The Lifeguard Analogy, Mindfulness, and the Project Manager 

Lifeguards are taught to only go into the water as a last resort. Going into the water puts both the lifeguard and the victim at risk. The phrase, “reach, throw, row, and go” is drilled into trainees to break the natural impulse to immediately jump into the water.

Like lifeguards, project managers have a bias to action, but we are not always trained to assess a situation before jumping in. While PMs do not face the same life or death decisions, there are project and reputational risks to be considered.

Once, a very excited manager called me. “We needed to hire a new project manager, immediately!” Our business partner had started exploring a new technology platform. Meetings with vendors were underway, the infrastructure team was testing compatibility, the technology team that supported the business portfolio was scrambling—it was bedlam.

While I am generally responsive to customer needs, I wanted to understand the situation before finding a resource and committing to the project. Our company had a very prescriptive project approval process. So, I asked: Was the project approved? Were we given seed money for this evaluation phase? If we hired a project manager, what would they do?

The project was not approved or funded. There was no plan for the PM except “get in and help” which would have only added to the chaos. In the end, we did not hire a resource. Once we started asking the right questions, calm prevailed and the team started following the standard initiation process.

Mindfulness is a powerful practice that takes years to perfect

Those who practice meditation understand “mindfulness.” Mindfulness can take many forms but in essence it is being fully aware of a situation without distraction. A simple mindfulness exercise is to eat a raisin and be aware of how many bites it takes to consume that single raisin–I can get to 20 bites. More advanced mindful practice is participating in a stressful situation without getting emotionally involved.

Mindful project managers can observe energetic or confrontational situations without engaging. Consequently, they can make judgments and decisions that aren’t clouded by emotions. They are able to find a path of clarity and make (and help others make) thoughtful decisions.

Project managers have the opportunity to regularly practice mindfulness. For example: we all receive emails that upset us. The non-mindful reaction is to respond immediately. The mindful approach is to wait, not respond at all, or choose to have a conversation instead. Waiting creates opportunities—the opportunity to not respond out of emotion, to thoughtfully evaluate options, and to choose how you respond.

When a meeting gets heated, one easy way to create the mindful space is to ask, “Can we take this offline?” That simple, business-friendly statement allows us to create a break and create a new space to discus and hopefully resolve the issue.

On a large project, the testing manager challenged me during a meeting, “Why do you need a PM allocated 100% to this project?” I asked if we could take the conversation offline and discuss it later, creating a less adversarial and less public space for the conversation. When we met, rather than debating the value of the PM, I suggested that the program could afford the additional testing and this did not need to be a zero-sum game. The success of the project was the primary goal.

Being mindful is not easy. It takes years of practice and comes bit-by-bit. Once you have achieved a level of proficiency, mindfulness unlocks powerful insights and clarity. Degrees of urgency are put into perspective. We learn that jumping in is not always the best response. Mindful, thoughtful responses are often more successful.


© 2015, Project Management Essentials, LLC