Project slowdown during the summer holiday period is quite a widespread occurrence, but projects drifting into a state of ennui during holiday periods does not help anyone in the long run.
So what can be done to maintain project progress during the holidays?
Like most project managers, before I go on holiday I make sure the project team and other key stakeholders are fully updated about project status and what needs to be done to keep things moving.
As part of this process I also create a project handover file. The handover file is distributed to key members of the project team. The file usually contains the following:
- The Project Initiation Document.
- The project plan / project schedule, highlighting project tasks which should take place during the time I am away. Of particular importance are communication events such as team meetings and project status update report dates.
- Risk and Issue logs usually with RAG (Red, Amber, Green) status highlighting.
- A list of contact details for key project team members (including suppliers), along with a quick summary describing their role in the project.
In addition, I will have a short meeting with the person nominated to be acting as project manager in my absence to brief them about project status and upcoming activity.
All well and good, so things should progress quite nicely. Except they rarely do. Why?
Project driving force
I think the main reason is this: good project managers are usually the main driving force behind projects.
Of course there are other team members and other project stakeholders of involved but, ultimately, the main driver behind project progress is invariably the project manager. Good project managers live, eat and breathe their projects. Frankly, we can become project bores at times, but there you go. A small price to pay for project vigilance!
What words such as ‘planning’, ‘monitoring’ and ‘control’ most usually mean in practice is that the project manager is constantly pushing the project team to take action according to an agreed timetable. This could be team members creating project deliverables or it could be senior project stakeholders needing to take some key decisions.
Frankly, project managers spend a lot of time chasing people to do things. It would be wonderful if everyone just did the work assigned to them as part of the project plan, but this rarely happens. Little wonder therefore that when the project manager goes on leave project activity slows or sometimes stops altogether.
Other factors also contribute to a summertime project slowdown.
Even where someone has been nominated to act as project manager during the principal project manager’s leave period (and this does not always happen), that person is unlikely to feel they own the project(s) handed over to them.
Moreover, they will invariably have their usual workload to contend with as well. Not unnaturally perhaps, when it comes to task prioritisation they will favour their usual work ahead of project work they have been given ‘to look after’.
Needless to say this is a pity. I think many organisations could do better regards project prioritisation and resource planning. Organisations should actively consider project prioritisation and communicate their priorities clearly. They should also make provision to reduce some of the usual workload for those taking on additional project responsibility. I appreciate that many organisations are stretched in terms of resourcing, especially during holiday periods, but to keep key projects moving these two things must be done.
Other people are on leave too
In most organisations, especially once the schools have closed for summer, it can be expected that a significant proportion of colleagues will be on leave at various times during the holiday period.
As with the project ownership issue, effective resource scheduling at individual project level along with organisational programme management can alleviate adverse effects of staff leave.
Maintaining project progress: a summary
I would advise:
- Organisations: please take steps to improve your portfolio and programme management capability so that project prioritisation is widely understood and resource planning is smoothed out.
- Project team members: please read the project handover documentation and keep referring to it throughout the project managers leave period.
- Acting project manager:
- make sure you have enough time available to take on additional short-term project responsibility. See your line manager and make it plain that some of your business as usual work will need to be reduced to allow for additional project responsibility.
- keep the project moving forward and act within the remit of your delegated authority. In particular keep to the project schedule, especially regards project team meetings.
- Prepare a short update note for the project manager when they return from holiday.
And if something truly exceptional arises?
If it were my project, I’d be happy for the acting project manager to contact me should something exceptional happen on one of my projects while I’m away. I usually make this plain before I go on leave anyway.
Although I think everyone should be able to exercise their right to annual leave without being contacted by work colleagues, by their nature exceptional events require exceptional responses. Deciding whether to contact the project manager on leave is a matter of discretion for those back in the office and of course the discretion should be exercised with care.
If an exceptional event does arise then the project manager should be able to put the problem in context and point colleagues towards the most appropriate sources of emergency help. Indeed, sometimes the project manager might even know the answer to the problem. At the very least, after being informed, the project manager will not now be faced with some nasty surprises on their first day back at work.
That said, I hope you do not have to contend with exceptional events in the absence of your project manager and that all of your projects make uneventful progress throughout the summer holiday period.