Musings from a Walking Dead Fan: Courageous Project Leaders Don’t Hide from Zombies

Who would have thought that a TV series about zombies could be such a hit? I admit I’m hooked on AMC’s The Walking Dead—along with 11.5 million other viewers. During a recent episode, as I watched survivalist instincts win out over chaos and mayhem, I got to thinking about how some projects can make us feel like we’re fighting for our lives. And then I considered how some project managers—survivalists—invariably emerge as strong leaders, even in the craziest of times.

Let’s assume we all get our projects started off strongly, with ample time and effort spent in the planning phase. (I like to dream big; we all want to do this, so let’s assume that we do.) Now our project is kicked off, and we’re implementing…cruising right along, if you will. We’re holding status meetings, risk updates, and project reviews. Seems like the perfect scenario, doesn’t it?

One stumbling point for some projects, and their project managers, is remembering to step back from the perfect scenario and consider the big picture—the broader contours of how the project fits within the organization as a whole. It’s seductive to “forget” to check on how a project currently fits the organization’s macro goals versus how it was originally meant to fit. Sometimes this step isn’t so much a case of forgetting as of the ostrich syndrome—we don’t want to see what we’re facing. (Certain TV characters I know hide in closets from zombies, while others hit them head-on…literally.)

Here’s the point I’m getting at: Even when project managers recognize that their project and the current organization goals have drifted apart, it is very, very hard to change direction. As planners, project managers inherently don’t like change. Let’s face it—a change order is never fun. It takes courage to acknowledge when a project has drifted away from its original mission, for whatever reason. That courage takes the form of speaking openly and directly with other team members, customers, and executive sponsors—and then devising ways to realign the project. It’s a tall order, but these are exactly the skills that exceptional project managers have—or can learn.

So, how do we develop as a courageous project leader?  Some ideas are:

  • Modeling (no, not on the runway): Find someone in your organization who is respected as a strong, successful project manager.  Often, these veteran project managers have learned through trial and tribulation how to keep projects in line with the organization, adapting and changing when needed.
  • Regular, scheduled objective reviews to monitor alignment: Think of these checkpoints as a way of gently forcing your own hand—if you see any differences regularly, they will be harder to ignore and your leadership skills will rise to the surface.
  • Practice: The safest place to practice project management skills is in a training environment. Find a simulation or program you like, and focus on areas for development. In addition to participating in training programs, join an online group to read and chat about others’ issues and solutions. Knowing you’re not alone can give you courage when you need it most.

Given how project managers are wired, it can feel life-threatening to press the “pause” button and evaluate our project’s current fit with organizational goals. But it’s important, and certainly not impossible. Fortunately, we can avoid a race to the death from zombies unless we’re tuning in on Sunday nights….

I’d love to hear what advice you’d give other project managers for keeping projects in sync with stakeholder priorities—in good and in “crazy” times.

Vashti J. Watson is a Paradigm Learning project manager training consultant with more than 15 years of experience rolling out, executing and managing multi-million dollar, global training programs and supporting project management product lines.

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