Don't fail the stress test

By Sylvain Gauthier, Project Director, ProTrain China

Every good project manager must know how to handle stress

In 1999, I was responsible for officially launching the live broadcasts of fortnightly Formula 1 races on 16 television stations in China. The project started with a small GDTV production studio in Guangzhou and now attracts more than 50 million viewers for each race shown nationally on CCTV5. Talk about pressure!

It was a huge undertaking and included 15 trackside production crews, global satellite linkups, and a team to present everything in Chinese, which required studios, commentators, liaison with sponsors and comprehensive graphics.

Besides the core management group, there were smaller teams in each and every Chinese provincial station, relaying the broadcast to their viewers at the agreed times. Six languages were spoken and activities had to be coordinated across 12 time zones.

Just imagine the results of your key project "deliverables" being presented to that number of people every second Sunday during the season. If you are not ready, the race starts without you. If sound quality is poor or the picture is lost, you have absolutely nowhere to hide.

Facts on stress
Did I suffer from stress? Well, if sleepless nights, eating disorders and constant anxiety attacks are signs of stress, then, yes, I did!

Being under stress for short periods has never been a problem for me. In fact, I need that feeling of pressure to make a project seem interesting. The danger, though, comes when living with long periods of non-stop stress and having to tackle critical issues every single day. That can affect your mental and physical well-being and lead to the kind of burnout that is common is the project management business.

Therefore, to cope with stress, you first need to recognise it and accept that, like happiness or grief, it is something that everyone will experience.

Right perspective
In response to levels of stress, our bodies react with increases in blood pressure and changes in heart rate, respiration and metabolism. The key is to know your own tolerance levels and to keep things in perspective, so here are some suggestions for managing stress rather than letting it manage you.

Reject the myth that there is nothing you can do about stress and arrange your project so that you are in control. Remember that effective planning, prioritising and using all the resources at your disposal should be your aim.

When dealing with a major problem, break it into smaller parts and apply relevant problem-solving tools. If there are several crises, pick one of them and concentrate on sorting it out. Once that is done, pick the next. There's truth in that old joke about how to eat an elephant - one bite at a time!

Shed the image of perfection and, instead, set realistic and acceptable standards. Superman and Superwoman don't exist in real life.

When the project seems too complicated, identify priorities and rank the most essential tasks. Then, start to eliminate, or delegate to the people most competent for each job. Determine what is important to the stakeholders and always know what you will do next.

People under stress tend to forget they have choices. When things start to seem impossible, remind yourself that the world won't fall apart if a deadline is missed. It is no disaster to leave something until tomorrow.

Staying positive
Also, it helps to visualise how to handle a stressful situation better. These "rehearsals" can boost self-confidence and create a positive approach to the task ahead.

Meditation or quiet time will often help. Up to 20 minutes of relaxation and reflection can restore calm and put your troubles in the proper perspective.

Anyone can set a time schedule, but make sure yours is realistic. Interruptions will always happen, problems will inevitably occur and plans will change. Projects cannot be timed to the minute, so leave space in your schedule for the unexpected.

Others will not always measure up to our expectations. Therefore, don't be disappointed or frustrated when this happens or spend too much time trying to change that individual. Everyone has their good and bad points, so be flexible. Remember to be like the tree that bends in the wind.

Finally, it is important to strive for balance in your life. Make sure you allow adequate time for relaxation, hobbies, exercise, and family and friends. If other people can find time for all these things, you can too!

Sylvain Gauthier is a specialist in project management for new products and business development. He has cooperated with the Hong Kong Benchmarking Clearinghouse and delivered PMP Certification Preparation training for business executives. For more information, please visit

Taken from Career Times 07 January 2005
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