Working in the “Gray Zone”

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color
I felt so symbolic yesterday
If I knew Picasso
I would buy myself a gray guitar and play” – Mr. Jones by the Counting Crows

I heard this on a “Classic Hits” station (released in 1993) and had to chuckle. I can still remember most of the lines and mouthed along to a lot of the words. Then, the line that got me thinking…”Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”. In a world of yes or no, black or white, right or wrong, being comfortable in the gray seems to be a rare attribute for someone to have.

So what does it mean to work in the gray? Google it and you’ll get all types of answers. But in essence, GRAY areas are situations where there is no definitive answer and requires a person’s, or team’s, best judgement to solve a problem. You’re OK with ambiguity and not always having it “figured out.”

Sounds familiar, huh? Strategy and scope changes, risks, issues, team dynamics, stakeholder management, resource availability, consultants, vendors, and the list goes on and on. So many areas where there’s no clear-cut answer and requires our best judgement and the assistance of others. Hmmm…maybe that song was written with project management in mind.

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”.

As a project professional, the ability to work effectively in the gray is critical. Most projects, regardless of the industry, size, level of complexity, and type, will have gray zones that must be navigated. Some common attributes of those who work in “the gray zone” are:

Right mindset. If you’re looking looking for a clear path with little deviation, you’ll be VERY uncomfortable working in the gray zone. Be comfortable with ambiguity and things being a bit (or a lot) fuzzy. Remember, we live in a VUCA world!

People-centric. I’m not the smartest person in the room, therefore, I want to be surrounded by great people and trust their opinions. Even if they do want things black and white, it’s my job to explain though it’s fuzzy now, we’ll get more clarity soon. Build a dynamic team.

Managing Risk. When in the gray zone, assess the risks. Engage leadership in the conversation, especially if there is a financial and/or regulatory risk involved. Risks some with some quantifiable and quantifiable measures associated with them. And remember, not all risks are “bad”. Some risks could be the pursuit of gains, not only the avoidance of losses.

Experience. Since you’ll inevitably run into situations you’ve never learned or read about, experience is your guide. Don’t be afraid to tap into others experiences, also. They may not have seen this exact scenario, but maybe something similar.

There’s no tool or policy for this one! Policies are good at establishing guidelines for how work should be done. But, policies don’t cover every situation and a project leader must know when to bend them. Being in a compliance-driven environment is tricky, so be sure to have the right people with you. Also, tools are great, but may not be useful in the gray. Let a tool advise, but don’t let it dictate.

Same map, one destination, different routes. I’m a bicyclist. I ride a lot and share the road with cars, trucks, semis, farm equipment, and on one occasion, buffalo. When I plan a route, I often look at biking maps and apps where others have gone. What you find quickly is everyone is looking at the same map, going to the same destination, but it’s OK to take different routes. Some people (myself included) will accept a little longer ride so I have a road shoulder to ride on (less risk). Others go for the more direct route. No matter which way you go, know there are multiple routes to get to the same destination. Sometimes, you don’t figure that out until you start your journey. Have your team help plan and adjust the route.

Don’t get rattled if it doesn’t go well. “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson. Operating in the gray can be frustrating. You may try something and it doesn’t work right away. Or, there are signs of success, only to blow up later. The key is to not get rattled. As mentioned before, experience is our best teacher and you’re bound to have things happen. Instead of get upset and raise the anxiety level of your team, remain calm, understand you’ve been hit in the mouth, and start working your way back.

Mike Tyson's paltry fee for 'Mike Tyson's Punch-Out' was the bargain of the  century | For The Win

Let’s pick the lesser of the two shitties. I like having options. Management likes options too. So I come with at least a couple. I explain the situation, options the team developed, risks involved, and my recommendation. You try to pick the lesser of two evils, or as I like to say, the two shitties.

“Yeah, well, you know gray is my favorite color”.

The gray zone; that ambiguous place we all find ourselves in at some point. As project leaders, we can find ourselves there more often than others. But, if you have the right mindset and are OK with fuzzy situations, Gray can become your favorite color, too!

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