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

Segment Twenty-Six–  WIP—Work In Process or Progress?

First, a spoiler alert.  It’s both. 

As a project manager, the term for our profession is work in progress.  But in any case, it’s forward motion that matters. These two terms are used in a variety of settings, with the idea being that there are efforts underway to bring something to completion.  If the “something” is a simple product that is created by a common process, then it’s (not surprisingly) work in process.  If we’re working our way toward a specific, clear, singular objective, then it’s work in progress.  Nine times out of ten, because our lives are unique, we’re dealing with work in progress. 

Overcoming Inertia

Want a project that will suck the very life out of you?  Try removing wallpaper in a 100-year-old home. 

It’s a life-draining descent into Hades.  Not only is it difficult to get the wallpaper to come off in nice, clean strips, it’s also demoralizing as the effort reveals truly ugly walls and treatments underneath.  As you look at this image, you have a taste of work in progress.  You know what the end game is.  When you’re done, the room will be realtor-ready and primed for the next homeowner.  But in the interim?  It feels more like torture than progress.  WIT?  Work in Torture?  No, it’s a matter of keeping the vision in mind.  To truly capture WIP, you need to have constant reminders of the end goal.

Lesson Learned: In the mid-1990’s, I was tasked with creating e-learning experiences, including the structure for Managing Projects in Organizations (by J. Davidson Frame) on a CD-ROM.  It was to be a gaming experience, with student activities to emulate what would happen in a classroom experience.  Forward progress was slow as molasses.  There were not a lot of templates to work from and Dr. Frame would occasionally assert author’s privilege in wanting changes and corrections.  It was the classic two-steps-forward-one-step-back experience.  Couple that with technical challenges, and the work moved very slowly.  At one point, any time anyone tasked me with something else, I surrendered work on the CD to escape into the relative comfort of the familiar.  Ultimately, however, the deadline pressure became too great, and I had to closet myself away to work on the CD almost exclusively.  And the work got done. 

I learned two valuable lessons.  One was that if you want to get something done, seal yourself in an isolation booth with no access to interruptions. WIP moves a LOT faster in that environment.  The other was that if you move quickly enough, you can outpace the changes from outside influences.  It’s harder for others to alter your plan if the plan has already succeeded.

This attitude has played into my cancer project in long form. Anyone dealing with medical issues knows that there are competing interests.  For this WIP, it’s a matter of trying to identify what activities are drawing me toward the goal of better health.  And it’s also a matter of identifying what activities are either detrimental or neutral toward that goal.  Just last week, we had a choice as to what was “progress” and what was less progress.  I had to choose between getting a PET scan for the quarterly review of the cancer’s location and size or getting the monthly shot of Lanreotide (a $17,000 a month needle stick to keep the dozens of little tumors from turning into dozens of bigger tumors).   

The decisions are not always easy.  Either option delays the other by a month. 

Indecision often drives inertia.  It prompts us to waffle back and forth without action, leading to a lack of WIP.  The solution in such situations is beautifully simple.

Pick One.

Ta-da!  That’s it.  Suppose you pick the wrong one?  It doesn’t really matter.  If both will move the effort forward, pick one.  Even if it only allows marginal forward progress, it’s still progress.  The whole concept of Work In Progress is that there is advancement. To remain static is the enemy of WIP.

Lesson Learned: After being hired as an Air Traffic Control Specialist in the early 1980’s, I was on track to have a career position that would last the rest of my life. I quit my job in radio, thumbed my nose at my employer and toddled off to the future. My goal? A career that would last through retirement.  In a matter of days, it all fell apart. I was medically disqualified for bad eyes (as mentioned back in Segment 14). For the first week after the bad news, I was inert. I had no motivation to get work back in progress. There was no hope. The longer I took no action, the worse the situation became. It wasn’t until my father made demands for WIP that things changed.  He insisted I do an interview at least twice a week until I was gainfully employed.

While my self-pity drove me to inaction, a sense of WIP changed everything. Within three weeks of my father’s request I landed the interview at WFRB radio that put me back in the job market and back toward my goal of a career.  Granted, the career was a rather circuitous route from WFRB (Frostburg, MD) to WZYQ (Frederick, MD) to WWRC (Washington, DC) to WASH-FM (Washington, DC) and ultimately to a moonlighting job that led to project management.  But each step in the progression was WIP. Even if the path through work in progress isn’t direct, it’s progress.  That’s the part we all need to remember.

I mentioned that I had to choose between the PET and Lanreotide. I chose the PET scan. Good choice.  I learned that virtually all of my tumors (and there are quite a few of them) shrank.  Every now and then, affirmation like that is downright critical.

Granted, this is work in process.  It’s not something that’s going away in my lifetime.  But for both process and progress, knowing that there’s forward motion is critical.  Knowing that the achievements are achievements is meaningful. And whether it be stage four cancer or ancient wallpaper, seeing it come down is significant. It is something you can point to and applaud success.

Up next?   It’s not just me…

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.