Dropping the ball at a new job. Advice on turning work fuckup around.
February 7, 2021 2:48 AM   Subscribe

I failed all three phases of "Do what you say you’re going to do, by when you say you’re going to do it, or update people accordingly" from Ask A Manager advice in my new job. What can I do to prevent this from happening in the future and present some coherent plan that won't result in a late project with decidely mediocre work product in the future.

I am having problems with consistent communication, anxiety and now dread in my new position. This is a more senior role with project responsibilities. I am specifically looking for concrete suggestions for:

1) My boss is especially concered that I didn't communicate enough about this problems the project ran into and that it would slip. I have a lot of anxiety around having these sort of conversation and I am an avoider.

2) A simple process for me to keep track of tasks and timelines (paper based far preferred) but has some sort of conceptual underpinnings I can point to as a concrete step for making sure I don't fall into this situation again, and I can explain to my boss about why I am doing differently.

3) I need a neutral party to check in and discuss this with, at least two times a week. Assume I have nobody suitable in my extended circle/community. I feel very strongly I need to have this in place in the next couple of days. Where should I be looking?

Suggestions which are probably obvious to you but not to this well-into-middle age person who has pulled a weeks worth of all-nighters are on point.

I do need some therapy to work on some underying issues and deal with the loneliness of living alone during COVID with a very minimal set of friends. but if I don't improve this work situation then things will be very difficult very soon.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Have you tried timeblocking (also known as timeboxing)? Divide your project into discrete chunks of time. Set goals for what you're going to accomplish during the time you're working on Project X. If you find you're not able to meet those goals during the time *that day* you make the judgment call on if you need to 1) adjust how much time you're setting aside, 2) escalate to manager that you're running into roadblocks, 3) both 1&2.

You may also want to practice checking in with your manager frequently when things are going well to break the "talking to manager = I'm messing up" association.
posted by shesdeadimalive at 4:35 AM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

A few thoughts that hopefully will help a bit:
For 1 - do you have regular status report that you send to your boss - weekly or even daily if things are very dynamic. It should be simple and always in the same format - you can have a RAG (red/amber/green) status for the key areas - scope, schedule, resources + a short description of progress since the last report, what's planned for the next report period + issues and what you're doing about them - highlight things where you need the bosses intervention to help.

For 2 - depending on the type of project, you could either try to construct a simple person/task plan (basically a gantt chart) - you can knock something up in excel pretty quickly that you can review regularly to see if you are on track against it, or look at a more "Agile" style task list - Kanban/Scrum board where you prioritize and estimate more dynamically.

For 3 - if you want to memail me I'll try to help a bit to bridge any gap until you can find a longer term person to check in with.

Project management is often a very stressful role particularly to start with because you can end up feeling like all the projects problems are your problems! It can take a bit of time to separate out your role in clarifying and assigning out those issues so you can feel like you are doing a good job even when the project is in trouble.
posted by crocomancer at 4:39 AM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

I was having similar issues at work (mine are rooted in ADHD rather than anxiety) and hired a coach last year. She walked me through ways of organizing and prioritizing my work, and as you say, served as a neutral third party. I think I used her services for about 6 months. It might be even more helpful for you than for me, because I tend to backslide, and without ADHD the techniques might stick more long term. If you’d like a specific recommendation, memail me (my coach works entirely online/phone).
posted by Kriesa at 4:40 AM on February 7, 2021 [5 favorites]

This is stunningly similar to my own current problems and I hope to find some kind of magic bullet in the answers here. I’ve run through all my (fairly reasonable) justifications and haven’t really improved my output in 10 weeks at this job. I’m currently pinning it on undiagnosed/unmanaged ADHD, and if seeking ADHD treatment doesn’t turn things around I’m going to be just about out of options.
posted by lostburner at 6:48 AM on February 7, 2021

What about creating a project plan with weekly milestones (or even daily milestones depending on the project's pace), hiring a coach, and sending your supervisor bi-weekly or daily updates?

I think sending them regular (e.g., daily) reports will be the most helpful thing for earning back their trust. I don't think "I'm using XYZ task-tracking method now" would provide much reassurance, because how will they keep from wondering if you've slipped off track again? If you create a project plan with weekly milestones and then every day set small goals that'll get you to that weekly milestone, you will probably be able to tell if the project is slipping.

Avoidance is tough to beat, I know firsthand. The only things that helped me with it in the short term are exercise and meditation -- getting used to enduring pain and facing reality. In the long run, it's faded, because my identity is less tied to work, so I get less high-strung about work projects. On a daily basis, I also find it really helpful to do the thing on my to-do list that I find most stressful first. "What would give me the most relief to have done?" and then I do that. Then I do the second-most stressful thing, and so on. When that fails, I try to at least take advantage of my avoidance by doing a whole bunch of second-most important things while I'm avoiding the most important thing (as opposed to not working or working on the least-important thing).
posted by slidell at 8:18 AM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

My anxiety about work decreased massively when I set up a biweekly standing check-in with my manager, which seems counterintuitive, but basically it forces a checkpoint where I have the chance to bring up any concerns, even minor ones, and talk through them without it becoming an “escalation” or having me feel like I was wasting their time on something that’s not a big deal (yet). You should consider this—proactively suggesting it will also help show you’re taking the feedback seriously. But you have to be honest and on top of knowing where things are, even if where they are is “in the toilet”.

Part of their job is to support you and create conditions for you to succeed. They’re (ideally) not an adversary, they want the project to get done just as much as you do. So they will hopefully be able to help strategize and advocate for you if things get off course or you don’t have the resources you need to complete your project.

It’s not super clear to me what type of work this is, what type of projects or deliverables you have, or how things went off the rails. You mentioned all nighters. As a project manager, this is interesting to me because there aren’t often things I can or should fix by doing all the work myself!

Is it your work product that you put off starting on, or messed up the first time through? Someone else’s that you failed to schedule out properly? Did it go off the rails because you didn’t plan out the schedule, because things went slower than expected, because you ran into unexpected issues beyond your control?

Figuring out the actual failure mode seems important here, because fixing “I totally forgot that I needed to schedule 30 hours of Bob’s time until two days from deadline” is a different problem from “I never received any files from Bob and had to reassign” or “I am Bob and I did the wrong task.”

I like Trello or even Excel for project management (Trello can be shared with your boss!), but for less complicated things I tend to just write out a simple paper list and cross things off it, then transfer the pending items to a new list when my old one gets messy, you might look at bullet journaling techniques. This type of weekly planner (I had a notepad pre-printed so I could label the weeks) has also been helpful to me at times.

I second slidell’s recommendation to do the worst thing first—I have the most energy first thing and it’s easy to lose that energy taking care of inconsequential tasks so the big thing just carries on day to day, looming. Mark Twain said something along the lines of “eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen for the rest of the day”—eat the frog and your anxiety will go down.

The timer-based Pomodoro method can be helpful for making sure you at least start on that frog!

I love the coach suggestion if you can swing it. Getting good habits into place will help reset your situation and avoidant feelings. Some weeks I just talk to my therapist about work, and once I’ve gotten all those feelings out of where they’re swirling in my head and out into the open, it all seems surprisingly manageable.

Good luck!
posted by music for skeletons at 8:48 AM on February 7, 2021 [3 favorites]

I have had problems like this in the past, rooted in some combo of anxiety and ADHD like symptoms. For me, ironically, it only got better once I decided on a zero-guilt policy. What does that mean? It means I preemptively forgive myself for any mistakes made, time not spent efficiently, not communicating, whatever. What's done is done. Truly believing that helps prevent me from spiraling into self-recrimination and self-doubt and actually get much more done than when I kept beating myself up. What your manager is saying, while well-intentioned, doesn't help you reach this place. Put systems in place by all means, but don't forget to just treat yourself well. You're human, as we all are, and cannot be perfect.
posted by peacheater at 11:19 AM on February 7, 2021 [4 favorites]

I'm a fellow ball-dropper, too (which I say with zero judgement), and have gotten better and have been dropping fewer balls by: figuring out why it happened, addressing that root cause, and doing other things to mitigate while I'm working on the root cause.

Figure out why it happened: Are you over-committing, and of so, why, and can you stop? Are you experiencing anxiety/dread because you worry you're missing skills or experience? Are you not comfortable/experienced with having the tough conversations that come with letting other people know about delays and blockers? Is the job actually the right fit for your skills and interest? Could it possibly be something like undiagnosed ADHD (which doesn't preclude any of the other things)?

Address the root cause: Will vary based on your answers above, but will likely involve some introspecting and conversations with a therapist and/or your manager, and maybe some reading about project management or difficult conversations.

Mitigate: Set calendar reminders to check in and follow up, find a task management system that works for you, ask coworkers for help unblocking if needed, and yes, get a professional coach! Depending on where you work you may even have access to one through your company benefits, if they offer a service like ModernHealth or BetterUp, or even an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that could help you find a coach.

I also really like the zero-guilt policy described above, but it's definitely easier for me to be forgiving of my own mistakes when I have some sense of why I keep making the same ones.
posted by rhiannonstone at 3:02 PM on February 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

I am absolutely projecting from my own cruddy workplace but as someone similarly new to the job: can it be your anxiety making you take on responsibility that should be shared with your boss?

Like, for a brand new employee, you expect the first few months to involve hand holding like regular check-ins, them learning the ropes and establishing a reporting system that works. I know think it is a real red flag if your manager does NOT have a way to check in regularly with you, or doesn't encourage any kind of metric/tracking. You have to be proactive and bring it up if they don't, but the responsibility for establishing that should be on them in the first place.

If this is an already created job, what was the previous person using to track projects and communicate with the boss? If it's a new position, then you and your boss should ideally be putting together such a system as part of the set-up of the position.

The advice above is totally great if this is indeed a problem of your own making, but! Sometimes you also have an awful manager and need to pivot to managing up to cope with their warped expectations and non-existent or bad guidance. And feeling way less guilt.

I have a weekly paper desk diary that I write a daily to-do list in. It's small so I can't fit more than the top 10-12 things each day within it, and it lets me see how crowded my weeks are at a glance. I manually sync it with my google calendar for events, and it has really helped. My office has NO project management system, so I created my own google tracking sheets for all the projects separately and have my browser home page to a little html file that lists them as links. When something happens on a project, I update the relevant sheet.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:09 PM on February 7, 2021

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