“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.
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.
As a preschooler, I was best friends with our teacher’s son, Andrei. It was particularly helpful at disciplining times. “If you do not listen to me, you’ll be sent to the potty class” was the harshest penalty on earth for us. At the slightest sign of the penalty approaching, I was quick to announce “Me and Andrei were listening and did nothing of (whatever was it that caused the teacher’s discontent). “Ok, you two go back to class. The rest – off you go”. This relationship brought me many perks in the pre-school years. It also opened access to other teachers’ favours.
As we find out in adulthood, networking does not come that easy, at least not to all of us. “Why on earth?” “How? How do I start the conversation?”. “What if they will think I am too pushy?” etc are the usual introverts’ inner talks at networking events. I’ve been there. Done that.
It is self-explanatory that projects do not exist in a vacuum and networking is part of the project manager’s job. “How good are you at networking?” is a question I got on almost all job interviews.
Networks help in projects. Knowing the right person in the right place at the right time helps solve and/or prevent lots of issues. Networks also contribute to the change the project works for.
In time, I learned that the initial contact struggle was the easiest part. Maintaining and nourishing the network is the hardest part. It takes time and effort.
To make a network work it needs not to be self-serving. The perks of networking need to bring mutual advantages and lasting benefits to those involved and the professional community at large. And it needs to be clean of whatever allegations.
Mary was managing a multi-million project whose success depended on a vast network of Government officials. She knew some of them through previous professional contacts. The majority though were totally new both in their jobs and to the project.
She did her homework and found out whom from her network she could approach to help her gain access. Her first strategy of meetings over coffee and introductions at official receptions was successful. She moved to the next step and asked the most influential project partner to convene a meeting with all, to make it official through a charter signed by all. It was an important milestone for setting the common goals and demonstrating the benefits of the network and the project.
As the project progressed, some inevitable hurdles emerged and the network kept changing as the commitment of some of its members to common goals changed due to Government reshuffles. Mary kept true to the charter and continued to pro-actively engage the members of the network at levels which worked: one-to-one, smaller groups, entire network. In the end, keeping the network consistently functioning for the entire duration of the project paid dividends, as its members demonstrated a sufficient degree of maturity for a more advanced phase of the project.
You have your project plan approved. It was a tough job to get to it. You finally have it nice and shiny on your dashboard and want to proceed according to plan. That might not be your client/stakeholder’s reality though. They might think that the plan is a thing of the past and after their morning coffee (or last night drink) they have new bright ideas about the product they want. And they will share it by email, sms, whatsapp, skype and whatever apps they have on their phone. Hello, roller coaster of ideas!
No panic, as my swimming instructor says. There are a couple of strategies you can make use of. Make sure your client does not read this.
- Use you empathy and knowledge of human nature. Most likely, your client/stakeholder is a creative type and you are an action-oriented person (as most project managers). Use this cognitive diversity to the advantage of the project and to enrich the relationship with the client.
- Do an inventory to see which ideas require actual actions. Some people are just happy to share their ideas. You might discover that some are visions or lighthouses. Use them in visuals. In full transparency, share your plans for ideas which are for immediate follow-up and which can be parked.
- If your client/stakeholder is restless, then you might need to equip yourself with an expectations management strategy. There are a variety you can employ: explain the time commitment on the team and project – would implementing the new idea require team members to put aside the tasks they are committed to already? would any other new resources be required? etc. Depending on the mind-set of the originator of the idea, they might buy into the ‘costs argument’ .
- Remember that the project’s plan is your anchor and reference point. It is a documented list of current and foreseen priorities. If the priorities keep changing, it is likely that a new steering committee of the project will need to be called upon to discuss and agree on which priorities are for the project to keep.
Working with a client who is a fountain of new ideas can be stimulating. It can also be frustrating or draining. By applying these strategies you can enhance your ability to leverage ideas into workable solutions and keep the sanity of your mind.
Learning to say “No” can be a vital skill for a project manager. Learning to deal with “No” on the receiver’s end is equally important.
There are many “No”s a project managers finds him/herself obliged to deal with. It could be a “No” to additional funds, or to budget revisions, or to deadline extensions. Or a “No” from a service provider to a request to speed up the delivery. Or a “No” from a team member.
How do you deal with “No” on the receiving end? Is it “I do not take “No” for an answer? Or “How could you, after all I’ve done for you?” Or “Wait until your boss learns about it!” Or a blanc staring, Scarlett’s style?
With experience, you’ll learn to anticipate “No”s coming your way and you’ll deal proactively with it.
Here is a story:
The project sponsor asked for a project on three sites in three different countries. Each had a resident rep of the sponsor. As we started work, the representative of the sponsor on one of the sites changed and with him – the expectations.
We re-entered into negotiations, with some heavy weights on our side. During an intense exchange, it became clear that we are moving nowhere. They said “No” to all our proposals. We dropped that site. We still kept the two other project sites with plenty of opportunities to do good. It also freed some of our resources, thanks to which we launched a regional platform.
We kept the loyalty of our clients from the dropped site. And to compensate the local stakeholders for the lost opportunities, we invited them to the other sites to benefit from the products we delivered.
Couple of years later I met the sponsor’s rep and it gave me great pleasure to share all the good things we did on the other two project’s sites and the regional spin off.