The Project Notebook

“Taking a Break” Doesn’t Mean Delaying the Project

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

It’s that time of year when many people realize that summer is drawing to an end and with it the opportunity to take a well-deserved vacation. With project schedules generally tight and overly optimistic, project managers may find themselves tempted to ask their teams to defer vacations until some “magical” future time when there is slack in the schedule. Since slack never seems to materialize, a project manager may find that all the deferred vacations come due at the same time to avoid a company mandate to “use it or lose it”. Then the project manager is in a worse bind. Team members who have sacrificed their optimum vacation times are now at the point of total burnout and do not want to hear that “only one of you can be gone at a time”. However, a little advance planning can allow vacations when people want to take them without delaying the project or causing deliverables to be negatively impacted.

When project managers develop the initial project plan, the vacation schedules of team members need to be considered. Some organizations provide a combined “personal” time allowance that can be used for vacation, illness, or other personal activities. Developing a master vacation schedule identifies not only those times when there could be major impact on deliverables but also if there are periods when several team members will be gone. Overlaying this master vacation schedule on the project plan will highlight any potential problem areas.

Suppose that there are multiple timeframes when several team members plan to be gone. There are many options that a project manager has. If the team reports to the project manager, he/she can talk with the team to emphasize the need to re-structure vacation timing. The project manager should emphasize what has been done to accommodate the majority of planned vacations. Asking the team to work out the schedule themselves is often effective. Only if the team reaches an impasse should the project manager play a role in determining final scheduling. If the team is told that failure to reach a decision on its part will result in a more arbitrary process, there is stronger impetus to resolve any issues without project manager intervention.

A more challenging situation exists when the project team is organized in a matrix structure and does not report to the project manager. In such a situation the project manager can also ask the team to resolve its own schedule conflicts. However, if the team does not reach a resolution, the project manager must then approach the functional managers of the team members. This is definitely one time when the project goals and benefits need to be defined in the specific terms of each functional manager in order to emphasize the importance of this upfront negotiation. For example, a marketing manager may not be concerned that his/her representative’s absence will delay selection of new software. However, that same marketing manager will definitely “take notice” when informed that delay in software selection will also delay the implementation of a new management bonus plan.

Regardless of how dedicated project team members are, everyone needs a break once in a while. That principle also applies to project managers. Upfront planning for vacations can result in a more productive team that remains focused on the ultimate project goals and deliverables.

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. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. 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 susanada@aol.com.

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP