Projects are notorious for uneven workflows. At some point during the project, the entire team may find itself working all weekend. At other points, the team is sitting around twiddling its thumbs.
If the project team consists of full-time employees, they can probably be given other work to do when things are slack and may be compensated by days off if they have to work long hours during busy periods. However, many projects are staffed by a mix of full-time employees and contractors, or almost entirely by contractors and consultants.
Quiet and busy periods are inevitable
Projects inevitably have periods when nothing is happening. This may be because one phase has ended and the project team is waiting for approval to start the next phase. It may be that a supplier is holding up the entire process. Developments elsewhere in the business may mean that there's a pause while some changes to the project scope are agreed.
The problem here is that a contractor can't simply be sent home for a few days. The result is that the most expensive people on the team are doing nothing. It's not good for them because they get bored and it can be a severe problem for the project budget because while resources are being paid for, no deliverables are being produced.
Hectic periods can produce burn out.
It's inevitable that the beginning of a project is an extremely busy time because, in essence, you have to get a business department up and running in a very short period of time. This may include recruiting staff, agreeing what will be produced, defining scope, getting the plans and budgets agreed and dozens of other activities.
Experienced project managers always build slack into project timelines to account for delays or simply for project tasks that may overrun. However, if the project team is constantly having to work late, the project runs the risk of having staff who are burned out, stressed and working well below their productive capacity because they are exhausted.
So how can you make the slack periods more productive and the busy ones less overwhelming? It’s a case of setting up tools and building relationships that will be crucial when the project is very busy.
Ways to even out the project workflow
1. At the start, be aware of the likely pinch points in terms of demand on resources. Even if you can't finalise project plans and documents, it is possible to organise the project’s processes, document management, change log and change management procedure, risk log, reporting and other functions - including documenting them. That way, if you get a mid-project audit just when the project is at its busiest, you won’t panic.
2. Run a comprehensive contractor induction. Ensure that working, invoicing and expense policies are clear and that every contractor understands them. Explain the wider picture, the organisation's culture and key contacts for their project. Plan the kickoff meeting and draft the presentation.
3. Set up standard forms, documents and reports and populate them with boilerplate text. One of the delays that can occur later is when technical team members, such as developers, are asked to write documents. While some are good at this, others are very slow at producing them. It helps the consistency and quality of the project if boilerplate documents (which go almost down to heading level) are used, so that the authors know what information is required.
4. Start building relationships with key people in the main business that will help delivery when things are busy. The more they know about what may be coming their way in the future, the greater the chance of them being able to help.
5. Really talk to the stakeholders, explaining how they’ll be involved, expectations and building their engagement.
6. Get the project communications set up. What are the best methods in your business? Larger companies sometimes have cloud based online collaborations tools, others are happy with a regular project update email.
7. Run background briefing sessions, team building activities and any other tasks that tend to be put on the back boiler once the project is at full steam. Make the most of the downtime to build relationships and let staff engage their creative and problem solving sides!
8. Take time to fully understand the resource position across the change portfolio. Sharing resource allows colleagues to build capability in other areas, make new contacts and ensures higher utilisation of existing staff.