Do Worry, Be Happy

I am a professional worrier.  Yes, at times I actually feel like I get paid to worry.  What could go wrong with this, what could go wrong with that, what are the mitigation plans?  This was true when I was a project manager and an engineering manager. But, with those positions I was also responsible for delivering results, not just worries.  Now, as a consultant, I am often asked to focus on my talent to worry and just think about the things that could go wrong.  A client will have a team of people working on a new product, and they just want to make sure that the product gets to the customer on time and in working order.  Often, I find myself helping my clients define both “on time” and “working order.”  Also, I help them think about all the obstacles that might prevent either of those and mitigate those obstacles.  Very worrisome work.

I once managed joint development projects with a partner in Japan, the owner of a small electronics firm.  He was a delightful person with a sunny disposition, and we became close during the few years we developed products together.     At the time, I was responsible for engineering deliverables having to do with both “on time” and “working order.”  We would frequently communicate by phone, he in Japan, I in the US, to discuss all the thises and thats and ensure they were being mitigated.  His nature was so focused on the positive outcomes that he seemed blasé about risks. He would respond to my questions with the following analogy: he would describe himself as a duck – calm, dry and pretty above water and furiously paddling and pooping underwater.  While my partner assured me that a lot was going on below the water line, I knew that his primary focus was on what was above the water line.  I still wanted the “poop” on what was going on below the water line.

There were two barriers that I had to overcome to get to the information that I needed.  The first was my development partner’s acute optimism and unwillingness to focus on any negative outcomes.  The second was the Japanese inclination to keep a very clear line between what was in their “house” and what was outside.  To overcome the first barrier, I found that the most successful tool was simply to listen patiently. My development partner loved to talk and he would eventually disclose everything, even the bad, as it came across his consciousness.  The other technique was to have one of his engineers physically come to our lab in America and work next to our engineers.  By doing that, the “house” borders became far less well defined and the flow of information increased dramatically. 

Yes, there is a happy ending to this story. We delivered our jointly developed product to our customer on time and in working order.  Actually, we surprised many people with our accomplishment. Our successful team went on to launch several more generations of products many of which are still in service today, a decade later.

I worry. I know that worrying alone does not get results. Also, I know that partnering with optimistic, positively inclined people can be fun and exhilarating.  I have found that the combination of lots of enthusiasm with an occasional pause to worry can be very effective in achieving rapid results and desired outcomes.  So do worry, and be happy.


2 thoughts on “Do Worry, Be Happy”

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    Thanks for reminding us of the positive impact of appropriate worrying, Matt! I think a great project manager needs to balance unrealistic optimism with the power of negative thinking. Much like the famous “Stockdale Paradox” in Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great”, we need to be able to hold two opposing perspectives in our minds – confronting the brutal facts while holding tenaciously to the view that, in the end, we will prevail. I’ve often seen projects endangered by senior executives who have no imagination for disaster – it’s almost as big of a hazard as having no vision for creating outrageous possibilities. Everything seems impossible until your competitor does it, then it’s merely difficult. Here’s to just the right amount of worrying to optimize results!

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