Take a Step

Last week was particularly stressful for me because of some frustrations at work. I was really glad that I was pretty-much the only person actually in the office (the only other person was way down at the other end of the floor) because, at one point, I literally put my head down on my desk and started to weep.

Why? Why was I so freaked out?

Well, first of all, one of my project managers was on vacation and I was supporting his project in his absence. That meant putting together the Friday weekly status report email. I hadn’t actually read his email recently – I had skimmed it but I knew what was going on with the project, so I didn’t need to read the details. But, as I tried to edit it on Friday, I realized how much the email had gone on autopilot and ballooned beyond effectiveness. I couldn’t even figure out where he got the information in the email from.

Originally, we had put a narrative email together – as opposed to a data-centered email – while we got the project up and running and we had been too busy since then to rebuild it. After two hours of wondering how much time my project manager was wasting on this narrative email each week, I finally made an executive decision not to send the email and to rebuild it with him, to be more data-centered.

Another stressor: I asked one of my project managers that I wanted him to present data to his team members and executive sponsor. He sighed heavily and I asked what the problem was. “I have presented data to them,” he said. “I’ve been presenting data for six weeks. They chose to ignore it. They keep requesting reports and plans; I give it to them; they say it’s exactly what they want; and then they immediately move on from it – can’t even find the report later – and finally tell me that they need a new report to solve exactly the same problem again, because they never took the action they agreed to take.” We need to stop playing these games; we need to agree on the data, present it, and then hold them accountable to it by reporting out on how the results they do – or, in this case, don’t – achieve.

Stressor #3: Another project manager is working with a team to put together a project plan. But they haven’t defined yet what they are building. So he is doing a product manager’s job, helping them define what they are building so he can project the timelines and resourcing required to build it. At one point, he told them that they may need to take an MVP approach because the volume of what they want to build will not fit into the time that they have to build it. That was unacceptable to them. I am an optimist: I believe that the executive sponsor for this project will make the right decision if you present it to her in a way she can understand. What is that way? Provide data on what she will have to give up to get what she wants: to achieve this gold-plated scope on that tiny timeline, it will require this enormous pile of money — and you may also have to give up this other work that you want the team to work on. That’s a tough conversation to have.

When I look at it in retrospect, our paths forward are clear. So why was this so stressful? Why did we all feel, in our own ways, hopeless in the moment? Partially it is getting trapped inside the bubble of what we needed to do and what we were hearing around us.

Partially it is the stressors outside the workplace. The hurricane bearing down on us, the rising Covid rates, watching our fellow Americans prioritize individual freedom over community safety, climate change, political instability, what’s happening in Afghanistan… the stressors are endless.

Over the weekend, I had lunch with a friend that I hadn’t seen since pre-Covid, for the very good reason that she was trapped overseas. She works for a division of the UN that helps plan for emergency situations. She confessed that, in 2019, she had been feeling restless at work, fighting the same kinds of battles that I described above; so she volunteered for their emergency response team, which meant she was on standby to be sent, at a moment’s notice, to lead on-the-ground efforts for two months. And, in January 2020, they called her marker and sent her to Eastern Turkey, to coordinate aid to Syria. And there she stayed because, in February, Covid exploded, air travel shut down and the UN couldn’t get her replacement in or get her out. When travel reopened she could get back to her family in Europe – a relief since her elderly mother needed surgery – and eventually back to NYC. Another relief since she couldn’t get vaccinated in her home country, and because she also needed surgery. So now she’s back, she’s recovering… and she’s starting to get bored with office politics again, and is considering signing up for another round of emergency response team.

One of the things that leads to stress is a lack of action; conversely, one of the things that reduces stress is taking action. When you sit around and worry that others won’t respond to the data you prepare, you dig yourself into a worry-hole that leads you into a death-spiral. When, instead, you take action somehow, you move forward. You may take a step and find it works; and then take another step, and find that works, too; and then take another step and find that it doesn’t work; and then change your path. That’s life.

So take a first step.

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