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Three Success Factors for Handling Uncertainty and Complexity

Breeze through your project’s day-to-day

Most of the project managers I know like methods – from design thinking to Scrum to lean project management – just to name a few. Methods give us orientation and a structure with which we can proceed.

I had an interesting discussion the other day at a network meeting. It was about deploying agile work processes in projects, and here I am not just speaking of methods, because that is just a part of agility. We discussed with a completely concrete example, a pilot project of an automotive supplier. It became very obvious through this that our thoughts and our inner attitudes play a great part if we want to profit from such approaches.

  • Because how can we accomplish more flexibility when people can’t confirm the time required sovereignly and autonomously because we are afraid of losing control?
  • How can we go from achievement and profit-orientated goals to value-orientated goals if we believe our deepest gut feeling, that speed, efficiency and economics are the success-deciding factors?
  • How can we accomplish the much-valued tolerance for mistakes if we unconsciously hold onto our expectations and are frustrated when it doesn’t always run how we wanted and we become afraid of losing approval.

In the discussion it became very obvious: agile approaches require more flexibility. But flexilibity means that lots of things cannot be planned, regulated or controlled. That triggers fears, uncertainties and helplessness, because we have to question the dependencies that we always believed in before.

We need not only new methods but also to actively change our mind sets so as to stay confident in uncertainty and not always fall back into old behavioral patterns in the face of looming difficulties, and not try to address them with familiar, but no longer appropriate, solutions. Our feelings and unconscious habits play a big role here.

My colleague Sylvie Bueb and I have been focussing on this for a while, and we have already done many workshops, lectures and coaching on the theme. In the following, I would like to suggest to you three important factors of success that are extremely useful for every project manager to stay confident, calm and focussed.

Inner serenity

Inner serenity is so important because our full mental capacities are available to us in this condition. Have you already tried to make a decision or be creative in a tense, hectic situation – for example – tried to work on a concept? If we’re honest, it doesn’t work so well. It is stressful and often we have no new ideas.

Scientists have discovered that in stress situations – and that includes situations where we feel under pressure and stressed – all of our physical energy is stored to fight, flee, or play dead. We release stress hormones like cortisol and adrenalin that mobilize us for a little while but in the long term harm us. It is as if you were constantly flooring it in a car. How long do you think that would be okay?

The second effect, which is more important for work, is: the connection to the thinking part of your brain, the neocortex, only works restrictedly, because you have unlimited energy available and it is needed straight away to manage the stress situation and to restore your security. The thinking function is rather unimportant in such a situation. That means concretely: only in a relaxed and balanced state do you have access to all your mental strength, only then are you focussed and not constantly triggered by every distraction or put under pressure by your own expectations and claims and those of others.

My tip: if you quickly change into a quiet, relaxed condition, then pay attention to your breathing. Breathing deeply and evenly has a balancing and calming effect on our autonomic nervous system – the scientists also found that. Simply concentrate on your breathing and keep your attention on it for two or three minutes.

Our customers are always astounded by how quickly such a simple exercise works. And how quickly it solves their perception of problems and opens them for new possibilities and approaches. However, you need a routine – breathing once a week at some point, if you happen to think of it, don’t change anything about your mind set.


Serenity helps you to achieve your mind’s fullest potential


I would have liked to have put mindfulness in the first position, because before you can change into a relaxed state, you have to consciously perceive that you feel stressed, tense, annoyed or upset.

Our current work culture, however, does not offer most people the conditions to be aware. Because around us, everything is always busy, almost always active. How would it look if you were to take the time now to look inside yourself and to really feel how you are going? While everyone all around is you is so busy. Somehow, it seems absurd to us, because we learnt in our childhood, in school and in our work lives: only when we perform, do something and fulfil expectations can we get recognition and make progress.

Through my work and my own experiences I have gained the belief that if we want to do our work long-term with engagement, joy and vigor, then it is important to find out how these things really work

My tip is: take a day next week and on this day, regularly – so every few hours – check in with yourself. Perceive yourself: which thoughts are currently going through your head? What mood are you in? How would you describe the characterizing feeling that you have at the moment? What effect is this condition having on your work?

Maybe you will be astounded by what you find out. Here are a few examples from our customers:

  • I have the feeling that I am looking at my work place from above or from the outside and I become aware of how hectic and unconcentrated I am right now.
  • I recognize that I put myself under pressure with my own expectations – to finish the report by a set appointment. I am tense and annoyed.
  • I become aware of everything I have already achieved today and become automatically calmer and more satisfied.

Mindfulness means being present and paying attention to each situation, not to the future and not to the past. Only in the present can you perceive what is happening now, recognize your opportunities and decide on suitable reactions. When you get home exhausted after a stressful work day, then all of these opportunities are gone.

If you recognize you’re frustrated, tense or angry in such situations, then just do the described breathing exercises for inner serenity. Or be consciously glad that you are going so well at the moment.

Sovereignty and self-confidence

How quickly do you allow yourself to be flustered by the opinions of others? How often are you unproductively ruminating about what you could have done better or differently?

Rumination and doubts once belonged to the everyday of my projects. New processes or IT systems were implemented, new forms of cooperation were tried out, and I understood clearly that this couldn’t work without being tried out, making some mistakes and the knowledge resulting from that process. Nonetheless, I often sat there and thought about it again, whether I could have planned and prepared it better. Or if it went smoothly, if I could have been more attentive and thought about this or that.

Such ruminations are also in the preparation of a project: have I really thought of everything? Have I included everything? You can keep busy with these dialogs day and night. The worst thing is that they foster a negative, depressed mood of doubt and worries, and undermine your self-confidence. They consume our time and our strength, and for many it is difficult to break out of this vicious circle once it has begun. Sylvie and I did a small survey and such ruminations were right up the top of the list of energy wasters.

So that our self-esteem doesn’t erode any further, it is important to get out of this unproductive inner dialog of doubt, claims and evaluations – as soon as you notice it. The tips described above under mindfulness and serenity help you with that.

But you can also go one step further and use the energy of positive, empowering things by simply changing your perspectives:

  • Direct your perception to things that are good and successful for you and your team and feel and savor the associated feelings, like satisfaction, joy and pride.
  • Consciously direct your attention toward the recognition that you and your team have earned with your activities, errors or trials of new paths.

It is particularly important to bring feelings and understanding in unison. So don’t just think “how good that we have reached the milestones punctually,” but experience the associated feelings of joy and relief. Because only in this way can you store the experience in your emotional brain, create new neuron connections and increase your self-confidence in uncertain and unforeseeable situations.

My last tip: every week, write down three things that have gone well for you, findings that were particularly valuable. When you have done that for four to six weeks, you will automatically direct your attention to the things that worked instead of those that didn’t. You will become conscious of how much you learn and grow from your mistakes and experiences. You will let go of the old performance mentality and you will become more and more confident when trying out new things.

My summary: successful project work needs a self-confident inner attitude

For project managers it is sensible not only to use new methods but also to work actively on inner attitudes. This is especially supportive when using agile methods and approaches that are very upwind at the moment.

We should be more attentive and conscious of our feelings and thoughts, otherwise we will always fall back into our ill-suited, unconscious pattern of behavior, which is stressful and takes up time and nerves.

With these three inner success factors you can create a new, improved mind set. It requires time and, above all, persistence but it is very effective in that our mental attitudes influence all our other attitudes. If you use these techniques regularly then you will achieve rapid success. Just try it out.

More suggestions, concrete practice instructions and worksheets to fill out can be found in our workbook (only available in German) < Unsere 5 besten Gelassenheitstipps für Vielbeschäftigte > The ebook can be downloaded for free at this link.: (Link deactivated, because external website does no longer exist).

Martina Baehr is a freelance project manager, trainer and serenity coach. In her work she focuses on supporting project managers and executives in dealing with changes and developing a calm and self-confident mind set.

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