When the Going Gets Tough, the Adaptable Get Going 3 Steps to Improve Your Project Management Skills

by Wayne Pferdehirt, program director, Master of Engineering: Engineering Management at UW-Madison

Managing projects is a lot like whitewater rafting. Just like an experienced rafter needs to be able to read rapids and navigate accordingly, you need to be flexible to overcome obstacles to get your projects done on time.

Here are three tips to help you succeed in your next project:

1. Plan your project based on the end goal and then look upstream. Often, when you start at the beginning of the project, you risk adding unnecessary steps that don’t add value to the end goal. Focus on the key elements of clearly defined success for the project and work backward. Be sure the team is clear on scope, budget and schedule constraints, enabling the team to remain focused in the midst of distractions.

Fix the schedule you want. Then make everything else fit around your needs. Be flexible. Be efficient. If you can’t make it fit: change your work.

- Cal Newport, author and professor, Georgetown University

The Project Management Institute (PMI) also recommends using tiered planning--strategic, tactical and operational.

2. Identify key transitions or milestones. Whitewater rafters must anticipate treacherous rapids and plan to hit the right passages to successfully complete the run. In project planning, you should schedule and execute handoffs—intermediate success points—to keep things on track. But how do you identify those key milestones? Ask yourself: What is this project really working to achieve? Milestones should be mid-project deliverables.

Milestones are also control stations in the project, an opportunity for stakeholders to assure themselves that the project is moving in the right direction. Milestones focus attention on things of concern and interest to the base organization. They allow the project owner and base organization to assess performance.

-Project Management Institute (PMI)

3. Define your success. Whitewater rafters define success as making it safely to the bottom of the rapids, regardless of conditions. Likewise, the success of your project will be defined by whether it meets commitments and stakeholder obligations. You should define these expectations when you first begin planning your project, and focus on what's actually happening along the way instead of what you wanted to happen.

The most dangerous situation emerges when the project gives detailed plans more status than reality. The map counts more than the territory. This drives projects onto the rocks.


Often, project managers work with their heads down and focus on the original plan and steps rather than adapting to overcome challenges. If you know what success looks like, you won't risk wasting time on non-value added details. And most importantly, you'll be ready to adapt as the route changes.

Unsuccessful projects are characterized by rigorous attention to detailed planning. But the greater the detail, the more likely stakeholders will start disagreeing among themselves. The project is wasting its energy.


Whitewater rafters don't want to lose their rafts or their teammates, so they adapt to changing conditions along the route as they paddle to safety. So the next time you're planning a project, remember to tackle it the way you’d tackle whitewater rafting:

Focus on the end goal and be willing to adapt. You might hit some tricky spots along the way, but with some adaptability, you can meet your stakeholder's expectations--while keeping all of your resources in check.

Project management skills are best learned on the job, but it’s also helpful to learn from others who have been in the same situations.

UW-Madison offers several courses in project management through the Technical Leadership Certificate and the Master of Engineering: Engineering Management taught by individuals who have been in your shoes. Learn from them and fellow students who face the same problems you do.

Find out more today!

Engineering Professional Development


13 Questions with Derek Ferguson

Find out more about Derek Ferguson's experience in the Master of Engineering: Engineering Management program, also known as the Engineer's MBA.

The Fast Track to Technical Leadership: Meet Nina Kazarov!

Find out how UW-Madison's Technical Leadership Certificate helped Kazarov prep for her new management role.

Created By
EPD UW-Madison

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.