The most important project of your life

  • Insights

Do you spend more time planning your holidays than your career? James Arnum-White considers what it takes to plan for one of the most important projects of your life.

We often advise our individual career transition clients to treat their job search as a project. As with any project, the more quality time you spend defining what you want to do and planning how you are going to get there, the greater the probability of it going smoothly and reaching a successful outcome.

There is a particular model that I think we can learn a lot from when thinking and planning our careers – the Project Manager’s trilemma. It helps Project Managers deal with the expectations of demanding stakeholders and represents a trade-off between three key project aspects – ‘time’, ‘quality’ and ‘cost’

In practice, if a stakeholder asks if the project can be completed two months early, then the Project Manager 
can reply by saying, yes this is possible but we will need to either reduce the project scope (quality), increase the budget (cost), or both.

It helps Project Managers communicate with stakeholders in a positive way without setting themselves up for the impossible.

The Career trilemma

Are you able to manage your own expectations relating to your career? Are you aiming for the impossible? People often aren’t aware of, don’t acknowledge and fail to explore key trade-offs when planning their career and making important career choices. This can hold you back from making a positive and pro-active move. Or if you do make a career move without fully understanding the trade-offs it can lead to a mismatch and a lot of frustration – for both you and your employer.

It is important to enter into a new career opportunity knowing the trade-offs you have made, how they will impact on you, and what you are willing to accept – in the short, medium and long-term. 

Similar to the Project Manager’s trilemma, there are often three ‘competing’ factors that underpin the career trade-off:

1.      Compensation (pay, reward & job security)

2.      Time commitment (hours & flexibility)

3.      Engagement (Future prospects & enjoyment)

These factors are magnified during major career transitions. Have a think about your own career journey, and the trade-offs you have made at each point.

…Securing your first job

Did you consider the trade off at all? There are typically one or two dominant factors individuals focus on at this early point in their career – and worry about the rest later. For example, did you have the foresight of knowing that a highly compensated role may lead to disengagement because of how much it encroached on your personal time (when your friends seemed to be more footloose)? Or did that job with the low compensation and the promise of future progress turn out to be a dead end?


Did you fully realise that the extra compensation you received meant a greater time commitment?   How did this impact on your engagement over time? Or maybe you put off going for a promotion because you feared the extra time commitment, but then it turned out to be unfounded as the additional engagement you experienced made it all worthwhile?

…Changing role, sector or company

Sometimes this can be forced upon us. Sometimes this is a pro-active choice. But making a significant career change can bring big rewards in finding the right balance for your personal circumstances. In this situation it is vital to think through, with absolute clarity and realism, the optimum career trade off position for you.

Finally… can you ‘have it all’ when it comes to your career?

Some people do seem to ‘have it all’ when it comes to their career. But I am very confident, that at some point, they have thought very deliberately about the best ‘trade off’ situation for them. 

The really smart people find opportunities to sacrifice one career factor in the short term which allows them to bring their career back into balance further down the line. During times when they’ve had fewer responsibilities in their personal life, they used this as a chance to give extra time to their career, so that when other pressures do arrive they are able to re-balance without losing out on compensation and engagement.  

The good news is, even without a major financial windfall, you can have it all if you are willing to plan ahead, do your research and work towards your personal career equilibrium.