Author: Oxana Gutu

Are project managers allowed to take a vacation?

“A project manager on vacation?!” Unheard of! Tight deadlines, impatient clients, critical paths, strict sponsor, plenty of adrenalin, which keeps you going, and plenty of other imposed or self-imposed excuses. 

My first year in project management, I used to dread taking time off. In time, I understood that with some good planning and prep I can manage it well. I put my project planning skills for vacation preparations.

So if you still worry about taking time off, do yourselves a favour and be a good project managers of your own vacations.  If you are not convinced, vacation planning tends to bring happiness as shown by research in the journal “Applied Research in Quality of Life”. People actually derive most of the happiness from their vacations in the planning phase (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/18/opinion/what-your-vacation-says-about-you.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0). Let’s see though if new research will confirm the same in the times of pandemics.

You can easily guess who plans and organises my family’s vacation. I love to search for new destinations, read hotels reviews, organise ‘hotel tenders’, book, make a list of things to experience, argue with my family about what not to put in the luggage (gadgets, for once). It is fun and it pleases the protesting “brain on duty”, so it can deal with deliverables, milestones and other demands it is used to.

In addition to that, a well done pre-vacation prep will bring you the peace of mind with which you can leave the project temporarily. The purpose is to assess and prevent any foreseeable issues, to the extent you can. Here are couple of strategies I collected and applied throughout years:

    Announce your planned vacation as soon as you know. I trust you’ll not take time off on a product is planned to go-live or there is a risk of missing a milestone on the critical path.
    If feasible, consider is anyone from the team can take charge in your absence. If yes, leave clear instructions on matters to follow-up and a list of “in case of…” in a hand-over note, which is also communicated to anyone important who might be looking for you. If no one can stay in charge, make sure your out-of-office automatic reply is clear about it and gives directions to people who still need your input/feedback.
    Decide if you be available by email/phone. A wealth of studies show that it’s best to fully disconnect. Dropping ‘accidentally’ your mobile device in the pool can help disconnect. There are other less financially costly ways though. If you still need to check your email, make a deal with yourself to check it only at a certain period of the day for a certain amount of time (e.g. 1 hour after kids go to sleep or during their siesta). If you stick to it, reward yourself with a large ice-cream or cocktail you fancy. Or both.

 

 

“No” – the project manager’s best friend?

I remember my first change request: “We need the center to host 150 people, 50 more than initially planned, which means building one extra wing.” That would have increased the budget by 30%. It was unrealistic, given the budget cycle. I had to ask another colleague from the regional coordination to say “No”. Then I came across Peter Taylor’s book ““The project manager who smiled” where I read:  “The most valuable and least used word in a project manager’s vocabulary is ‘No’.

Project managers get often requests like: “We want these new features to the product. And by the way, why doesn’t the software have these new reporting tools we just adopted?!” or  “We liked the study visit. We would like to go on one more by the end of the year.”

These are not Christmas letters to Santa. Yet, it is pretty close. In the course of project implementation, beneficiaries tend to try to get more than initially planned. And it’s normal for them to try, for different reasons. I usually do not questions their motives. Not my job. My project manager’s job is to give them what we agreed, when we agreed and for the budget we agreed, without jeopardising the expected quality.

Because the project manager is not Santa, it’s ok to say “No”. There are a number of ways to say “No” by considering the repercussions on the project and ultimately the beneficiary. The most important part is to have the beneficiary understand why the project manager says “No”. Reference to facts or similar past experience may support the understanding of pragmatic beneficiaries. One approach is to show what would happen if “yes” would be the answer.

Let’s take one of the wishes from the above list. “Yes” to an extra wing would mean delayed opening of the temporary detention centre (due to reopening of the construction authorisation procedure etc.) and increased risks of revolt at the current facilities, which hold 100 people in less than acceptable conditions. Data shows that over the last three years the number of incomers is stable and the documents processing rates have improved. Therefore, the centre’s capacity is aligned with the demand. It worked in a project I managed years ago with a data-adept beneficiary.

When the beneficiary is guided by emotional or more personal motives, he/she may not hear /want to hear a reasoned “No”. The costs of “No” can be also high. For example, it asks to choose a certain consultant/service provider. A “No”, even if demonstrated by strictly adhered to procurement procedures and open competition rules, can have the beneficiary complain to the project sponsor and/or lead to the rejection to work with the chosen consultant/service provider. Each project is different and each beneficiary’s powers are context specific, so careful consideration is warranted. What I found important in such situations is to be as open and transparent about these kind of requests with all concerned. It cost me once a friendship, but then it was not perhaps the kind of friendship I would keep.

A “No” does not need to be brutal and cutting-off. One soft way of saying “No” is to help the beneficiary find another project who can accommodate the request. It will bring value added through networking to the relationship with the beneficiary, in addition to the opportunity for a good collaboration with another project/partner.