I went fishing last weekend. It was a beautiful (yet a little cold) weekend in the woods. We were on a good lake for fishing: our quota was 15 catches per person. That’s a lot of fish!

We were thinking: if the outfitter allows 15 catches per person, there’s got to be a lot of fish in this lake. And there was. As we arrived the Friday night, we could see the bass jump at flies on the surface of the lake. We were stoked for a good day of bass fishing on Saturday!

Well, it was not a good day of fishing. We caught a total of 10 fish between the three of us. This was underwhelming.

Here’s why we didn’t get the fish we were hoping for

  1. The fish was jumping at the flies, but we were bait-fishing. Wrong technique. Wrong approach. If the fish is going for flying insects, it won’t respond to bait just floating there, will it?
  2. The mayflies were swarming the lake. Mayflies look like mosquitoes, but they only live a few days, and their main purpose is to be food for other species. The fish were gorging on the mayflies, so they were even less interested in our bait.

The same two things happen in project management

If we look at the fishing story, two things happened: one was under our control, and the other wasn’t.

Know your environment

We could have planned for fly-fishing and brought both type of fishing rods. Actually, it would have paid to call the outfitter a couple of days before coming to the lake to ask them which type of fishing works best.

In a project setting, this translates to knowing your team, your stakeholders and avoiding the cookie-cutter approach. All humans are different and they need to be managed accordingly. Some people respond well to a direct approach, other people prefer a softer, relation-based approach. As project managers, we need to adapt to the people we work with and the environment work in.

There are some things you can’t control

Just like the mayflies, sometimes things happen in a project that are truly out of your control. Someone in your team may get sick or leave the company. The City might pass a new bylaw that makes your project more complicated. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. And we just have to deal with it when it comes.

Of course, if we’ve been keeping up with our environment, we may be able to identify some of the uncontrollable risks ahead of time and plan a contingency margin. However, no matter how much we plan, the unexpected just can’t be planned for.

So, what’s to do?

Take it all in stride is what we should do. We can’t control everything. Our job as project managers if to do the best we can with the situation.