What to expect when: the client has a tantrum

In the projects world, we usualy get adults as clients. Regardless of the age, you might experience a client tantrum.

They want it their way. They are noisy about it. They unnecessarily attract attention.

The first time i experienced it, it was scary. A deputy prime minister wanted it his way. He is running for president of a country now, by the way.

What can a project manager do? There is no universal soothing formula as clients are as different as the stars on the sky. I personally love reading about parenting and child growth, which offer great inspiration for kids and adults alike.

So, here are steps to take when the client has a tantrum:

Seat back and take a deep slow breath.

Scan your body for any tension.

Say confidently and softly: “I thank you for your concern for the project. I see you are upset right now and it feels for you good to shout/hit the table/kick the wall (depending on what they do). It’s your project and i am managing it to get the best possible results for you. I am here for you and the project’.

If the shouting/kicking continue, repeat. It’s also an advice found in boundary setting psychology literature.

If it does not work, here is a joke one of consultants i work with told me in a similar situation. A poster in a designer office said:

“Price list:

Design – 100 Euro

Design with you looking over my shoulder – 200 Euro

Design with you looking over my shoulder and telling me how to do it – 300 Euro

Design with you looking over my shoulder, telling me how to do it and me doing it – 400 Euro

Design by you at my computer – 500 Euro”,





A resilient project manager

Resilience is a top ability programme managers i talk to value in project managers.

I have been reading quite a lot recently on resilience*. My findings are nothing new perhaps. Yet, we all need reminders, from time to time.

Nurturing your resilience is multi-dimensional. It requires discipline. No one can do it for you. You have to be in charge. You have to be and act as your own resilience project manager.

Some say resilience is a muscle. Sheryl Sanderg, for instance: “You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are—and you just might become the very best version of yourself” (advice offered by Sheryl Sandberg to graduating students at the University of California). Some genetics though may work into your favour. It’s the grand daugther of war and famine survivors speaking here.

I believe resilience is an inner source fuelled by care for the body, the mind and the soul. Ideally, all three need to be in balance. Since everyone’s resilience is unique, take time to identify what works for you. As a project manager, apply your resources management skills to make sure you keep your supplies up-to-date and up-to-needs.

If you do not know where to start to take care of your body and mind, imagine it is a baby you look after. A baby needs enough sleep, appropriate food, comfort and care. Learning to listen to your body is like keeping a project on a critical path and watching the scoreboard for anything going red.

We’ve always known that quality sleep is good for your brain, but recent research from the University of Rochester demonstrates exactly how so. The study found that when you sleep your brain removes toxic proteins from its neurons that are by-products of neural activity when you’re awake.  As a breastfeeding mother, full time project employee and long distance master degree student at the same time, I can’t say enough about the importance of good quality sleep to improving mood, focus, and self-control. A good quality sleep ensures that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Your energy, attention, and memory – your key resources to manage a project – are all reduced when you don’t get enough quality sleep.

“We are what we eat”. So we better know more about it. Investing in books in nutrition and/or an appointment with a nutritionist works for me. I also balance my diet with two vegan days per week. It’s also something my grandmother used to do and her resilience is worth a golden medal. Science offers more and more insight into how our well being is affected by what we do. See for example the Ted Talk How the food you eat affects your brain https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyQY8a-ng6g Each body is unique and learning what kind of and how much food it needs it’s a journey for each to take.

Projects can get pretty emotional at times. Tensions are high. Interests are at stake. Things do not go as planned. Disappointments lead to emotions. Of different kinds. It’s to be expected and many other professions face similar upheavals. In such situations, I find answers in Daniel Goleman research on emotional intelligence. See more http://www.danielgoleman.info/. In fact, every social interaction creates emotion. I know that my reaction would lead to the team members’ reactions. “Teams are emotional incubators’ sais Vanessa Druskat, Ph.D., an internationally recognized expert and consultant on group emotional intelligence. Teams’ emotions create a chain of reactions among sponsors, clients and stakeholders. Once aware about how the social brain works, the triggers become more manageable for an increased collaboration.

nils-muiznieksLast but not least, humour and the ability to laugh about yourself is a savour. Here is the 14th Dalai Lama, taking time out of his serious and profound speech to the Council of Europe on the need for greater compassion, ethics, morality and self discipline, to laugh and joke with Nils Muižnieks, the Commissioner for Human Rights … and then tickle him https://www.facebook.com/councilofeurope/videos/10155390922917715/ .

If you believe in the value of fun in projects, see also “The Project Manager who smiled” by Bob Taylor https://myprojectdelight.com/2016/05/11/the-project-manager-who-smiled-by-bob-taylor/

For a project manager’s resilience to work, it might be ‘Eat, Pray, Love” or ‘Sleep, Eat, Laugh”. Up to you to figure it out. With kindness to yourself and care for others.

* “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure” by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan on HRB.org

“How Resilience Works” by Diane Coutu on HRB.org

What to expect: when you have to manage a team of seniours

– I want to dye your hair! My hairdresser is relentless.

– No. Not yet.

– Why?

– i am managing a project where 20% could be my parents, 70% – my uncles and aunts and 10% – my older brothers.

– and? She is still relentless.

– i conquer them with my grey hair!

She gave up.

Couple of months later, an external monitor hired by the project’s sponsor, knocked at the door.

Guess what was his first question from the long list of efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability, cross-cutting issues? “You are much younger than the project’s consultants. How do you make them listen? ”

– It’s not about age, it’s about experience and mutual respect, my grey hair answered.

These were the ingredients I discovered on my journey with a seniors team:

Ingredient one: listen.

I was the one on the listening end. Most of the time. Better even if you can actively listen.

Ingredient two: acknowledgment.

Listening led to a simple acknowledgement: I am younger. Their experience in all their fields of expertise exceeds mine by numbers and value.

Ingredient three: borders.

We agreed on borderlines: I know a thing-or-two about project management; they know one hundred-or-two about the fields they are experts in.

Ingredient four: assertiveness.

Listening, acknowledging, borderlines led to assertiveness. “You are assertive. I have to give you that” coming from a senior customs officer working around the world was a feedback I trusted. Assertiveness offers a great anchor. Especially when borders are crossed and a patronising tone wants to make an entrance (from both sides). It’s tough, but manageable. The benefits are higher and long-lasting when you stay calm and positive.

Ingredient five: blame it on my youth

When nothing seemed to work, I would shrug my shoulders. “What do I know?!”. And it would be them convincing me of the opposite 😉


Content and Form in Projects

– Do you serve coffee only in the paper cups? I ask the barista in an airport, directing his eyes to the white porcelain cups i noticed in the corner cupboard.

– Yes, in paper cups, he replies. But we can do that. Only for you, his hand reaching for the porcelain cup.

You can easily guess how much i enjoyed my cappuccino. And how much he enjoyed his well-deserved tip.

It is a job made easy when clients know what they want and the way they want it. See for example this cute lemur:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CA0xQ7qOEmY. The ideal client, right?

In the project’s world, it is not always the cute lemur we sit across the table. I was once working with a client who called me back after a meeting on technical requirements for the IT procurement with the innocent “i asked Mr Google, but he gave me no hints on what to include in the procurement notice”. 

Some clients know what they want – a new building, let’s say. But do not know or have not thought about what this building should do for them and how its functionality should match the organisation’s needs. It is not often that I, as a project manager, know the answers straight away. In such cases, I press my “expert SOS ” button. And i get the client talking to the expert. I may spoil though their idyllic talk with the “keep it within the budget” reminder. And, as a project manager, I need to remember that it is not easy for the expert either to match the expectations of the client and of the project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg

If the “expert” button is beyond reach, consultations, with the variety of their forms, and Systems Thinking come to rescue. If you wonder what is “Systems Thinking”, this is the source I first learned about it http://www.open.ac.uk/choose/ou/systemsthinking.

Regardless of the approach chosen to identify what the client wants, the key is to make sure the ownership is there. We do want the client to enjoy his building and what it does for them. The same way I enjoyed my cappuccino, at least.

A good laugh together keeps the objective closer: ice-breaker

Joy and productivity link. A good laugh makes people more productive at work. See for example the research by Cheng and Wang, ‘Examining the Energising Effects of Humour’, Journal of Business and Psychology, 2015, https://www.psychologies.co.uk/how-use-comedy-improve-your-productivity.

Projects are fertile soil for jokes and a good laugh together acts as a team GPS, Keeping all on course and shortening the journey, without cutting corners though.

I was in a training room. The trainer, Frank, was a consultant hired by the project. I sat at the back of the room, quiet as a mouse. Duty-wise, i needed to check on clients satisfaction by observing. I also love the topic – building leadership skills. The trainer knew i was coming and that he may as well ignore my presence. He chose to announce it. “Our project manager is here”. It was hard not to. I was the only women in the room.

For an ice-breaker, Frank assigned me to a group of participants and gave me a task. “I hope I will still have a job tomorrow”, said Frank to everyone’s’ laugh in the room.

“Happy to be an ice-breaker, Frank”.

A project manager learning from a Queen of the desert

Behind are the times when I thought that managing a project is a purely technical job. Problem tree, Objectives setting, logframe, work plan, work breakdown structures, reports, scorecards, Gantt chart, technical requirements etc sound indeed technical and schools make you believe that. No blame assigned. It is just easier for them to teach you. Your growth however is fully up to you.

When I read fiction or watch movies i catch my brain in Roden’s “Thinker” pose. The little voice asking “what can i use from this character in my projects world”. The inspiration is borderless. All you need are wide-open eyes and tuned in ears. I learn a great deal of tips and approaches from most unexpected sources.3564_fee51463caa859c

I’ll start with one example. The “Queen of the Desert” movie by the famous director Werner Herzog, staring Nicole Kidman, is about Gertrude Bell, British writer and archeologist, passionate about studying the East. https://youtu.be/Stacvv4VK1A

I drew parallels to my work. comparison with Nicole Kidman would not be in my favour anyway. So, back to her character, Gertrude. She goes into the unknown places, makes deeply rooted traditions her allies in changing without challenging, creates cooperation and collaboration without confrontation. Projects also take me into the unknown, i am in quest of legal and institutional traditions on which to build changes for development, i create space for cooperation with others doing a similar development work.

The way this movie character talks, positions herself with the almighty gives me insights into how to distinctively approach female and male decision makers according to the culture they operate in.

The way she persuades her own breed, with knowledge and self-earned authority, is insightful for relationship building within the organisation i work in.

Romans and projects

Projects are about getting things done. You write or are given a project work plan. A wonderful piece of paper or a document on a shiny looking screen. And then the question “what on Earth I do now and where do I start?” spoils the scenery. It was my first reaction back in time. I’ve noticed the look on the face of new project managers when they start the journey.
divide-et-imperaLuckily, it is not a new challenge and history helps. Romans knew a thing or two about getting what they wanted. Remember “Divide Et Impera”? So, go ahead and break the wonderful work plan into pieces. Cut it with a scissor, if necessary. 

Look at your big headings. Think small. Write it down. Think even smaller.  Write it down. Repeat until your eye for detail is happy. It is called “Work Breakdown Structure” (or known as WBS), one of my favourite project management tools. It satisfies my need for details in projects. It is a cure to the overwelming feeling in complex projects. It deserves a better name though. 

Tips for and steps for creating a work breakdown structure are available on internet and in project management books. Some are included here:

a. Create a list of major activities or deliverables.

b. Arrange them in order.

c. Break down each of the major activities to several smaller tasks.

d. Continue the decomposition till you find set of non-redundant deliverables and the smallest level tasks can be assigned to an individual.

It can be in any format you want: word, excel, post it-s on a wall. You can do it by yourself or with the project team. I like to add timelines and a budget column and use colour.

So go ahead, divide and rule!