The New Project Emotional Rollercoaster

I’m in the valley of despair after only two weeks into my latest project. Starting a new project can be rough or smooth. This project has been far from a soft landing; for the project and myself. The project, an organisation-wide ERP implementation, started with the first programme manager resigning after six weeks. The project kick-off meeting without visible senior level sponsorship and change management (my role) was bought in eight weeks later – an afterthought. Not textbook, but typical. Let’s be honest we are often asked to join a project when the problems have become too big to ignore.

For me, it has also been a rocky start. There is a familiar roller coaster of emotions that I go through with every new project. When it is a rocky start, they seem to be amplified. There are five stages that I recognise in myself.

1. Honeymoon

– I felt a sense of achievement having won the project. I’m enthusiastic and excited about the new project. I’m looking forward to the opportunities to learn and tackle new challenges. In this case, the description of uninformed optimism is very accurate. I don’t know what I don’t know – yet. Then, as I get started, I meet the team, understand the business, learn about the project, and see what’s happening; there’s the slide down the slope into reality.

2. Slap in the face of reality

– now my optimism starts to turn to pessimism when I find that things aren’t as I imagined (or been told in the interview). There’s chaos and mess behind the project plan Gantt charts. There are tricky relationships with difficult people rather than neat boxes on the stakeholder matrix. There’s a culture of resistance from two failed previous projects. Behind the nice charts, it all looks starts to like a dog’s breakfast. My frustration and stress increase, and it feels like I’m fumbling my way around in a dense fog.

3. Valley of despair

– my frustration boils to anger with “are they really expecting that I will sort out this mess (that they have bought on themselves)?” The anxiety leads to self-doubt as I question, “I am the right change manager for this project?”. At this stage, I have thoughts about throwing in the towel, along with a good dollop self-pity. However, I tell myself I‘ve never been a quitter and dealt with more complicated projects before. A talk with my coach, finding I can trust and talk openly with the Programme Manager, then the fog starts to lift. Finally, I am beginning to see a direction forward.

4. Lifting fog

– Clarity creeps in as I begin to understand what is really happening in the project; where are the issues, the people I need to influence, who I can trust, where I can get support. I understand more about the organisation’s culture and how things are done around here. I accept that I can’t solve all the problems, cutting the elephant down into a manageable size.

5. Buzz of progress

– I like to get things done. So getting into execution, seeing some small successes, and leading to larger successes moves me out of the valley and over the fog. The journey ahead now seems clear. Sure, not all goes smoothly and there are days when the mist from the valley of despair rises again, but each time it clears, more quickly than the last.

It takes experience and strength just to accept these uncomfortable emotions. It is calming to recognise that every new project has this messy stage and know I can push through to success. To perform well in my role as a change manager requires a lot of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. I need to manage my emotions to understand and work with other people going through complicated feelings to help them through the change.

I take comfort in the quote

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.

If I understood everything about a complex project instantly, then either I’ve missed something, or I’m working on a project that will not push me to grow. There’s pressure as a consultant who has been bought in to sort out problems to appear like you have all the answers after just a few days. On the other hand, if I believe this, then I would be an over-confident fool. I think the world has enough of those already. But it takes courage and humility to accept this and recognise this as a stage.

We can’t avoid the emotional roller coaster of a new project. But we can recognise it in ourselves, thus helping us move on and become productive in the project. We can also help our team to understand that this is a normal part of every new project. The valley of despair is a critical time. Without support, a team member can disengage from the project or become very negative and critical, dragging down other team members. Being able to name their emotions is a huge step in helping them to move on.

We spend a lot of time talking about the rational side of projects – plans, process diagrams, budgets, and resources. But, when was the last time you spoke about the emotional side of a project? Take the time to understand your emotions, even if they are not pleasant emotions. Then, support your team to realise that their emotions are part of growing and developing the valuable experience for the next project.

Disclaimer: The projects, clients, and incidents portrayed in this article are fictitious. No identification with actual projects (living or deceased) is intended or should be inferred 😉.

This article appeared in the International Institute of Business Analysts blog in November 2021.