Does the concept of forgiveness extend as far as the hard-nosed business of IT project management? I think so—up to a point.

Occasionally, I allow an amnesty period, usually around the New Year, for my project managers to come clean with any of their lapses. This time has proven to be a great safety valve for employees, as well as a mechanism for preventing details from being swept under the rug.

Ideally, there shouldn’t be items that are unfinished, messages that are unanswered, half-truths told, and so on; but the reality is that project teams have skeletons in their closets.

I believe it’s important to deal with nagging issues and resolve them rather than finding scapegoats. So, here’s how you can take advantage of the New Year and implement an amnesty policy.

How does it work in practice?
I usually announce the idea a few weeks in advance and then let the event take place, in the background, over five working days. Some people may pull me aside and tell me things they might otherwise find embarrassing; others may prefer to write something out or send me an e-mail.

I make it clear from the beginning that everything is confidential. Some of the items that might come up during the amnesty period include:

  • Work items that were supposed to be polished up but weren’t (sometimes even from several projects ago).
  • Boring tasks that were unofficially delegated and left unfinished.
  • Lost or misappropriated manuals, CDs, cables, etc.
  • Debts to the communal project coffee fund.
  • Not asking sufficient questions before beginning (inappropriate) work.
  • Questions that people are afraid to ask, e.g., “What’s your wife’s name again?” or “How do I find the password to these new directories?”
  • Spending time attending to personal e-mail.
  • Habits such as forgetting to let someone know you’ll be out of the office, biting your fingernails over the keyboard, or shouting into the telephone.
  • Possessing less extensive technical knowledge in a certain area than their resume may suggest.
  • Errors that may have been made months ago but continue to be on team members’ minds, distracting them from completing current tasks.

After the confessions
At the end of the amnesty week, we have a brief meeting in which I may announce that we have extra items of work to do. Also, some team members may want to acknowledge their lapses and apologize. Then I assign any overdue housekeeping items. If more serious development-related issues become apparent, it may be necessary to plan an urgent fire-fighting session to resolve the problem.

At this time, I confess my own lapses, such as:

  • Eating the last of the chocolate cookies (and forgetting to replace them—twice).
  • Entering the wrong dates in the holiday planner, causing people to have to rebook on short notice.

Learning from the process and moving on
This process can only improve team spirit and show that you’re a project manager who will:

  • Defend team members if a genuine error has been made.
  • Admit to errors and imperfections in yourself.
  • Accept genuine apologies.
  • Seek improvements rather than look for someone to blame.

The final advantage of this approach is that it can save the project manager time worrying about and chasing lots of reluctantly divulged errors of judgment. Even if you only manage to catch a single significant problem in advance by using this process, a simple “project amnesty” is certainly worth considering.