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Managing Well When Your Project is Falling Apart

In chaos, we can retreat alone to a safe place behind it all.

Safe and alone.

And from there respond as best as possible.


Project In-crisis

Imagine that you are in the last month (at least what you planned to be the last month) of a time-critical project and your principal team leader/designer walks out in a huff when the client decides she doesn’t like the design and changes her mind about some key product features. Further, she insists that her changes are trivial and should not affect the end date or cost.

You are in a state of severe anxiety, envisioning a serious blow to your bonus and career, since your upcoming review will hinge on how well you managed this project to the satisfaction of this important client.

What do you do?



Of course, the quote above gives away the answer. “You retreat alone into a safe place behind it all.”

This answer opens some questions. What does “retreat” mean? Who has time for one? Where can you find such a place? How do you get there? What do you do once you’re there?

When faced with insurmountable forces, a wise general often chooses to retreat to live to fight another day. Retreating, in an orderly way, makes it possible to regain strength, and replan to renew the battle or go on to the next one.

In another sense, a retreat is a personal choice to take time to relax, reflect, and gain a fresh perspective. In effect, retreating is stepping back onto a platform from which you can think clearly and plan your next steps. A quiet, comfortable, secluded place is ideal, but not necessary.


Who Has Time for It?

You might be thinking, “Who has time to retreat?” The answer to that question is easy, you do! Make the time. Depending on the situation it might be only a minute, an hour, days, or weeks.

In our project in-crisis scenario painted above, the PM could take an hour or, better, a day to retreat, to calm down before doing anything else. Then with a clearer head, the PM and team can decide what to do next.


Where Can You Be Safe and Alone?

That place behind it all, like the eye of the storm, is not a physical location. Even if you could find a cabin or cave, your anxiety would be there with you. The quiet solitude could make it worse since you’d have more time for obsessive thinking and worry.

Retreat to a calm center that is always available, though often unseen, and unfiltered. It is not a specific physical place. It is a felt sense of presence, relaxed, objectively observing, accepting, and letting go. It is more of a feeling.



Consider that thinking that there is no such thing as a calm center is just as much a belief as thinking there is such a thing. Consider taking on the positive belief as a hypothesis and seeing what happens.

The hypothesis is that by finding your peaceful “retreat place” within, you cultivate the ability to become increasingly responsive and less reactive. And the more responsive you are, the better your performance. The better your performance, the greater the probability of success.


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How You Get There: The Peaceful Warrior’s Path

While some have it naturally, for many, it takes courage and patient skillful effort to overcome reactivity and cultivate responsiveness when faced with emotional and intellectual challenges. The effort applies concepts and techniques to remove the obstacles to responsiveness.

Concepts, for example, models like servant leadership, process awareness, and systems thinking, address mindset. Mindset is the way we think, feel, and believe. Your mindset affects your performance and emotions.

The techniques include meditation, breath awareness and control, and any exercise that combines mindful self-awareness and physical health. It might be running, lifting weights, walking, or playing a sport while using the activity to hone your mindfulness and self-awareness.


Courage is needed to confront deeply held beliefs and uncertainty and to accept the discomfort of challenging physical sensations and emotions. Patient persistence is needed because it is hard to change habits and it takes time and practice. Target perfection and accept imperfection as part of an ongoing improvement process.

The good news is that as the concepts and techniques are contemplated, practiced, and integrated, it becomes easier to accept and let go, it becomes your natural way of being.


What Do You Do Once You’re There?

This “place”, the calm center, we refer to is a felt sense, a dynamic state of mind, in which you are objectively observing, relaxed, energized, making conscious choices, and performing optimally. “There” refers to this state of mind, some refer to it as Flow, or being in the Zone.

From there, the PM and his team would analyze the situation and revise the plan to reflect reality. They would consider the impact of this project running late on other projects or programs. They would consider how best to communicate the results to clients and sponsors and manage expectations. The PM may determine if the team lead who quit might come back to finish the project.

Anxiety, fear of failure, and fear of confronting superiors with unwelcome news contribute to overly optimistic plans. These create more stress and anxiety later. The skillful manager retreats, stepping back into the calm at the eye of the storm, and plans with objective clarity while managing his emotions and expectations, and the emotions and expectations of the team and all the other stakeholders.


The Process is Its Own Reward

In my most recent book, The Peaceful Warrior’s Path: Optimal Wellness through Self-aware Living, I quote Amelia Earhart:

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act; the rest is merely tenacity . . .

You can act to change and control your life;

and the procedure, the process, is its own reward.”[1]


The procedure and process she refers to is the application of the concepts and techniques that cultivate your ability to optimally manage whatever comes. The reward is priceless, it is the increasing self-confidence that leads to acceptance and letting go into optimal performance and wellness.

[1] Pitagorsky, George, The Peaceful Warrior’s Path: Optimal Wellness through Self-aware Living, 2023, Self-Aware living, p.1


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.