A Project Manager’s Game Plan for Dealing with Incurable Cancer

Segment Forty-One—Solos, Duets and Full Ensembles

Project managers understand the meaning of pressure.  We get it. And if you want to know what real pressure is like, just sit in a meeting where a customer just asked you a question that you don’t even understand, let alone have a cogent answer for. Want pressure? Sing the National Anthem a cappella for the local Single A baseball farm team.  Where’s the pressure come from? You. Not from the others in the meeting.  Not from the fans in the stands (and despite the picture’s implications, there were actually fans in the stands that day). The pressure comes from you. Thus, the flip side of that coin answers the question as to Who can relieve you of that pressure? If you said “I can,” then you definitely get where I’m going here.

Singing has been a part of my life since I was a child.  My mother had an amazing voice.  My father played piano, organ and calliope (the whole calliope thing is a story for another day).  I was in chorus in high school and the small selective group of madrigal singers.  I was a member of The Ohio State University Men’s Glee Club. I loved to sing. As an adult, there’s been a lot less of that (until recently, when my wife drafted us for a group called September Singers). There’s a certain joy in singing in a group.  When you completely screw up, it’s much harder to tell that it was you.

Ensemble Work

This is one of the joys of working on a team.  While people rely on you for a lot of things, you can sometimes hide in the crowd. As a project manager, it gives you the compelling role as conductor of a small orchestra.  As a patient if gives you the ability to validate the work of others through opinions of skilled professionals.

Lesson Learned: As I learned with my first large-scale oncology encounter, you need to be willing to take on the role of conductor. I listened to the opinions of others and automatically granted them more credence than my own opinions. While their thoughts had some merit, they weren’t reconcilable with my perspectives.  At first, I trusted the voices in the ensemble.  While they had different perspectives and attitudes than my own, I figured they were acting from the best available information.  I was quick to learn that they simply had the Internet, too. We all had the same background information, and their instincts were actually worse than mine, since they weren’t undergoing the treatment. In the next go-round, I again sought out the counsel of the ensemble.  This time, their perspectives aligned with my own, creating a situation where I felt comfortable forging ahead with some pioneering treatment.  It saved my life.  A big part of that was the ensemble, but it was also about listening to my own voice as the conductor.


I would hope that you have someone in your world in whom you are ready to place and almost sacred trust. For me, that individual is my lovely wife, Nancy. Working in a paired environment allows you almost all the joys of flying solo, but at the same time, it creates an environment where someone can spot-check your take on reality. We’ve been a duet for 40 years now, in large part because of mutual respect. We have complementary, but radically different skills and attitudes. She’s a math mind. I was a journalism major. She’s a neat freak. I’m…well…not. I’m country.  She’s rock n’ roll. She’s a social animal. I’m a homebody. We were meant for each other.  Really.

In trying to find the perfect partner for a duet, it’s important that there are dramatic and meaningful differences.  It’s also important that you share common values.  While our politics are on opposite ends of the spectrum, we both believe in the importance and liberty of the individual. We both believe less government is better government.  We believe that parents have the responsibility for raising their children (even though we screwed that up a few times). We believe every person matters. We weep when tragedy strikes. We shoulder common burdens. We both work like demons trying to ensure the other has the best possible life.

In projects as in life, your closest partner(s) need the combination of common foundations and wildly different contributions or skill sets.

Lesson Learned: My parents divorced after 21 years of marriage. My father expected my mother to follow him in lockstep.  That was never going to happen. In a corporate environment, I was the victim of an arranged “marriage” to a vendor that shared none of our values or vision. At first, I asked my boss to allow me to get a comprehensive list of performance criteria for them to ensure they would mirror our philosophy. (I was refused). I told my boss time and again that while this vendor might work for other organizations, they were not a match for us. While the vendor preached a gospel very similar to what my management wanted to hear, they did not share our corporate approach, agenda or values. We strived to make the relationship work for ten months, when I was finally able to “divorce” them.  They went bankrupt very shortly thereafter. Get the criteria for “is this going to work?” before you walk down the aisle.


Flying solo is a scary prospect. When I decided to break away from a corporate environment and become an independent consultant, my father put it very succinctly. So, he said, you’re going to be unemployed. Thanks, Dad.

I would have agreed with him, except for one major thing. I was prepared. Every time in my life I’ve taken on a solo act, preparation has been the key.  To sing the national anthem (a capella for the local minor league ball club—the Frederick Keys), I practiced for months.  I’m sure the tiles in my shower were very tired of the rocket’s red glare. As a trainer, when I have a new opportunity, I rehearse the opening ten minutes over and over and over and over. If I can own an audience in ten minutes, I’ll own them for the duration. As a consultant, I “rehearsed” my plans for where I would find clients, how I would engage others, and how I would approach future opportunities. I also made sure that I had all the trappings that successful solo consultants have. 

Lesson Learned: There’s really no such thing as a solo. There’s a dominant player.  There’s someone who’s the most visible.  There’s someone the client/audience expects to see.  And there’s support.  If you think you’re flying solo, you definitely shouldn’t be wherever you are.  You are there with the support of others, from family to clients to friends to professional associations. And they deserve your gratitude every step of the way.

In many cases, it’s the “trappings” that make a solo act possible (in addition to the supporting cast). When someone asks me how to go out on their own, I stress the need to have the trappings that others who are successful have.  In my career, they’ve written books. (I have eight published books to my credit as of this writing).  I wrote my first before I went out on my own.  I knew I’d need one.  I joined associations tied to my profession.  I knew I’d need the built-in networks.  I got the certifications associated with my craft.  Those trappings make all the difference.

Lesson Learned: When one of my peers, Gerald, asked for advice on going out on his own, I shared those insights with him.  He asked if there were any shortcuts, and I explained that was a question for someone else, as this is the only way I knew how to go solo.  He’s very successful now as a consultant, has three books to his credit, a website with his name on it, and a network of influential business pros. He understood the level of effort involved in going solo. And he also understood that solo artists go a lot further, faster, if they lay the groundwork.

Up next?  The Power of Common Context (And why I have a dozen copies of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations)

If you want to review the previous elements of this e-book or blog, they’re all posted at www.carlpritchard.com/blog

If you have insights you’d like to share or comments or conversations, my e-mail is the best way to reach me at carl@carlpritchard.com.  I’ll always get back to you within 24 hours.  Always.  And if you think I missed the mark?  Check your spam folder.  Thanks for joining me on this journey.