Empathy, perseverance, and the art of project management


2020 has certainly turned out differently than we anticipated when we were all wishing each other a Happy New Year! Coronavirus, murder hornets, giant carnivorous sea cucumbers (just wait…).

My colleagues have written topical posts for Insights exploring the impact the coronavirus has had on specific areas of the world, including an excellent essay from Scott Clifton discussing how our company values have served us well during this time of change; and another from Sophia Randall about the true qualities of effective leadership in times of crisis.

I find myself thinking a lot about two of our core values these days: perseverance and empathy. Now, I could wrap this up quickly in summary and say “Perseverance is finding a store that carries toilet paper, and empathy is only purchasing one pack”. And while that’s true, it is not useful in relating those two qualities to actual project success.

I’ve been a project manager for many years, and long ago in past jobs, Agile development was defined as “the client changes their mind a lot.” That usually meant the opposite of perseverance, and the same with empathy too. I can state from experience that when perseverance and empathy are practiced by the development team, or by the client, those qualities go a long way toward making a project successful. When both groups exhibit those values, the success rate of the project increases dramatically.

My wife teaches 3rd grade for a large school district outside of Washington, DC. When the schools closed, there was very little time to transition to remote learning; it seemed like there were updated guidelines every day from the school district, as their original plans met the real world. There were plenty of bumps along the way, but everyone persevered in reaching the goal to provide live instruction several times a week, and there was empathy in understanding that teachers, students, and administrators were struggling to implement a new way of doing things in a ridiculously short timeframe. I know the teachers and students will very much like to get back to in-person instruction when it is safe to do so, but I also know some teachers will lament the fact that their classroom does not come with a “Mute All” button.

It’s important to note that empathy does not mean a lack of frustration, where everyone always holds hands and sings Kumbaya. And perseverance does not mean performing Sisyphean tasks with no chance of success. For example, I worked on a project for a non-profit client to provide information and advanced website functionality focused on a rare blood disorder. Our client was very passionate about the work, and we went around and around on different ways to organize and present the information. Perseverance, but not progress. It was not until she sat down with us and had a very heartfelt conversation explaining what these patients and families might be feeling as they searched for information on a disease that had upended their lives that the team was finally able to empathize with her goals and vision. We then were able to produce a solution that presented the information in a way she felt would best serve the visitors to the site.

When empathy flows both ways it can lead to amazing results. While working on a project for a large association client, our business stakeholder was actively involved. She was at all the stand-ups, ready to answer developer questions at a moment’s notice, and generally plugged into the development team’s thinking. As we were working through a problem we ran into an issue, and had to come up with a solution that was quite different than what we had all discussed and planned. Since she was involved with the team so closely, she was able to empathize with the issues we were facing and work with us as we persevered. Together we solved the problem in a new way, which turned out to be more beneficial for the client as it enabled flexibility for future development.

From early in my tech career I was mentored to live by a “general handholding” approach to support. I find it’s a description that resonates well with people, as it has empathy and perseverance built into the phrase, and it’s very comforting. As a project manager, that’s basically the job description: empathizing with the project goals, and persevering to success. We will understand your goal and work to guide you to it. Empathy and Perseverance—both personally and professionally—are more important than ever, as we find ourselves navigating this new, unfamiliar world. It is not always the easiest thing to do, but the long-lasting, positive results for our clients and colleagues are well worth the effort.