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.

The Clash of the Priorities

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.

Project managers juggle a multitude of priorities. Often, the number and magnitude of priorities may seem overwhelming and even in conflict with one another. How project managers deal with numerous priorities can make or break a project and can directly influence the perception of the success of a project. It can be difficult to objectively apply one standard to a wide variety of priorities, but that is what project managers must do. It is especially challenging when several projects have to be managed simultaneously. The following decision criteria can aid in sorting through a mountain of priorities whether on one project or on multiple projects.

Life or Death

This criterion may sound overly drastic, but it crisply focuses one’s perspective. Unless the activity/event will doom or lead to the demise of the project (or the project manager), it is probably not a top priority item. People who have faced death and survived have been known to say after such experiences that everything else is “child’s play”.

Source of the Priority

Is the priority being driven by personal or political whim? Is the priority “driver” someone who specializes in creating crises? In these types of situations the project manager should assess the strength and importance of the priority driver as well as the impact on the overall project. Treating the cause of the priority rather than the symptomatic pressure is more effective in reducing the number and severity of high priority items. Jumping from one “top priority” item to another only encourages the drivers of the priorities and may actually prolong the agony by increasing the volume of priority items.

Conflicting Priorities

It is often only the project manager who realizes that priorities are in conflict. For example, one department involved in a project may be incentivized to complete its activities rapidly ahead of schedule without regard for quality. Another department involved in the project may actually experience delays in completing its assigned tasks due to inferior handoffs from the other department. In this type of situation it is the project manager who must educate project participants in the realities of not sacrificing the project for the benefit of a single component.

Rapidly Shifting Priorities

Sometimes priorities are changed so quickly and so often that a project manager can feel that he/she is “twisting in the wind”. When priorities shift constantly, a project manager must exercise judgment to determine if the current shift is just part of the ongoing decision instability or is actually a necessary change. This situation calls for the project manager to be the “calm in the storm” in objectively assessing the need for the shift in priorities. Otherwise, stakeholders quickly learn to bombard the project manager with urgent priority requests.

In conclusion it’s a fact of project management that effective priority management is crucial to “staying the course” through the turbulence that accompanies projects.

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.

Handling Project Re-work

A reader at ProjectManagementQuestions.com asked:  How do I account for project re-work in the project plan? 

In anticipation of us all doing the right thing, there really isn’t any formal guideline for handling re-work in a schedule which is universal.  Every organization sets their own norms.  In fact, I’m not sure I would want to call it out as a separately tracked item unless there was an ongoing issue with re-work from a project team, which does happen.  The expectation for any properly managed project is that some tasks will come in early and some will be late for a variety of reasons, including re-work.  The end result is that you hit the mark at the end of the project, or at least come close (within 10-20%).  Perhaps the better question is: How do I keep all my projects on track?

I have used a few different methods myself in the past:

  1. After the project schedule is complete, add a portion of your contingency time to all tasks resulting in deliverables.  If re-work isn’t significant or required to be tracked separately, this is ideal and you just track the schedule and actual time spent in the plan without doing anything special.  In general, as time on the project progresses, some tasks will come in early and some will be late (for many different reasons including re-work).  In some environments (e.g. software/technology) there will be other documents such as bug tickets from which you can derive the project time on re-work if necessary. Track in a separate spreadsheet if necessary.
  2. Possibly in conjunction with #1, and if re-work tracking isn’t important, just track the rework as actual time against the original task or the QA task for the deliverable being re-worked.  Without the contingency, your performance against baseline will not be good, but you will have accurately captured the project timeline status.
  3. If re-work tracking is important to the project and your organization, add new tasks and deliverables to the project without re-baselining.  These too will be deviations from the baseline.  If the deviations become too significant, then you may want to consider re-baselining the project which will mean re-estimating all tasks going forward.

The bottom line is that estimates are exactly that — estimates.  We don’t need to tell people “no rework allowed”.  At the same time, we need to maintain the expectation that everyone is doing the right thing and trying their best to minimize re-work.  Well managed projects tend to “hit their mark” because some tasks are early and some are late.  If you are not experiencing this, there may be some issues with your estimating process or scheduling process, and you need to reflect on how to best manage that.  If this is allowed to go on for too long, you will tend to build dysfunction into the project team and the organization.  The PMBOK® Guide tells us that the result of poor quality and a lot of re-work is a demoralized and low performing team.

Another possibility for frequently missed projects is that expectation setting may need adjustment.  I’ve always set the expectation, especially on software and knowledge projects, that if you are going to be late (for any reason) that you will “go the extra mile” and put in a little overtime to bring the project back on track.  I don’t put this out up front — if someone is repeatedly missing the mark I will ask they meet this expecation in the future.  Over time, this usually helps improve the estimates and inputs into plans — after all, who wants to work nights and weekends all the time?  This is a gentle and fair way of encouraging the team to perform.

Construction Time Management


A reader at PM Hut asks: Why do we see so much lack of time scheduling in construction business? And how can time management In a contractor company make the work more efficient?

I cannot speak to the “lack of time scheduling in construction business”. I’m in education, and most school construction projects have pretty good time scheduling because they need to be completed in time for the new school year. If they are not, schools are left to scramble to find space for displaced students. This goes for K-12, colleges and universities, and even non-traditional schools since they are forced often by law to adhere to some semblance of a school year.

In general, there are also a number of project scheduling tools which compete with the more common Microsoft project because they have features which support construction projects. Primavera is one notable package that is a full solution from proposal to construction to back office functions. Prolog is another that comes to mind. There are 87 other packages cited at Software Advice. 17 of these are specialized in time scheduling.

As project managers, we have two basic ways of improving the schedule time: crashing and fast tracking. Crashing adds more resources. This isn’t always helpful — it depends on the level of expertise of the resources, the nature of the work, etc. Fast tracking on the other hand looks to make the work more efficient by finding more things to do in parallel. On a major software project, I had three major applications which had to read and write from a common file. I could have developed them serially. Instead, I got the team together and the first thing we did was define the common file format and read/write methods. With that out of the way, we were able to work independently on the three applications at the same time. It seems like there are parallels in the construction industry. This was shown very effectively by the four hour house project. You can watch the video documentary at Google Videos. Two complete, livable houses were finished within four hours by very careful time management and scheduling. I’d say that’s a lot of efficiency!

The people devoted to tasks are very important to efficiency as well. Teams which are able to self-manage their own time usually accomplish a lot more. I have a number of online articles devoted to helping you or project team members become more effective at getting things done:

GTD for PMs
GTD for PMs – Part II
GTD for PMs – Part III
GTD for PMs – Part IV
GTD for PMs Part V – How to Work with GTD

At the end of the day, it’s about balance – completing the work of mutual value for you and the stakeholders in as efficient a way possible, leaving you more time for non-work activities and some time to address the unknown unknowns (aka risks) which will arise during the course of your project.If this doesn’t fully answer your question, you may continue the dialog in the comments or drop me a line at sdcapmp@aol.com.

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