Every project has its "crunch time"—those moments when task complete dates start passing by, or some unforeseen technical issue must be resolved before work can be resumed. Most often, crunch time comes just before a project goes live. This is also a time when managers and project members are nearing exhaustion, with patience growing short, and mistakes getting made
Fortunately, there are a number of best practice coping strategies that managers and staff members can employ to get through these critical project crunches. Here are five of them:
Take care of the personal basics
This might sound obvious, but eating well, taking breaks and getting sleep and exercise are imperative during crunch times. There is a tendency to forego them because of impending project pressures. People in IT are known to load themselves with caffeine and energy drinks—but there is no substitute for good nutrition when you want to produce at an optimum level.
Set a steady work pace
Most of us are familiar with Aesop's tortoise and the hare fable where the slow-of-foot tortoise won the race because it worked at a steady pace and never lost sight of its goal. Crunch times are similar. You might feel you have to race to the finish line, but if you run too fast, there is also a greater tendency to make mistakes that cause rework. A second habit managers and project staffers can fall into is feeling nervous and overwhelmed when they look at the totality of work that must be accomplished by a given time. In these cases, it is better to maintain a steady but effective pace where you can also maintain the quality of your work. You can do this by focusing on ticking the tasks off your list as you do them one by one. This makes the workload more manageable and also builds your confidence as you begin to see the complete tasks accumulate.
Communicate issues as soon as they come up
Do your best to solve an unexpected project issue when it surfaces, but if you can't find a resolution in a reasonable amount of time, communicate it out to other members of your team. Someone is bound to have experienced something similar and can speed the issue to resolution so you don't lose too much time. Crunch time is also a good time to keep proactive communications going during periods of stress. This prevents problem and stress build-ups that can lead to project members reaching their breaking points.
Notice those around you
During crunch time, everyone is under pressure. It's a good idea, especially if you are a manager, to keep an eye on everyone engaged in the project so you can spot signs of overload or exhaustion and seize the opportunity to help the individual rest and or regroup. If you notice mistakes start coming up in work from individuals who usually operate with a very low incidence of error, or you begin to notice individuals who normally operate at an even keel, start losing their tempers or snapping at people, it might be time to say something.
Keep your perspective
Even though you and your staff might be feeling the pressure during crunch time, crunch time isn't going to last forever. Remind yourself of this often while you are in crunch time, and also remind your staff of this fact in meetings and as your circulate around during the day. It will help you and your project team keep a good perspective and a cool head, realizing that an end is in sight.
Above all else, it is imperative for project managers to learn and practice these skills so they can assist staff with crunch time coping strategies through example as well as by suggestion. The more you can orchestrate well-timed breaks in hot projects, engaging the group to solve sticky project problems as they arise, ensuring that everyone is proceeding at a steady and productive pace, and maintaining your own cool throughout the project, the more effective you will be in bringing the project to a successful conclusion.
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Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.