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Help! My Manager Keeps Starting And Stopping Projects

Help! My Manager Keeps Starting And Stopping Projects

At a workshop for high-level support professionals (think research analysts, executive assistants, etc) one attendee was stymied by a manager who kept starting and stopping projects. Many heads nodded in empathy, so clearly bright-shiny-object syndrome is widespread.

I have seen frenetic assignment of new initiatives at various companies for various reasons. Sometimes it’s a fast-growth situation, and the company is just trying to keep up with the pace of positive change. Sometimes it’s a turnaround situation, and the company is bouncing from idea to idea hoping to find something that saves it.

Whatever the rationale, if you’re being asked to constantly shift your focus at work or are assigned a project one week only to get moved to something else the next week, it wreaks havoc on your time management and productivity. Your concentration is taxed whenever you switch tasks. You start to feel like you’re not accomplishing anything. It’s hard to plan your calendar. It’s hard to plan your career since you don’t know what company priorities are.

[Related: Be a High Achiever Instead of a Workaholic]

There are financial costs to workplace changes. A new survey from The Workforce Institute at Kronos Incorporated and Future Workplace estimates it costs organizations from $40,000 to $100,000 each time a federal, state, or even local labor-related regulation is created or changed. Now, this is an estimate of what a company-wide initiative with compliance issues costs. But it points to just how expensive it can be to launch a new initiative. What about an ongoing culture of starting and stopping initiatives?

If your company’s management team is always shifting priorities or if your direct manager keeps assigning different projects to you, here are three ways to stay responsive but keep your sanity intact:

Prioritize speed over depth

You might prefer to conduct exhaustive research into an idea before moving forward, but your manager might work on a different pace. If you’re in an environment where projects are rapidly assigned, accept that this is the pace of work and pace your efforts accordingly. When you have two days for a project, you will do it differently than if you had two weeks or two months. For example, if you’re asked to look into an issue, instead of a PowerPoint deck to summarize your findings, list three key bullet points. Then when you confirm you’re on the right track and your manager still wants more, you can go into detail.

Focus on planning over execution

For the manager who chases big ideas, you may get all sorts of requests to launch things or change things. Instead of executing based on what your manager initially says, knowing s/he frequently changes focus, do an outline of what the next steps could be and wait for confirmation before going ahead. Your outline might be a budget of project costs. It could be a staffing proposal listing the people who would need to get involved. If your manager continues with the project, you’ll have done enough groundwork to continue, but you won’t have done too much if the project gets shelved.

[Related: Step by Step Guide to Planning Your Business and Marketing for the New Year]

Train yourself not to get upset

I once coached a client who was absolutely livid about how much waste there was in the starting and stopping of projects. Didn’t her manager know how much she was already doing? Didn’t her manager just give her something new the week/ day/ hour before? Why couldn’t this manager get their stuff together??@*!! My client worked on speed over depth and planning over execution which made her more effective in dealing with the onslaught of new requests. But she also worked on not getting so upset. Eventually, she came to terms that this was how the company operated, and to be successful here, she needed to adapt her workstyle to the company’s workstyle.

You may choose to run your company differently – and if you’re a manager, hopefully you can be more thoughtful in delegating to your team. But you also have to be flexible enough to work with how others want to pace the work, what market conditions might dictate needs to be done and when, and what the ultimate decision-makers decide. Hopefully, these three sanity savers help you cope!


Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. Her latest book is Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career (Forbes Media, 2015). She also writes a weekly advice column on Forbes (where this post originally appeared).

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