Nov 27, 2015

Do you hear that sucking sound?
Do you hear it?

That's the sound of a project vacuum, and you might be in one now!

When a project starts, everyone's pumped and ready to change the world. The kickoff meeting is epic. Everybody has a job to do. The future looks bright and airy.

Until, some months later, it isn't.

People slowly realize that the goals were never clear to the team, or even the client, and nobody really knows what to do about it. The worst part is that nobody really wants to admit this, lest they be kicked off the project team and lose their paycheck.

This problem isn't so obvious at first. It festers, and the stench isn't so bad, until suddenly it's too late to do anything about it.

So, what happens to the people who find themselves in this sucky situation?

People over-compensate, with initiative!

You see folks, I'm the kind of consultant who just likes to put out the fires, and move on. It keeps my work focused. When I arrive at a project and find people actively looking for fires that the client didn't know they had, or worse, starting fires just so they can put them out, it makes me cringe.

Some people might call this "taking initiative", and our school guidance counselors told us that this is a good skill for us to have as employees. Well I'm sorry, but I don't agree.

As a project team member, one of the most important sources of confidence is knowing that you are providing value for the client. This isn't something that you can make up; you are either putting out a fire for them, or you're not. That's what consulting is all about. If you're in a project vacuum and have nothing to do, you should just leave. You will be thankful you did.

Who are the initiative takers?

It doesn't matter how insane or stupid the situation is. As long as there is somebody willing to stand up and assert themselves in the face of ignorance and futility, other people will listen and follow. Some personality types will thrive during these crises. As an introvert, I'm just not one of those people.
If you're in this situation right now, take a long look at the challenges you face every day, and ask yourself if they should be deserving of your time and attention. Are you working just to keep other people happy in their comfy little project vacuum, or are you doing amazing things that you will be proud of, decades from now? That's the real test.

À la prochaine, comrades!


  1. Sometimes I feel like my subconscious creates fires to put out to distract me from doing the work I'm afraid to do!

    1. Thanks for sharing Michaela, I definitely understand this feeling and have experienced it many times! Sometimes my own mind can completely trick me into thinking that I've inched forward on the important tasks of the day, while having actually just pushed the papers around on the desk, metaphorically speaking :)

      It's almost like our brains are good at creating our own mental vacuums that create space for other things to sneak in. I guess it's proof that this happens at both the micro and macro-level on a project with lots of people.