Monday, November 28, 2011

Keeping Projects on Track Through the Holidays

Oh, the end of year holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. They’re all upon us now….we are joyfully celebrating with our family or planning for the next holiday. Vacation time is being requested, countdown calendars are beginning, and – most likely – some focus is being lost as the daily grind is giving way to hopes of some well-deserved relaxation time. Holidays are always hard on projects – but these current holidays can wreak havoc on the best of engagements.

The big question is this….during this time how do we keep our projects on track with so much anticipated – and sometimes unanticipated – down time? Our projects aren’t taking a break, but our project team members – and often our customers – are. How do we keep the forward momentum going? And also, how do we regroup after the holidays and get the project moving forward again at the same pace it was before the holiday slowdown?

Here are five key steps to follow to stay on track….

Plan way ahead

Project resources plan their vacations with their direct supervisor. Sometimes they tell their project managers and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they assume that their manager tells you – but that never happens. Ask questions, plan ahead. I once found myself with a resource who was leaving for India to get married and not returning for three months right in the middle of critical break/fix testing before a go-live. She assumed that her manager had informed me. Not only had I not been informed, there was no comparable resource available to back fill with. Never assume anything.

Onboard support staff if needed

By planning ahead, you can see if there are some key activities that have to happen during the holidays that can’t be moved. Request a replacement resource during the vacation time if you think it will help – but this will definitely require advanced planning (see #1 above).

Stagger time off if possible

It’s not likely you’ll get much say in this, but have your resources stagger their time off if it all possible. Leaving you as the only project resource available – and probably not able to take vacation time yourself – is a very bad situation to be in. If critical activities have to happen during a planned vacation, you may have no other choice but to go to the resource’s manager and request that vacation time be changed or that other accommodations be made.

Revise the schedule and be realistic

Take the vacation time and revise the schedule. Be as realistic as possible. It serves no good purpose to be too aggressive with the task schedules when you have no project resources available to work on them. If it’s going to cause problems with the deadline of a key project deliverable, then it’s important that everyone knows about it now rather than finding out about it later when you regroup after the holidays and watch that key date come and go. That type of failure does not make customers happy.

Kick start the project January 2nd

Finally, be ready to hit the ground running on January 2nd, or as soon as you can get MOST of your team back on the project. During that first meeting when everyone is back together, be sure to have some fun and discuss everyone’s holiday activities. And then with that out of the way be ready to productively move on. As the project manager, that means that you need to have everything in place including a revised project schedule that shows what the next steps and assignments are on the engagement.

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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Keeping Your Team Focused on a Long-Term Project

As the project manager on a long-term project, I usually have no trouble maintaining focus. I realize that the project is mine to succeed or fail with – hopefully succeed – and I usually have several projects running at once. Focusing on the tasks at hand usually doesn’t seem to be an issue for me. Now for my team…depending on what’s going on with the project and what other projects my team members may be working on…that focus issue can sometimes be a problem.

As a result, I’ve had to ‘experiment’ with different strategies to help keep my team members focused and engaged on the project. Through logical thinking and some trial and error, I’ve come up with these five strategies for keeping my team members fully focused on some of my longer-term projects.

Engage them in all planning activity

Project team members who are heavily involved in the upfront planning activities on a project feel a greater sense of ownership for the project. Being part of that conception phase of the project leads to a greater understanding of everything involved with the project and greater ownership of the goals, mission, and tasks associated with the engagement as a whole.

Have team members peer review all deliverables

Another way to increase ownership and focus is to have all of your team members perform peer reviews on every deliverable that goes to the customer. This serves another valuable purpose as well – it keeps more eyes on each deliverable and can significantly decrease your chances of delivering an error-filled document or product that only serves to damage customer confidence and satisfaction. Trust me, I know. I trusted a business analyst when he said a functional design document was ready to go to the customer…not once but twice! Since then I have my team peer review everything. It took far too long to make that customer feel comfortable with me and my team again.

Keep task assignment steady throughout

When possible, spread your assignments for your project resources out over the life of the project. Too much downtime for a project resource can cause them to lose focus or worse…can lead to them being completely lost to another project. By keeping them responsible for tasks and engaged throughout with steady work will keep them feeling like they are constantly contributing and will help keep them continually focused.

Look to team members to interface with the client regularly

Putting your project team members in significant roles in the project – especially putting them in roles where they must regularly interface with the customer – can have very positive affects on their ability to stay focused. Knowing their role is key to customer satisfaction and interaction will keep them on their toes and increase their overall participation level on the project.

Have team members periodically lead key meetings

Taking the previous item a step further – have members of your project team periodically lead customer meetings or weekly status calls if you’re comfortable with it. Make an excuse periodically to not be available and assign leadership to someone on the team – rotating the leadership responsibility, of course. Being in a temporary PM leadership role in front of the customer or on the other end of the phone will further induce the focus aspect you desire throughout the engagement from your team members.


Project team members will lose focus periodically throughout an engagement. It’s your job as the project manager to do everything you can to minimize those instances through continuous interaction, engagement, and assignments. Utilizing team collaboration helps promote ownership that also helps to keep those team members focused and engaged throughout a long project. Your project team members are likely as busy as you are and working multiple projects so being aware of that and utilizing them where they provide the most strategic advantage helps you, helps them, and helps the project.