The Project Notebook

What if the Holidays Aren’t Happy

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2008, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Usually my December column has focused on managing projects through the seasonal abundance of joy that can accompany the year-end holidays. However, this year’s holiday season seems to be destined to be more heavily weighted toward gloom rather than toward mirth. “Doing more with less” is giving way to “doing something with nothing” on personal, organizational, and global fronts. Even a well-managed project can rapidly decline in effectiveness when the team members, sponsors, and other stakeholders are constantly bombarded with media reminders of the latest bad news. So with the hope that someday this era will be just a dim, bad memory, this month’s column provides some ideas for leading projects through bleak times.

Focus on success
It’s common at the end of the year to reflect on past events. Assuming that the project has accomplished the majority of its deliverables and met most of its milestones, it is a good time to highlight the major project successes. Rather than just focusing on the achievement of Gantt chart targets, the contributions of each team member and stakeholder can be highlighted across the accomplishments. This recognition can be made in a variety of methods, such as brief descriptions/photos on the project’s website, a special recognition meeting, or a potluck lunch. Funds for more elaborate forms of recognition may be nonexistent this year, but personal recognition is always a nice “present”.

Now some of you may be saying, “What success? My project budget was cut without warning, some of my team was laid off, and we’ve been told that any project could be terminated with or without advance notice.” There still were probably successes, however small, that demonstrated that heroic efforts paid off even in dire circumstances. In fact, sometimes it’s a morale booster to look back at projects that have been through survival mode and to be happily surprised at the level of accomplishments. Some people may even find that they no longer fear certain challenging situations such as having to drastically cut budgets because they know that they have been tested and have risen to the challenge.

When all else fails, there’s always work
This column section is not advocating that becoming a workaholic is a cure for depressing news. However, team members may welcome the need to dig into some intense, short duration tasks that require concentration or that provide mental stimulation. Perhaps there is some vendor assessment that needs to be conducted or a prototype design effort that requires input from multiple team members. The key is to plan activities in segments or phases that can be readily accomplished and that provide a series of opportunities for successes. It is also important to determine which activities are best performed by individuals versus those that will be more effectively completed with multiple personnel.

There are no quick fixes
While we might like to believe that taking two aspirin and getting a good night’s rest will make everything “right” immediately, the more plausible perspective is that recovery is not right around the corner. Rather than wasting energy on twisting with every “up and down”, project managers need to remain focused on project goals.

They also need to continue to assess how the project goals are aligning with changes that the organization may be making in this economic environment. Sometimes critical projects are shelved during declining times only to find later that those projects should have been continued even if they needed some modifications in order to remain relevant. For example, companies need to continue anticipating needs for new products and services. While budgets may be reduced for the foreseeable future, companies need to be ready to bring new offerings to market as economies rebound.

Let us all hope for a positive 2009!

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. An overview of her program and project specialties is available at; select “Resources” then “Consultants”. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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