Project Management Institute

Who's Minding the Store?



Whether it's because they have other projects, need to attend a conference or just want to take a long-overdue family vacation, project managers simply can't be on-site 24/7. And if proper planning doesn't take place beforehand, that time away from the project can lead to all kinds of problems—even project failure.

“If I'm away from a project, I would worry if the communication is strong enough, if the person I selected as my delegate is good enough and, of course, how well the project is going,” says Stuart Mann, quality manager for Standard Bank in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Here are five ways project managers can make sure things run smoothly in their absence.


Communicate with all stakeholders.

Convey upcoming changes to other team members, sponsors and clients. “It's a great opportunity to keep them abreast of everything going on with the project moving forward and to find out any issues that are popping up that you may not have otherwise been prepared for while you're away,” says Hebert Yoshiharu Fukayama, PMP, partner director at Tres Casas Treinamentos Empresariais and planning engineer at VOITH, a paper company in São Paulo, Brazil.

If this doesn't happen, the project risks having each of the individual efforts operate independently, and stakeholders and sponsors may be unaware of changes that could negatively impact the project. In addition, key stakeholders will not have a single accountable person for communication and could receive inconsistent or conflicting information. Supplement formal written instructions with in-person meetings with those who run the project when you're away.

“Face-to-face communication is the strategy I prefer because it's the most effective and efficient,” Mr. Fukayama says. “You can avoid some problems, such as poor translations or ambiguously written directions, with formal written instructions.”


Plan early and document everything.

If you know when you're going to be away, integrate those absences into the project plan early on. “It's the best time to prepare, because it's possible to define where the critical moments of the project will be and how best to get ready for them,” Mr. Fukayama says.

Of course, not all absences are foreseeable. In those cases, ensure the project's scope, plan, risk and budget are communicated to the sponsor, team members and stakeholders to keep things running smoothly during and after the interruption.

“Documentation always is important, especially if something comes up to cause you to leave unexpectedly,” Mr. Mann says. “Transparency is key because it can allow the project to handle the inevitable hiccups that occur when an unplanned absence takes place.”


Carefully choose your substitute.

At Minera Panama, a mining company in Panama City, Panama, each project manager and team member has a counterpart with the same authority. “The team member and the counterpart should have overlapping work periods to guarantee communication between the two,” says Edwin Monzón, a project scheduler at the company. “That helps ensure both people know all the ins and outs of the project.”

Wendy O'Seep, program manager director at Cigna, a health services company in Hartford, Connecticut, USA, advises selecting a replacement with existing knowledge of the project. “These delegates are not just a backup for email and voicemail but should actively manage responsibilities at a project level until the original project manager returns,” she says.


Involve the sponsor.

An absent project manager increases the sponsor's importance, says Mr. Monzón, because it becomes his or her responsibility to make sure communication continues and the project retains organizational support, in case there isn't a project manager counterpart.

In these situations, sponsors need as much information as possible, says Cody Swann, CEO of Gunner Technology, a web development company in Los Angeles, California, USA.

He suggests soon-to-be departing project managers complete a document that includes the project's history, present and future problems, points of contact, deadlines and specifications. Sponsors can use the document to manage the project until the project manager's replacement arrives.

“I can't stress enough the importance of a project manager keeping me informed and engaged,” says Mr. Swann. “The best project managers I've worked with have scheduled meetings with me and kept me abreast of any changes. Those are the project managers I tend to continue to work with because it helps prepare me in case of any unforeseen departure or emergency.”


Be ready for your comeback.

Planning your return to the job site is just as important as planning your exit.

“When it is time to return to the project, the first days should be completely dedicated to the transfer of information and critical items between yourself and your counterpart,” Mr. Monzón says.

But don't let your return disrupt the team. Just as their work output shouldn't have changed while you were gone, it shouldn't be affected when you come back, Mr. Mann attests.

“In the end, the project manager's job is to get the project completed on time and on budget,” he says. “It's a tough job to do because of so many other distractions and possible calamities that can befall a project. Don't let your absence make the team's work more difficult.”

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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