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Maybe it was four children in diapers and car seats that did it. Or, maybe it was four bank mergers or acquisitions in five years. Or, perhaps it’s the speed that technology is changing our world. I long ago accepted chaos as a permanent condition and decided to embrace it.

Do you remember back when you were in school and you were dealing with term papers? How many of you waited until the night before it was due to really buckle down and work on it? Check out the lines at the Post Office on the night before taxes are due. Critical deadlines bring focus.

Too many deadlines can overwhelm people, and that’s when I start to see deadlines slipping.  When people feel overwhelmed, they often procrastinate. When the adrenaline to meet a really critical deadline kicks in, procrastination stops. But, it’s not healthy to live in a heavy adrenaline state continually. Can project managers regularly help teams by creating project focus despite continued chaos?  Here are five suggestions.

Remember your why

People also procrastinate because they lack clarity on where to focus. So, the first thing project managers can do is to take the attention off of the 3,000 action items and 5,000 questions – and to focus instead on the 10,000 foot view. What exactly is this project about? What is the overarching vision? Why are you doing the project? Creating project focus begins with knowing the goal.

Take the attention off of the 3,000 action items and 5,000 questions – and focus instead on the 10,000 foot view. Click To Tweet

Create a clear image of the project

A picture is worth 1000 words. Some people find the Gantt charts that take up the whole wall of your project room helpful. I find them overwhelming. There is just too much there for my mind to quickly process. I find the much simpler chart below – from a large organizational change project to be more helpful. Here I can easily spot what’s been done in blue, what’s been accepted by the client (it shows a medal), and what’s currently in progress – in green. The orange items are scheduled to be done in the current sprint, and the white items haven’t yet been considered.

From this simple picture I know exactly where the project stands. If the concept of a visual breakdown of your project is unfamiliar to you, try this blog on creating a work breakdown structure.

Use deadlines sparingly

I’ve written before on the use of fixed and target deadlines. It’s one approach to the challenge that deadlines pose. On the one hand, deadlines can be a powerful motivator. Remember that adrenaline that you somehow mustered on the night before the term paper was due? Yet, when we are faced with too many deadlines, it’s easy to lose sight of what is important.

I recommend that you get real clarity around the deadlines that simply can’t be missed. When taxes are due, you pay a price if you don’t file them.

Work in sprints – and use meetings effectively

The key to working in sprints is to select only the work that you can finish during the sprint. You are creating project focus by narrowing the work in progress. No one can do it all. If you try to focus on everything that needs to be done, you will accomplish little. In the picture above, the work in orange has not been started but that work, along with the green work in progress, is expected to be completed by the end of the sprint. The work in white will be tackled later.

When a project is underway, I recommend two specific kinds of meetings – standing meetings and checkpoint meetings. They are very specific kinds of meetings with detailed objectives and can be powerful ways to move your project along. I’ve written about them in more detail here.

Celebrate the small wins

I’ve written before here about how to set up a project for small wins. Celebrating small wins builds momentum. It keeps people excited. Bad news may sell newspapers, but good news keeps people energized. And that’s what you need.

The key is to set up your project effectively. Sometimes a new perspective helps. If you need help creating project focus, schedule a free consult.