Press Release, June 2001

Survivor Skills: How to get a downsized team to get your projects done.

Project management consultant Stan Portny says it's all about communication, appreciation, and respect.

It's a challenging time to be a manager.  You can't pick up a newspaper these days without seeing the D-word.  Downsizing.  Certainly, it's a traumatic experience for those who lose their jobs.  But what about the survivors?  Yes, there's plenty of anxiety from the "I might be next" standpoint.  But there's a more practical concern, too: just because some people are gone doesn't mean any of the work is.  How will all your projects get done, now that there are fewer people to do them?

Project management consultant Stan Portny - president of Stanley E. Portny and Associates, LLC and author of the new Project Management For Dummies (Hungry Minds, Inc., 2001, ISBN: 0-7645-5283-X, $19.99) - admits that downsizing can make life especially difficult for managers.  This is true, he adds, whether you are dealing with people who report directly to you or whether you're heading up a project team of people over whom you have no authority.

Because much of what we do in the workplace (and life) is segmented into a series of projects, we have all become project managers in some form or fashion.  It is hard enough to manage projects with the whole team on board, but with missing team members and less expertise, it can be tricky.

"You may find that you have to complete your projects with fewer people," he says.  "Or, you may have the same number of bodies on your team, but some of them may be less invested in your project than before, because they're having to pick up the slack from someone who was laid off in a different department.  It's up to you, the manager, to help the people who work on your projects to do so more efficiently."

So how do you get the most from a project team that's been hit by the downsizing axe?  Portny - who has built his career on helping companies create a high-energy, high-productivity work environment - offers the following tips:

  • Prioritize ... and encourage your employees to do the same!  As a manager, you know how important it is to spend your limited time in the most productive way possible.  Well, your employees have the same kinds of demands.  To devote the necessary time to your project, they will probably have to put other activities on hold.  Let them know that you understand this and encourage them to talk openly with you about setting priorities.

  • Don't "dump and run."  Particularly during stressful times, managers have a tendency to throw an assignment at their employees and leave them to figure it out.  Do not succumb to this (admittedly tempting!) practice.  Instead, do the hard work of thinking the project through with the team.  The message this sends - "we're in this thing together" - makes people feel more comfortable with and committed to the project.

  • Keep all lines of communication open.  Clarify, clarify, clarify ...  and then clarify some more.  When people have too much on their plate, they begin operating in panic mode and end up creating more work for themselves.  Spell out exactly what employees need to accomplish on a project - and what the deadlines are - and be certain they understand.  Also, assure them that they can come to you with any problems or concerns.  Tell them you're available to answer questions at all times ... and mean it!

  • Help team members to "buy in" to a project up front.  People need to believe your goal is feasible.  Otherwise, they may say "yes, I can do that," but they'll secretly be thinking "there's no way I can get that done."  And guess what?  They won't get it done!  When you can help team members visualize the success of the project, from beginning to end, they are far more likely to make it happen.  (It goes without saying that you must be truly committed to the project - otherwise you won't have a prayer of creating buy-in!)

  • Consistently recognize and reward their efforts.  When people have too much to do, when they're pulled in 15 different directions at once, it's easy for them to lose focus - or worse, lose interest.  That's why it's up to you to reinforce their efforts by making them feel appreciated.  When a team member completes a step of a project, send her a "thank you" memo and copy it to her superiors.  Or simply say "thank you."  It's amazing how much difference the small, simple gestures can make.

It must be noted that communication and relationship skills are at the heart of all of Portny's suggestions - not surprising for a consultant who has become known for a business philosophy he's named "Power of People" Project System.

"People skills are everything," he says simply.  "This is true in any workplace, but I think it's especially true in an uncertain, high-stress environment like a recently downsized company.  You need to show team members that you care about them as people, that you don't just see them as machines that turn out work."

"Relationships build on trust and genuine appreciation - I emphasize genuine because this is something you can't fake - are the key to successful projects," adds Portny.  "You can't manipulate someone into throwing his or her heart into a project.  But if people respect you and feel respected by you, they'll want to work with you.  And that's the key to getting them to go that all-important extra mile."