How to Handle those Project Frustrations

Every frustration you experience on an IT, Telecom, or Engineering project will either be a communication that didn’t get across right, a goal or task that didn’t get completed according to plan, or an expectation that you didn’t manage and so didn’t get set correctly.

Negative experiences come from a few key areas

Negative experiences come from a few key areas

Communication requires all the people to come to a shared understanding. Do you know how to make certain you both understand the same thing? Questions.

Tasks and deliverables are the goals that drive a project plan forward. Do you know how to know in advance whether you are on plan or not? Questions.

Expectations are the mental projections that accidentally occur when different parties think they understood the same thing but didn’t. Do you know how to make sure that everyone has the same expectations? Questions.


Questions like:

  • What specifically…?
  • How Specifically…?
  • When specifically…?
  • Who specifically…?
  • For what purpose?  or To what end?
  • What allows or enables…?  
  • What is allowed or enabled by…?
  • Where specifically?  
  • Compared to what?
  • Every?  All?  None?  Never? Always? Nobody?  Everyone?  
  • What would happen if we did…?
  • What would happen if we didn’t…?  
  • What stops us from…?
  • What resources…?  
  • What is our circle of control?
  • What is our circle of influence?  
  • Is that within our control or outside of it?
  • What is the order of importance? time criticality? difficulty?
  • Who says?


There is a science and algorithm to asking the right question at the right time in the right order. There is a reason why the “Why?” question is left out of this list. If you would like to learn to be a better team member, learn the algorithm behind questions like these, and you will increase the efficiency of your team 10 fold.

And the nice thing about questions is that if you know how to match the project leader’s temperament you can ask them nicely without having to be the project manager or executive sponsor.  Even the newest coder can ask an “innocent” question that can get the team meeting or project back on track.

If you would like to learn more about asking excellent questions check out Genie LaBorde’s book, Influencing With Integrity.  It is a classic still worth the read because most leaders still don’t know about it.

TOTW: Flexing Your Degrees of Freedom

… to Assure Success

Engineering Teams are dynamic systems instead of static systems.  People on your teams will never react exactly the same way two times in a row.  That is why you are charged with herding these cats and getting them to work toward a single direction.

In 15 + years of managing various types of projects and as many, coaching Technical Project managers, I have noticed that Engineers and Tech people such as ourselves tend to expect systems to statically repeat the same process over time.  That is why managing human processes can be so frustrating  — people don’t work that way.

The secret to success is to realize that as a leader, you must take a meta-perspective and exhibit a greater range of flexible behavior than those exhibited by your team members.  The part of the system that has the most meta-flexibility, that is the ability to adjust and constrain whatever happens, will always determine the quality of the results you get.

To level-up your flexibility, consider each encounter from not only your position, but also by stepping into the perspective of the other stakeholders and team members.  Imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes, with their experience, and their values.  If you can make this a consistent habit of your perception you will automatically begin to generate an Emotional Intelligence that will set you apart from other managers and project leaders.

To really become great, you have to cultivate a desire to learn these kinds of skills, and you have to practice them until they become natural habits of your thinking.  Learn to switch back and forth between being wholly in your own perspective and wholly in each other team member’s perspective.  Step into their perspective and ask yourself, “What do I know from here, that I didn’t know from my own perspective?”  Then listen carefully to your intuitive mind.  You will be surprised how different other people’s perspectives really are.

Three 3 perceptual positions diagram

Finally, after checking out each person’s perspective including your own, step outside of the whole team circle as if you were a fly on the wall and imagine the interactions you’ve just been through as if you were seeing yourself and your team from a third party position.  This overview is called taking a meta-perspective, and it provides a way to watch the interaction and the dynamics between team member’s communications.  From here you can easily see and hear those little differences of communication that cause mistaken ideas, hard feelings, and avoidable confusion.

Mistakes are always avoidable if you learn to watch and listen carefully.  Teams work together better when failures are treated as opportunities to learn and refine the team process.  If you will become an expert in flexible facilitation and in understanding every process from the three different perspectives — yours, theirs, and objective overview, your projects will come in closer to budget and schedule and the quality of your team deliverables will become impressive.


We get together weekly to practice these sorts of skills exercises.  If you recognize you are interested in getting good and mastering this skill set or in learning more people skill tips that will help you work better with people and become the sort of person they naturally like to follow, then we can help.  Contact us at 512-507-5464 to get a catalog of our courses, workshops, trainings, mentoring and coaching.


External and Internal Monitoring in Engineering Leadership


As engineers, scientists, and technical people, we tend to think in terms of things and processes, rather than in terms of people.  That is what first interested me in the technical professions.  How about you?

Yet to make the move into leadership, along the way each of us has to learn to recognize additional “people” distinctions and algorithms.  Leadership is about managing events and internal expectations as well as internal reactions.


Engineers understand control systems.  We know that to stabilize output, the subsystem in charge of making adjustments must have a larger range and a faster cycle time than the processes it is controlling.  If we are going to lead, this means that we have to increase our flexibility and learn appropriate methods for monitoring and providing corrective feedback to the systems and teams for which we are responsible.  All leadership starts with keen observation.

Observation means monitoring the channels of feedback in the environment.  Self observation means even recognizing the patterns going on within our own mind so that we can compare our expectations to others on the project.

Inside every human there is an observation system and a self observation system.  Being able to assess the internal self-observation system of both yourself and of other key people on a team is a requirement for effective leadership.


New Insights

In 20 years of managing and coaching the technical professions, I have found that most engineers have never thought of this before.  It is obvious that projects are comprised of a large number of events that are external and useful to observe.  Less obvious is that they are also comprised of an even larger number of “internal reactions” that are more difficult to recognize.

For example, can you read the reaction, positive or negative, on the faces of your team members?   Do you really know when people on your team are aligned with you or not?  How would you know?

Have you ever seen people blow up in frustration or blow off their duties before you recognize that something is not going well on their “insides?”

Do know the differences between your expectations and your customers’ expectations of the next few days worth of deliverables?  Or will you only find those out upon delivery and review?

What about your own internal state of mind— Do you respond automatically to frustrating information, or do you differentiate between external events and internal reactions so that you can maintain a semblance of sanity on your project?

It really is possible to hone your skills of observation and learn to recognize when other team members do not share your expectations, motivations, or capabilities.  There are specific exercises to develop the ability to handle difficult situations, difficult clients, difficult bosses, and difficult people on your team.


Challenge For Today

Just for today, ask yourself about the people on your team you are working with— “How can I know for sure whether the images they are making in their mind matches the expectations I have in mine?”   Become sensitive to whether they really see things exactly the way that you do.  And consider, how do you know whether these differences will matter?

You can learn the patterns and distinctions of “people engineering,”  Your project, your people, and your organization depends upon it.  Just like you learned the technical skills that have made you a successful individual contributor, with a slight shift in attention, you will discover new signals that you were previously unaware of.

What aspects of leading technical, scientist, and engineers do you find most challenging.  I love to hear what is going on in your projects.  Tell me about your challenges in the comments below.