Understand the Worry Curve Cycle and Avoid Panic

By Clinton M. Padgett
worry

You’ve just walked out of a brief meeting that introduced a new project you are leading for the next year.  You’ve asked each team member to take care of a number of tasks that will be due at the project deadline. Of course, everyone is quick to accept and then leave with no extra thought about it.  What typically happens in the next 10 or so months is what causes many long-duration projects to go south at the end.  Consider the different phases your team members pass through from the moment they exit that initial kick-off meeting.

Uninformed Optimism Phase

We create human life in only nine months, so getting a few tasks done for one project in a year is no problem, right? That’s what Jane and Joe are thinking when they walk out.  They’re capable and can totally take care of what is needed within a year.  This is completely true if they didn’t live in a multi-project world where they don’t have to focus on simultaneous tasks…but they don’t. It’s likely they are both in the middle of five other projects – juggling dozens of things at a time. Some of these projects are just starting, some are in the middle, and some are almost finished. When they leave your kickoff meeting for this sixth project, they’re aware that the project is important – because you told them – but it was brief and short on details. Maybe not a lot of details were relayed or specific tasks weren’t assigned just yet. Near-term deadlines were certainly not established. All they walk away with is, “I’ve got tons of time.”

Vague Concern Phase

Before they know it, six months have passed, and Jane and Joe realize they are halfway through the project duration. All of that time has passed, and they haven’t done an appreciable amount of work. They’re starting to wonder if they can get everything done on time. This is the phase of the project where they will avoid each other as well as other team members or hope that no one brings up the project. If it is brought up, there’s a secret hope that no one else has worked on it either.  they haven’t worked on it either. This phase of the worry curve is called vague concern. We call it that because there’s nothing that proves Jane and Joe will absolutely be late. They still have six months to go, but their Spidey senses are tingling, indicating things aren’t looking good; however, there’s no plan to compare against to confirm their suspicion.

Panic Phase

Unfortunately, you might find some of your team members – like Jane and Joe – arriving at the six-week-out mark from the project deadline with not much to show for themselves. It is the most expensive phase of the project both financially and emotionally. You do things during the panic phase that you would have never imagined doing at the beginning of the project. Your attitude almost becomes “I don’t care what it costs, just get it done.” It’s also expensive emotionally because this is the phase of the project when you lose talented team members, or their reputations get damaged. During the panic phase of the project, team members begin to cut corners because things are late, and they are feeling the pressure. Their attitude becomes “This is good enough. I don’t have time to make it right. This will have to do.”

So, what do you do as a PM? To avoid the panic phase, we need to shift the worry curve to the left; that is, we need to help everyone worry a little bit earlier. Instead of holding a twenty-minute kickoff meeting, we bring everyone together for two or three days to plan the project. Individual team members commit to specific, well-defined responsibilities and a detailed schedule. The team also commits to meeting regularly (say, every two weeks) throughout the project to report the status of current activities, to determine the status of the project, to solve problems as they arise, and to update the project plan. The planning process itself raises the worry level, as the team analyzes the requirements, constraints, assumptions, and risks associated with the project. As a result, team members understand the challenges they face. Team members also feel more pressure for progress from the very beginning of the project because they know the team will meet, and they will have to report on their progress in just two weeks—and every two weeks after that.   

Learn more about how to create a project launch that yields success by reading my latest book, How Teams Triumph: Managing By Commitment.