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Categories: Best Practices

by Dave Wakeman

My mind is on summer break. Anytime I start thinking about my summer plans, I also think about how I can use this to teach a lesson. I think I’ve come up with a pretty neat way to tie a trip to the beach into the jobs that project managers do every day. Let me explain…

As PMs, the job is to manage stakeholders, communicate, adapt and adjust, put out fires, and to end up as a clearinghouse for everything that has to do with your projects. We also hope to achieve a break because we want people to be able to make their own decisions and to take actions independent of us doing all the thinking.

This is where my vacation comes in, because when I am away, I like to be totally away—independent of any decisions for my business. Which brings us to the question: “How do we create an environment where our teams go on without us?”

Let’s take a quick tour through three ideas:

1. Give people some autonomy.

I remember reading the book The 4-Hour Workweek, where Tim Ferriss talked about turning over problem solving to his outsourced sales and service team. His solution was to set parameters when the outsourced team should just act.

Such as, “If solving this problem costs $100 or less, you make the best decision and let’s move on.”

How can we apply that to our work?

As a PM, you might set parameters for your purchasing agents that tells them, “If the purchase is under $1,000, you do what you think is best.” The number isn’t important, the transfer of authority is.

The same idea applies for correcting errors, changing a process, or communicating an issue. Set up the parameters for when you need to know (or don’t need to know). Then, you stick with them…no matter what.

2. Don’t be the first to respond to everything.

Some of the worst habits that we encourage when leading a project or a business happen because we feel like we must do everything ourselves.

Look, I’m as guilty as the next person of doing that—responding to emails at all times of the day and night, trying to juggle what can feel like 30 or more different things at once.

When you give yourself a few moments to think about it though, it won’t work for taking a real vacation. It doesn’t allow you to be a really effective PM.

Why? Because you become a bottleneck.

How do we not become a bottleneck? First, you set those parameters like we discussed at the top.

After that, you want to be more in control of your time and how you use it.

Do you check your emails constantly? I used to. Now I don’t.

Instead, I might check them once an hour or every few hours even. And, on vacation, I’m likely to check my emails twice a day.

You can do this even in your normal workday. I do two things to force myself into better habits:

  • I schedule things aggressively, meaning that I set out my priorities for the day and I schedule those into my calendar so they have the time I need to complete them. I schedule writing posts like this one for the same recurring time every month. I get them done.
  • Second, I use a tool called “Focus To-Do,” which is an app that I have on my desktop, laptop, iPhone and iPad. It is a timer. I use the Pomodoro Method of 25-minute chunks of deep work, with five-minute breaks. It might seem too simple, but I’ve trained myself to set aside that 25 minutes to only focus on the task in front of me. If I finish early, maybe I check my email or do a different task. But the key is blocking out the distractions and setting the expectations that I’m only going to be available at certain times. That works well on vacation, sure. But it also works well all year round.

3. Be gentle on yourself and others.

Most mistakes aren’t fatal and can easily be fixed. Which makes the constant churn of work and the constant need to be “on” seem less necessary.

I worked on some political campaigns, and I’d train folks to write campaign ads. They’d always start with apprehension, because a lot of folks would snap under pressure, yelling and screaming about an ad that didn’t work the first time.

I took a different approach by saying, “If we mess up, we will fix it. No one is perfect.”

What happened was removing the pressure of perfection (or near perfection) enabled my teams to do better work. They felt freed from the need to get everything exactly right the first time because they knew that I was going to say, “We are off here, but let’s see what we can do to fix it.”

That’s something we should all be paying attention to. On vacation, I can turn over tasks to people and they feel comfortable doing them because they know I’m not going to freak about an error or something having to be redone.

In our projects, giving people that freedom probably gives us a break from being the bottleneck we talked about before. But it also gives our team members the chance to do their best work without fearing that wrath will rain down on them.

That may not mean you are on vacation, but certainly it can make your job easier…and that might really feel like just the break you need.

I’m off to the beach! See you next month

Posted by David Wakeman on: June 30, 2022 11:03 AM | Permalink

Comments (9)

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Dear Dave
Interesting topic that brought to our reflection and debate

Thanks for sharing and for your tips.

I take this opportunity to wish you a wonderful holiday by the sea.

Thanks for the work-life balance reminders, David!

Thanks for sharing.

Thanks for sharing. This is helpful!

Hope this atmosphere applies on all projects.

It's a great idea to help me a lot, Thanks Dave

Very good article. As managers, we need to really get away and during vacation. We also need to let others have responsibility and not be that bottleneck. It applies not only to vacation but to succession planning. Are you training folks to take on more responsibility so that you can "hand the reins" to them some day?

Great article! Thank you.

Hi @Dave - your post is refreshing (we need more like it), and your sign-off is priceless, thanks. Adding to your note: "removing the pressure of perfection (or near perfection)"... our CIO (Howard Miller) has coined the term "half-baked" (synonymous with near-perfect) to help lessen some of the performance pressure for our project teams. Simply put... some projects don't need to produce a "perfect" deliverable in the first go round, and it's good to communicate this to the team when applicable. Thanks tons

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