Stuck ruminating on a difficult project at work....six months later :(
May 7, 2021 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I was put in a PM role on a large project last year and it didn’t go particularly well - six months after coming off the project I’m still ruminating on what happened and need help finding the way out. More explanation inside..

After the pandemic hit last year, and in the face of significant lay offs across my company I was put into a PM role on a project far larger and more complex than I typically work on. I poured everything into it for six months trying to make it work, but the deeper I got into it, the clearer it became the project had deep, intractable issues I wasn’t going to be able to solve. Including but not limited to a micromanaging client, limited budgets on all sides, hasty handoff of a project with a 5+ year history, poor staffing, unachievable but also rigid schedules, absent leadership, lack of support, and more. As a kicker the core team was 90% male, led by me, a relatively young (30’s) woman, which added a generalized atmosphere of “huh was that sexism? Well...gotta move on I guess…”.

After six months I was completely burned out trying to manage it, but soldiered on for another three before coming to a “mutual” decision with leadership it would be best for my mental health to move on to something else. I cried to three separate VPs on the phone, so it wasn’t good. At the same time, my team DID actually get all the contracted work done, and reasonably well, so it wasn’t that we didn’t perform - it was more that I was just losing it trying keep everything on track. All formal feedback on evaluations has been positive and understanding of the project challenges. The only people I cried at were my leadership - I don’t think the rest of the very large team was aware how much I was struggling.

Since then...I feel like I’ve been demoted (but still hold the same title and got a 3% raise in April). I’ve been doing work at a level I was doing 4 years ago, with limited scope. On the one hand, I have fairly broad visibility to the project needs that exist, and it does make sense I’m doing the work I’m doing. On the other hand it feels terrible and like I’m going backwards and have lost the trust of leadership. That they need to “handle” me. I’m concerned they think my struggles with the project were related to the scope and scale, and not to everything else that was the actual problem. In fact, I found the scope and scale to be relatively manageable - rather it was the combination of micromanaging and budget constraints that really made it untenable.

It’s been six months since I came off it and I still am hung up thinking about it almost every night. If I get to the core of what I think I need, it’s to restore my confidence in my work, but the work I’m doing now just makes me feel worse because it’s such a step back.

I think what I’m looking for is to hear from others who may have experienced something similar, and how you got over it? Or suggestions on how to move forward at work. It just feels so unproductive to be this stuck on it after so much time, but I just keep going around on it and I’m not sure what they way out is?

I’ve been applying to other jobs, thinking maybe a change of scenery and a fresh start would be good but then I think perhaps I’m just running away from it (plus all the leads are moving verrrrry slowly right now, so that’s not an immediate solution).
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is it possible your management gave you some easy projects to give you a bit of a break? As your manager, I probably wouldn't give you a raise if I was actually unhappy with your work. In fact to be cynical, that nightmare project would have been a perfect opportunity to get rid of you if they really wanted to, but they didn't.

I would say, enjoy it while it lasts, and ask for a new challenge when you feel ready for it. A project post-mortem could also be useful (once you've recovered from it) especially if you'll have the freedom to be candid and say that it was the micromanagement and budget.

I suppose if you've actually asked for new challenges already and been denied, then that contradicts the theory that they're just giving you a break.
posted by tinydancer at 7:31 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]

In the kindest possible way... absolutely nothing you have said here indicates that anyone except you thinks the project was a failure. And... you actually say that your team got the work done! So the project was actually demonstrably not a failure! So... what i am saying is that it really sounds like all the maybe-you-could-have-done-better energy here is coming from you.

Forgive me, I am slightly stoned, but I love you. It’s fine. I get it. I strongly suspect that what you may be doing here is comparing:
1) what could reasonably be accomplished by a human being with needs and feelings during a global pandemic and significant social evolutionary shift that has definitely traumatized everyone at least a little bit and also work sexism and a challenging project with tight deadlines and limited resources
2) what you believe you could possibly have accomplished if you were at the top of your game 100% of the time and batted it out of the park in. literally. every. meeting.

(if you are going to say “well, no, I mean, I’m actually using a very reasonable measure to objectively prove that I should be ashamed of my own failure” then please stop, get some water. I love you)

I get it! I do this all the time! It sucks!

Here is the thing, muffin. It’s work. You did the job by all measurable standards. There certainly are things that you could do better next time! If you think it will help you feel better, you could write some of those things down! You could talk to your supervisor about your list if you want to. You don’t have to do that, and you also don’t have to decide now! You can decide later!

So, observable measures say “accomplished”!

Next: apparently no one found anything sufficiently objectionable about the way you handled things that they’ve bothered to tell you explicitly. That’s certainly not the same as “no possible room for improvement”— but! see above! “No possible room for improvement” is clearly not an achievable goal! and even if it was, there’s been a pandemic! Also... aren’t all the other people at your job professional working adults who presumably have some responsibility to provide feedback if they have it? I mean, surely it is not also your job to pry critical feedback out of grown adult men just so you have something to feel badly about. Plus— weren’t all these men free with their critical feedback during the project? Surely they wouldn’t start shutting up after the project wrapped.

The work you’re doing now makes sense for you to be doing. You just finished a big, stressful, challenging project six months ago. During a pandemic. Your boss may be trying to give you some time to recover from the stress— and, honestly, since you say that your bosses are actually the only ones who knew how much you were struggling, that actually seems like a fairly plausible explanation.

If that’s good enough for now, stop! Assume you are on low stress duty unless and until told otherwise. If decide you’re ready for more, you can ask for more/more challenging work at that future point.

If you’re bored or ready to talk about what you learned because you’re excited and ready do move to the next challenge, then sure! Talk to your boss. Maybe see if you can turn something off your list of “things I could have done better” into a project, or think of a project that would build that skill? I can’t think of a good example right now because :weed: but you get the idea.

If what you actually want is reassurance that you didn’t screw anything up majorly, but you’re not sure if you’re ready to handle well intended criticism with grace (and it sounds to me like you might not be, which is very very very reasonable), could you say/email something like:
“I was thinking about Challenging Project recently. I’d eventually like to talk about some ways I’m hoping to build on the things I learned as PM. If that’s something you’d be open to, can I reach out to you when I’m prepared to do that? That would also be a good chance to hear your thoughts about how the project went.

It sounds like you did fine. It actually sounds like you did great.
posted by Kpele at 8:00 PM on May 7 [3 favorites]

Okay I garbled the timing and some details but still. I’m basically right, and you’re definitely being way too hard on yourself.
posted by Kpele at 8:11 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]

I agree with the comments above that your managers are happy with the way things went, but recognized that the previous assignment was a stretch and are now giving you a bit of a break. They might also recognize that you had difficulties with the micromanaging client and the budget and are letting you focus on work that highlights your strengths for now.The fact that you got the work done and got a bonus shows that they don't consider the exercise a failure, and instead recognize that you stepped up at a difficult time. In short, they are doing what managers around the world are being told we need to do, especially in light of the pandemic.

In order to get out of the rumination cycle, I'd suggest focusing very consciously on the fact that the project got done and you got a bonus, and breaking down all the elements that worked in the end (even if they were imperfect). It would also be a good idea to make a list of all the things you do well in your regular work, since I suspect you might be undervaluing your current contribution because it involves things that are more in your comfort zone. Spend some time every day identifying these positive things.

In the meantime, keep your eyes open for a project that hits your strengths and avoids the things that drove you nuts on the other one. When you find one, approach your boss and tell them that you are ready to take it on. They sound like decent people who value you.
posted by rpfields at 8:30 PM on May 7 [1 favorite]

The way you describe ruminating on this and the particular points of the micromanaging client and unrealistic budget remind of how I ruminate over sexist slights and other injustices that get in my way. Those things you are stuck on and the effect they had on the project were out of your control, and it’s like you believe if you think about them long enough, you’ll discover the solution to them. But there’s no solution - and you will come up against these same uncontrollable factors again and it will suck then too. It will be best if you can become able to accept the truth of that - and that’s hard to do because in a just world, you would be given a setting for success, not be thrown these problems. You will be admitting that the world is not fair (I still struggle not to rail against this too...)

So yeah I think you need radical acceptance of these sucky things - there’s nothing you could about those things, nothing you could do now, and little you’ll be able to do should similar obstacles pop up in future. (Cuz you would have thought of a solution by now.). It’s painful to think that because you will be admitting you might encounter the same crap again.

It might help you to accept if you focus on how you must have dealt with all these things ok once, because the project met its goals. And you’ll be able to deal next time too.

But it won’t be easy.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:38 PM on May 7 [2 favorites]

Objectively, if your team delivered what they needed and you managed to actually project manage it for 9 months, then that's meeting a minimum bar for success. But, clearly you don't think so. So, what would success in that project actually have looked like for you? And, given the challenges of that particular project, was it ever possible for you to have had met that bar?

It sounds to me like you are concerned that your reputation is damaged within your organisation. This is something that you can discuss with a trusted senior person. If you have 3 VPs that you cried to on the phone, and sensible action was taken, then you can probably identify a senior person you can trust.

In a functional, good workplace people would realise that you leaving the PM role on that project after having survived but not thrived was more the fault of the project than you. If it is not a functional, good workplace then you want to be looking for a new job if you can regardless.
posted by plonkee at 2:59 AM on May 8

Oh, and the way I recovered from stuff like this was having professional success on a different project, and time.
posted by plonkee at 3:00 AM on May 8 [3 favorites]

So, a project that was struggling was handed off to you after 5 years with large structural problems?

As others mentioned, you're likely you're own worst critic and you handled this better than you give yourself credit for.

Another possibility is that this was a glass cliff. A known bad project was given to an inexperienced outsider to take the blame. But if this were the case, you would be really demoted/fired/otherwise scapegoated.

This sounds bruising. It takes time to recover.
posted by jclarkin at 7:13 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

I suspect you did the best you could in a project that was set up to fail. Now that you have projects with fewer roadblocks, just put one foot in front of the other and shine on these projects. The sting will go away as your narrative changes from failure to success.

I once heard something, and it is cheesy but it does help me when I am feeling unsuccessful (which leads to motivation issues), that every day brings a new opportunity to be the best project manager that you can be. In other words, you can keep this job if you like the terms, and looking forward rather than looking back will in fact improve your confidence and others will respond positively to that.

One day at a time and looking forward. You got this.
posted by happy_cat at 8:06 AM on May 8

Also: Make a Lessons Learned file or list. It will (a) help you identify the systemic issues that plagued this project so you will be in a position to talk about them if needed in the future, and (b) help you avoid future projects with similar problems or
proactively address them.
posted by happy_cat at 8:15 AM on May 8

I'm going to echo that there's no indication here anyone thinks you did a bad job. You rescued a hot mess of a project and kept it from total failure. There was a phase of my career when that's what I did. I was the fixer of disasters, and I loved it. Made a name for myself, got promoted really fast, and all because it's easy to exceed expectations when expectations are really, really pessimistic.

They supported you when you needed it most, crying to VPs, by taking you off and giving you a bit of a break for a while. That doesn't have to be a negative thing, it doesn't mean people are judging you. It happens. That project was such a toxic blast furnace, they just had to manage it in shifts, and yours went fairly well. They might even have been surprised how long you lasted before having to tag in a relief.

I think the ball's in your court. What you need is a immediate manager (which everyone has) and a mentor who is ideally outside your functional chain of command, but someone knowledgable and savvy about management politics. And you need to use those two people to start making it known that 1) you're ready to analyze what happened for the learning take-aways, and 2) you're ready to get back on the horse and apply those lessons. They'll take care of you.

[assumes ideal behavior, but I see only positive indicators in your question, not red flags]
posted by ctmf at 11:18 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

Also, I totally recommend the "fixer of disasters" relief-pitcher role as a career stepping stone for another reason - once you've done that, real projects you get to plan from the beginning seem super-easy and their problems seem trivial. You've already seen the worst, now the problems are small, incipient, and coming one at a time? Yawn.
posted by ctmf at 11:31 AM on May 8 [2 favorites]

I would also think hard about who on that project in your immediate team really hung in there, making the best of it, not giving up, making it better not worse even on a sinking ship. If you're going to be the project fire brigade, you're going to need a go-to team of veterans to call on next time. To help you out with their skills, and also to be your morale teammates to share war stories and "remember when... at least this isn't that bad" humor with. It really helps.

(also make a "oh hell no" short-list of people you need off the project as a condition of taking on the trash fire. That helps immensely too.)
posted by ctmf at 12:50 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

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