Getting In Over Your Head

Role of the Project Manager | By Kenneth Darter | Read time minutes

Businesswoman sitting at a desk with her hands covering her eyes

Everybody gets in over their head at some point. Maybe you've been assigned to a project that you have no idea how you are going to finish at all, much less on time and on budget. Or maybe you've been handed somebody else's project schedule but are expected to update it and discuss it intelligently in a client meeting after lunch. Whatever it is, there are times in your career when you will feel like you are in over your head.

So the question becomes, what can you do about it other than fake a panic attack (or perhaps, actually have one)?

Stay Calm

The first thing you need to do is to take a deep breath and repeat these words, "This is not the end of the world." After all, if you truly feel over your head, the end of the world might be preferable to the next meeting with your manager! The next thing you need to do is to buckle down and get to work. Every problem or issue can be overcome in due course - if you slow down and proceed logically and methodically.

Maybe, just maybe, you will discover that getting in over your head is not such a bad thing.


One of the major tenets of project management is communication. When you're in over your head, you need to communicate as often as you can to anybody who will listen. You never know where your help will come from. However, you must communicate a positive message and not just a plea for help.

The message you send out should be one of confidence. Yes, there might be issues. But by working together and pooling your resources, they can be overcome. Communicating with your immediate leaders is key. Don't understate any problems you're having.

Instead, be clear about what you need to succeed - whether it's training or mentoring or a really good project assistant.

Break It Down

Instead of trying to gulp down an entire meal at a time, break down the problems into smaller bites. No, you cannot rewrite an entire project schedule in one day (or even one week for longer ones). But perhaps you can focus in on one section or phase of the project to make significant improvement on it in a day or a week. The problem itself doesn't matter so much. The key is breaking it down into manageable bites. Small successes start to snowball and lead to bigger successes.

Don't focus on what you cannot do. Instead, focus on what you can do.

Reap the Rewards

Finally, try to remember that getting in over your head might just turn out to be a good thing in the end. No one grows without challenging themselves. You might learn a new skill or achieve something that causes your management to take notice. You never know who might be paying attention when you solve the issue and help bring the project in on time and on budget.

The end of the world might just turn into the beginning of a new project or job opportunity.


What's Next?

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