What do I do now? Leading during unpredictable moments…
I inherited Project Aria  when someone suddenly left the company. I was already managing multiple projects, and now Aria was added to my portfolio. I had to host an important stakeholders meeting the next day. Although I prepared for hours, I did not feel completely confident about leading the meeting. I thought to myself, “Can I cancel the meeting? What will happen if I cancel it?” I thought about how I lacked a thorough understanding of the project. I imagined everything that could go wrong and even assumed that the worst possible scenario would come true. The stakeholders would hate me for my lack of knowledge; I would lose their trust and fail to deliver. I could feel the stress in my tight chest and stiff forehead. My head was throbbing. I was going in circles and needless to say, freaking out.
What do you do when faced with a novel, unpredictable situation? When you are walking into new project territory, your day to day work is ripe for novel situations. Throw in the unpredictability of people and you are likely to face even more novelty. Project stakeholders are complex human beings, a bundle of contradictions. For example, a team member who can deal with rejection from a customer gets really sad after facing rejection from his close friends at work.
When I first learned about leadership skills and their importance in executing projects, I thought of leadership moments like project scenarios. I define leadership moments as times when you have an opportunity to interact with a person. First, I tried to prepare for these moments by adding scenarios in my head. Then, I came to terms with the reality of human existence – we inevitably face moments, problems and opportunities that we are unprepared for.
In a stable and predictable world, you would first experiment with your leadership skills in a sandbox and then perform them in real world situations. What if the world is changing too fast to be able to follow this step by step process? Can you experiment and perform at the same time? Improvisation theater artists do it consistently. So do Jazz artists. Ah…Jazz!
Since moving to the United States from India, I have enjoyed many things this great country has to offer. Nothing comes close to Jazz music though. I fell in love with Jazz the first time I listened to it. Jazz has a magical quality. I used to ask myself where the magic comes from. Now, I think I know. Jazz performers improvise and act in seamless collaboration with each other to create something magical, something that cannot be created by following a rigid, step by step process. We, as project leaders, can create magic when we are in the moment and improvise courageously.
Let’s get back to Project Aria. After stressing out some more, I decided to take a walk. Moving my body (e.g. exercising or walking) generates ideas that would generally skip me. After a few minutes of walking, the lessons learned during an Improvisation workshop flashed on my mind. I had attended a workshop led by Bob Kulhan and experienced firsthand how improvisation enables business leaders to face a new moment with an open and curious mind. An improvisation artist welcomes change and adapts to it in the moment. Then I thought, “What if I go into the meeting with an open, childlike mindset and do what the moment calls for?”
I went home from work and was able to get what I really needed – a good night’s sleep. The next day, I stepped into the meeting with a curious mind and started the conversation. After introducing myself as the new project manager, I told the stakeholders, “I am here to learn about your thinking and feelings with respect to the project”. This approach enabled me to meet my stakeholders where they were. They instantly connected with me. A few stakeholders notified me of their unique communication needs. They also gave me their trust, something priceless for a project leader. Needless to say, we started on the right note. It has been a long time, and the lesson I took away still serves me. I approach unplanned changes as an opportunity to test and learn.
Change is not going away if you are a project leader. Why not embrace change and deal with it by adopting a Jazz like experimental mindset? “An experimental approach favors testing and learning as you go. It means presenting ideas, then observing how others pick up and build on them. This is leadership with a mindset of discovery, floating hypothesis about what might work and what might not, and leaving both the hypotheses and yourself open to contradictory data and recalcitrant forces. Jazz players act their way into the future.” says Joe Czarnecki, Vice President of Product Support at TwentyEighty strategy execution. Great Jazz is marked by improvisation and adapting to the environment.
Improvisation will enable you to be in the moment, enjoy the moment, build on others and collaborate – the hallmark of great project execution. Deciding on big picture vision early on and improvising in unpredictable moments will help you find creative, out of the box solutions to the problems you encounter. You will gain confidence in your ability to face uncertain situations and become the leader you were meant to be. Allow yourself to get confused when a novel situation presents itself; it’s human. And then, instantly “work with the flow” as improvisation artists do. How will you react the next time you are faced with a novel situation?
 This is a fictitious name of a project I managed, for anonymity.