakeholders. I was under a lot of pressure and did not feel that I had anyone to delegate to. But more importantly, I was not enjoying myself, and I was not always in control of the project.

A number of things made me change.

The defining moment was a coaching session in which I discussed my issues with stress and managing my workload. Within just one hour, I realised that one of my core beliefs was that project management is inherently stressful (and painful), and there is nothing I can do about it. At that stage in my career I had been managing projects for well over ten years, and my experiences told me that project management was a very demanding and stressful job. Period.

Recognising that project management does not have to be stressful was a true eureka moment for me. I instantly understood that my belief was subjective, not the objective truth, and that I had the power to challenge it and change it. What a shift that was! Understanding that my belief was not necessarily true allowed me to start working with it and to slowly dissolve it and become more effective and valuable in my job.

When you realise that you have the power to change your beliefs and remove a limiting factor that has been constraining you, you have an "aha!" moment. You feel relieved and empowered.

Susanne Madsen

My eureka moment made me pause, take a step back, and do less.I did this to regain my energy and to free up time to collect my thoughts. And then something magical happened. New ideas started to pop up, and I began to see patterns and connections that I had not noticed before. I looked at the bigger picture and started to understand how I could leverage my strengths and work more effectively. I gave myself the opportunity to be more proactive and to work smarter.

I had a closer look at myself as a project manager and the values that were driving my work. I examined my own worth, and I explored my boundaries. Why was it so important for me to work long hours and to micro-manage my team? Was there a better way to get things done? I had to acknowledge that it was not the hours I put in that mattered, but the quality of my work. I realised that in order to produce better-quality work, I would have to change the way I spent my time.

One of the changes I made that had a significant impact was delegating more. I recognised that I could not do everything by myself and that I needed to get better at asking for help and support. I got a project administrator on board to help with lower-level task tracking and administrative work. It was essential work, but it was not essential that I did it.

When I started delegating more, my focus shifted. I spent more time liaising with the team and key stakeholders, listening to their ideas and concerns and looking at what we could do better. I started focusing more on picturing the end state of the project and proactively reducing the risks associated with the road to getting there. This shift enabled me to become more proactive and effective, and to leverage my strengths better.

Today, I put as much emphasis on people as I do on tasks. I listen, I build strong relationships, and I trust others. I manage and lead people in a way that complements their individual needs, as opposed to micro-managing everyone across the board.

If you are facing some of the same challenges as I did, first free up time to think clearly. Maybe you feel stressed because you spend too much time being reactive and not enough time on pro-active and strategic project activities. Maybe you too, need to get better at delegating, saying no and levering your strengths better.

A good way to go about this is to identify the 20 percent of tasks and activities you do during your day or working week that produce 80 percent of your results. What are the activities that you do really well and that make all the difference in your performance and increase the likelihood of project success?

Then identify what you can do to focus relatively more time on the 20 percent of tasks that matter. Which activities do you need to stop doing in order to create more space for the 20 percent that matter? How can you start doing that?


This case study by Susanne Madsen is from her book "The Project Management Coaching Workbook", published by Kogan Page.

Susanne is a project/programme manager, mentor and coach with over 15 years experience in managing and rolling out large change programmes, using both agile and waterfall methodologies. She is a PRINCE2 and MSP practitioner and a qualified Corporate and Executive coach. She is currently employed as a Program Director for one of the world's largest financial institutions. For more project management thoughts from Susanne, visit her blog Susanne Madsen


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Topic: My Story: Working Smarter; Not Harder
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20th July 2016 1:11pm
Leena (Noida) says...
Excellent post and truly inspirational. I have been facing similar challenges. Reading this article is truly going to help me.

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