Some of the biggest IT project stressors are within a project leader's control, and others may not be completely, making them far more touchy to resolve. Here's just a handful of the types of stressors that may make it to the top of the list. You may be surprised to find how many of these stressors are partially or fully within your control. There have been days when I've heard project professionals (present company included) complain about the following issues:
1. A boss who can't say no to new projects
As far as IT projects go, competing deadlines do happen, and often. But when this becomes a permanent occurrence because your boss simply doesn't recognize his/her need to say 'yes' isn't working it's a major stressor. While they look good to their boss, their gain becomes your pain and is unnecessarily problematic. Hang on though! Before you place full blame on your boss, it's important to ask yourself if he or she is aware that your workload is unmanageable. Make sure to have this conversation and be honest about why this is a problem, don't try to be a martyr - it's a story than seldom ends well. If you've had this dialogue already and your boss simply shows no regard, you may need to find a new way to present the issue to them - and maybe offer potential solutions as well.
- Don't procrastinate; before going too far down each project, highlight all the risk points, including the increased chance of failure, and ask them to set their priorities. Discuss precisely why and where overextending yourself would end in failure for stakeholders - no one wants that outcome.
- Put yourself in his or her position; think of what someone could say to you if you were the boss that might make you sit up and take note.
- Phrase your points in ways that would make sense if it were being presented to you. Ultimately, your failure reflects on them as well, and maybe this is the one thing that may help them recognized it's better for all if they also learn when to say no. If you succeed, so do they.
2. Insufficient resources to get the job done
Budget restraints, resource shortages, and even a lack of understanding or awareness, among other things, can obstruct your ability to get the tools you may need to properly manage projects. This can also lead to unnecessary manual workarounds, squandered time, and unrealistic goals and expectations.
Take ample time to understand exactly what technologies or other tools are needed to help you to do your job better. Identify any time and cost savings or how it will improve the quality of any deliverables. If you don't know this answer, it's almost impossible to get management to approve it. Be prepared to outline how any expenditure is an investment in the future of an IT project. Companies seldom want to spend money on technologies or resources unless they can see a fairly quick recapture of costs or justify it through an ongoing need. This becomes particularly important for smaller companies with limited funds or larger organizations that have already invested large capital into existing technologies.
3. New security threats popping up
IT projects are always at the forefront when it comes to external threats, especially security threats. "Ransomware is hot right now," said Mike Davis, CTO of security solutions provider CounterTack. "It's on the nightly news at 10PM. Even your mother might have brought it up to you. CIOs, CTOs, and anyone in IT is dealing with this threat. But should you be? Is it a real risk for your IT project?"
Davis believes that prioritizing risks is an extremely misunderstood issue when it comes to IT projects. "Here is the current approach most of us are taking - fancy excel spreadsheets. We've all seen them — the excel spreadsheet with red, greens, and yellows that tell you where your risk is. You follow what you learned in the past - tackle low-hanging fruit first and then drill down as hard and as fast as you can on the critical and high items," he said. In his opinion this isn't the correct way of tackling issues; he explains "it causes way more stress for you and your IT staff than it should. You see, attackers are opportunistic and scrappy, yet we CIOs, CTOs, etc. don't seem to work in those variables onto our sea of reds and yellows when we manage IT projects." Davis refers to this as the "single versus multivariable risk assessment problem."
In the case of security threats, Davis recommends IT leaders ask themselves and their teams, "what do attackers have access to in terms of other threats now that the threat has been exploited?" He further recommends following the threat to determine "now that the attacker is on the file server, what threats can they leverage?" He says "this process isn't hard. It isn't overly complicated. It doesn't need an actuarial to provide a bunch of algorithms to calculate. But it works and will help your IT project address the actual risks that matter." Don't remain in a reactionary mode, don't just think defensively, think like the threat and not the threatened.
4. When you are your own worst enemy
Significant pressure is put on IT departments and project teams to keep pace with technological advancements, making it easy for IT project leaders to expect too much of themselves. Again, the book of martyrs seldom ends well.
- Keep yourself grounded and understand your limits. Trying to be everything to everyone can make you your own worst enemy. This is something you have FULL control over, and it serves no one well if you make mistakes because you spread yourself too thin. Especially in IT where everything is already moving at a rapid pace, project leaders need to prioritize and remain focused on what's required to avoid getting lost in the weeds. You simply can't be everywhere all the time, nor everything to everyone, it's a fool's errand.
- Commit to sufficient work/life balance. This issue is all too well known by many project leaders, especially in the IT field. The hurried pace of IT projects is commonplace and can make it almost impossible to get a good night's sleep or even take a portion of the day off. If you want to serve stakeholders, sponsors and project teams well, take breaks where possible, even if it's a walk outside to clear your mind and get some fresh air without thinking of work. Go home on time whenever possible, and know when to "shut-off' your mind and your phone and rejuvenate. Yes, this is another area where you have FULL control over the outcome. Make decisions to stop the noise, don't let the decision get made for your by your boss or worse yet - your doctor.
- Make sure you can recognize signs of burn-out before it's too late. Most project leaders eat, sleep and breathe projects from start to finish, and although it seems admirable on the surface, it's more likely to catch up at some point. Physical and mental overload can surface at the most inopportune moments within a project. The trouble is, the risk is not just to the project when this happens, it also comes at a cost to you and your health through stress related ailments. Burn-out is all too common for project leaders, especially with IT projects. If you don't know, talk with other project leaders about their experiences with this, there's plenty who've been there. Ok, at the risk of sounding like your family or your doctor, it's necessary to say take steps to reduce your stress, get proper exercise, sleep, make sure to eat on time, ask for additional resources and help, and know when you should say 'no' to that next project. You're no good to stakeholders, teams, your company or yourself if you hit burn-out.
Many of the stressors mentioned don't have to reach a troubling point. As an IT project professional, you've learned how to troubleshoot, anticipate risks and develop strategies to mitigate them. These are transferable skills that can help you fix all of these stressors I've highlighted - and more.Also see:
Moira Alexander is the author of "LEAD or LAG: Linking Strategic Project Management & Thought Leadership" and Founder & President of Lead-Her-Ship Group. She's also a project management and IT freelance columnist for various publications, and a contributor and co-host of the "technically speaking" segment on the Price of Business Talk Radio. She has 20+ years in business (IS&T) and project management for small to large businesses in the US and Canada. To find out more about Moira, go to www.leadhershipgroup.com.