In a wonderful book of illustrated Katas by Zhizhong Cai, I discovered a story that has sustained me through many troubled times at work.
In this story, a doctor assigned to a medieval Chinese MASH unit patches up yet another soldier and sends him back out to fight with his unit. When the soldier returns, dead on a stretcher, one more dead man among so many, yet again, the doctor becomes overwhelmed. It feels like every man he patches up goes back out onto the field, and returns broken once more.
In despair, the doctor abandons his post and wanders disconsolate in the forest, wondering: Why? Why do I do a job that causes me such heartache? Why do I patch men up only to send them back out to die? What is the point of such a thing? What difference am I making in the world? Why am I doing this?
After much meditation, the answer comes to him like a lightning bolt:
Because I am a doctor.
Only then can he return to work, at peace with his path in life.
The Project Manager
I once made the mistake of convincing a friend to go into Project Management. He was stuck in break-fix, loving working with users but hating the misogynistic culture of jerks on his team. He had experience organizing tech work and driving it to completion, and he is great with stakeholders; so, when a former mentor told him about a job in the PMO, I suggested he go for it.
He hates it.
Not for any of the reasons stated above. What he hates is the fact that he constantly has to follow up with people, nudge them forward. Team members complain to him about problems the way cats bring their humans mostly dead mice and then sit there proudly – yours now, buddy – while you race around putting on hot mitts and grabbing wads of paper towels and triple layers of garbage bags with which to dispose it.
I don’t know any project manager who, on bad days, doesn’t grumble to themselves about team members who do their work but don’t close their tickets and then get mad when the PM follows up. Or, even worse, who don’t do their work, or even leave a note in the ticket explaining what’s going on so the PM doesn’t bug them. And, of course, they don’t join the stand up or the status meeting because they’re “too busy getting work done” to report out on the status of the work.
My friend says, “Why can’t people just take ownership for their work and get it done. They know what they need to do. Why do I have to follow up with them?”
Because, my friend, you are a project manager.
In an ideal world, yes, everyone would step up and do their work. But there is no ideal world, and so there are project managers to force team members to report out on the status of their work. To pull people together and persuade them to solve problems. To make sponsors pay attention to risks – yes, I know you shouldn’t have to but guess what: you are the sponsor and you don’t get away with saying that you trusted the team – you ignored their cries for help and now you reap the consequence of that.
Sometimes it does seem pointless.
It does seem like what you are doing doesn’t make a difference in the world. That people will go on making the same mistakes over and over. That they won’t change.
That sponsors will always keep wanting to get more done with less, and for the project to finish three weeks before it actually began.
That stakeholders will always expect the scope of the project to expand to include a vast sea of requirements that will inevitably push the timeline and resource plan onto another plain of reality.
That team members will always have far too much to do and will never be able to focus on the project work because their supervisor keeps asking them to do other work first (even when their supervisor is the executive sponsor).
And you know what? If all that didn’t happen, the world wouldn’t need project managers.
The truth is, that even the little victories – the band-aid that allows the soldier to ride back into battle – make a difference. I’m not talking about the success of a project. Unless you’re the one who solves the malaria problem or administered the smallpox vaccine to the last person in India, your project isn’t going to save lives.
The work that 99.99999% of us do every day, doesn’t save lives.
But it does make a small positive difference to the people around us. It lets a company solve a problem that allows them to keep one person employed, and that makes a difference to that person. It gives a project team member a chance to do something they haven’t done before, and discover something they didn’t know about themselves: that they can do things like that.
That makes a difference.
It causes an executive sponsor to recognize something about their management style that perhaps they wouldn’t have otherwise recognized. Helps them dial it up or dial it back. And makes them a better leader, which makes a difference to them and to the people working for them.
It would have been easy for the MASH doctor in the story to quit. To say that he had enough, for him to develop a side gig, or become a life coach or something.
Except that he was a doctor.
The new year is often a time for reflection, for new beginnings. As you start to reflect on what you want to do in 2023 that you haven’t done before, consider this: