Three tricks for dealing with the holidays as a consulting project manager

Travel costs have skyrocketed. No one is available to finish off those last ugly bits of work before the budgets run out. Everyone seems to want to hang out with their families, generally in inaccessible places, rather than burn the midnight oil finishing off our wildly out of scope project work.

It's got to be holiday season again. The time of cheer. The time of eggnog and happy children. The time when nothing gets done because everyone would rather be somewhere else. Don't get me wrong -- I like the holidays as much as everyone else. But enough is enough already.

As a project manager tasked with cleaning up loose ends during the holidays, I tend to utilize three tricks to keep things moving.

First up: Pare it down

The simplest thing to do is use the constrained resources, limited budgets, and dwindling time to finally get people to prioritize project activities. As laid back as things seem, there are still a few items of very important work to be done. Now that we only have a few weeks left, we can sometimes find out what they are.

This is, to be honest, probably the one and only time I use time-boxing as a client facing tool. I show a simple grid with the weeks down one side and the resources across the top. Each box contains five days (or two or three, depending on the holiday week) of available work time. I then give the client a list of the open items and ask for help fitting things in.

No one likes the results but we all end up with a clearer picture of what we want to spend money on. That is, I guess, the point.

Next up: Shore it up

The hardest thing for an introvert to do is get out there and mingle. However, this is the one time of year during which a traveling team might possibly come together. Even a static team of IT professionals, one which does not travel much, will start to come out of their cubes as the holidays reach their inevitable 'nog-hazed climax.

As the project manager, its our job to reinforce the social as well as activity-focused roles in the team. We need to talk, talk, talk, introduce topics of conversation, and guide the discussions which occur spontaneously away from work topics.

“Away from work topics?” Yes. There will be plenty of time for people to thrash out all the problems of the last year and 366 days with next year's issues. Got to love leap years.

Finally: Twist it around

Everyone expects the project manager to arrange for a wing's luncheon and at least one early day off to go drink some beer. We need to do these things, but we should also spend a few minutes to come up with something creative. Better yet, if there's an extrovert on the team, make him come up with something creative to do.

The only rule here is to throw out the predictable. No team-building exercises, leadership seminars, or “development opportunities.” Probably my best received event was the time I scheduled a full week of vendor presentations. We learned a bit about upcoming technologies, had a great time chatting between and through meetings, and got some nice lunches out of it. All, naturally, in the name of project progress.