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Project Transition Made Simple (Vacation Has Never Been This Easy!)

When you do a well-planned project transition, it means you get to enjoy a real, honest-to-goodness vacation.

I like vacation. I like love getting away for an adventure. I also really like my job, my team and care about the projects I work on. Balancing both can be difficult. I know there are a lot of people who can’t find the time for vacation, and the burnout struggle is real.

I recently attended the Digital PM Summit in Memphis. Lynn Winter spoke about burnout and shared one of the best quotes I’ve heard to date:

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The key takeaway this: having time away from your work projects is important to your health.  The only way you can do that successfully is to handover your projects so they run smoothly while you’re gone—so you don’t have to answer emails on vacation, and so you don’t return to chaos. Here are my tips and tricks for successfully stepping away from work and into the rejuvenating bliss of your worldly adventures.

What Is Project Transition (Or Project Handoff) And Why Is It Important?

We’ve all been there, steeping in the weird cocktail of stress-filled bliss that is pre-vacation mode.

Knowing that in a few short days we’ll be on vacation is both exciting and daunting. How do you know your project will stay on track? Who will deal with any problems that come up? How are you going to make sure that Designer sends off the designs on Thursday? Project hand-off makes sure all of these worries are covered.

There’s also the other side: have you ever had a coworker go on vacation and leave you to cover their project without enough background information to do the job? It’s happened to me, and it was awful.

Let me tell you a story.

It’s the Thursday before a long weekend and I get a message from my teammate asking if I have time to meet that afternoon. I make time and we meet. In this impromptu, 30-minute project handover meeting, she tells me that she’ll be vacation for three weeks starting tomorrow—and that I’m covering for her on all her projects. She showed me where to find all the transition documents, but we didn’t have time to walk through all of the projects. We ran out of time, and she left for the day and was gone. For three weeks.

So there I was: on the Friday before a long weekend (usually a short day for us), trying to ramp myself up on her projects. She had filled out the forms, so you’d think that it wouldn’t be too bad, right? Well, for most of her projects, it was pretty straightforward. However, one project had a launch planned during the time she’d be away, along with regular status meetings she didn’t invite me to. What’s more, she hadn’t provided hosting information, nor the two years’ of background information I needed to have for a high-level understanding of the project.

What happened? Well, I missed approval from eight key stakeholders before the launch because it wasn’t documented anywhere. I had only one key contact for everything and they didn’t know who the other parties involved were. Good times.

Nobody wants to be either PM in this situation. It sucks being the one in the thick of it at the time, but it is equally awful for the PM returning from vacation to chaos.

The project transition affects everyone on the project: the PM, resources, client and team. Proper transitions means work can continue smoothly while you’re away, and it means you can focus on your vacation!

6 Steps For Successful Project Transitions & Stress-Free Vacation

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1. Plan It In Advance

This should be easy for us (I mean, we’re PMs, right?). For some reason, impending vacation always sneaks up on us, and we aren’t ready for it. Don’t leave your project transition to the last day before your vacation because you will be swamped and wondering why you even planned a vacation to begin with.

    1. Start the handover process earlier than you think you need to. Fill out your project transition documents early–you can always update them as things change. I like to start these 1-2 weeks before vacation. I’m less likely to be super busy so I can sit down and focus.
    2. Identify your replacement early and schedule transition meetings at least a week before your vacation. 10-15 minutes is usually plenty to talk about any project. If I’m transitioning multiple projects to one person I try and and book one long meeting (30min-1hr) and a quick follow up before I leave.

2. Onboard—don’t overwhelm.

All of us project managers have (project) baggage but there’s no need to push that onto your proxy while you’re away. When onboarding them, give them all the necessary information. Dumping your whole backstory won’t help them or your team succeed.

3. Update Your Meetings

As you hand off the project, make sure to include the new person if they aren’t already part of the rituals on all key meetings for your project. And, importantly, make sure they have access to host the meeting in your absence.

4. Be Transparent

Nobody likes being surprised with an Out of Office automated reply and finding out someone you work with is gone for an extended period of time. I add a vacation alert to my signature around a month out from the vacation date. I put it right underneath my signature in red, bolded text: Vacation Alert!

5. Plan Your Return

Give yourself a day to get back into the swing of things by blocking off the morning or full day to catch up. It helps to create a checklist of items you’ll need to do that day—make sure you do it before you leave for vacation, while it’s fresh in your mind.

6. Be On Vacation!

Take the time to recharge and come back to your project(s) with a fresh mindset, and it will infuse your projects with new optimism and energy upon your return. Let work go. Relax!

Not sure where to begin?

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Project Transition Checklist

Set your team up for success while you’re away. You’re delegating work to your stand-in, so give them as much information as you can. Include these items in the checklist of information you’re handing off:

  • Project name
  • Budget – last pulled budget report (be nice and pull a report before you go).
  • Status report – and/or a link to your most recent status report. Here’s a guide on status reports.
  • Next steps
  • Deliverables
    • What is the PM expected to deliver to the client?
    • What is the team supposed to deliver while you’re away?
    • Dates when the all the PM’s and team’s deliverables are due
  • Background
    • Locations of files or details they may need for backup
    • Link to your project plan
  • Key contacts
  • List of usernames, key codes,passwords, account names, etc.
  • Documentation for recording decisions that impact the project while you’re away

It’s important that this information is easy to digest—that’s why a project transition template is so useful.

Project Transition Document Templates

Project transition document screenshot

Project Transition Template

Everyone has their preferred way of transitioning. Here are three project transition plan templates (plus the project transition checklist) I have used in the past that you can adapt for your own project transition.

  1. The Overall Status: a quick, one-stop shop for all your projects for while you’re away.
  2. The Detailed Project Document: for large projects with lots of background/details all over the place. It’s laid out with one file per project. 
  3. The Project Transition Template: it should make sense for the needs of your support and team.
  4. The Project Transition Checklist

What Do You Think?

Vacation is about relaxing, re-energizing and taking a step away from our crazy project-filled lives. How do you plan for your vacations? Do you have any success stories? Be part of the conversation below.

Mackenzie Dysart

Mackenzie Dysart

I'm a PMP and CSM certified project manager extraordinaire with over 5 years of experience. I’m a bit of a unicorn as I actually chose to be a PM as a career path. My focus has been on digital projects but I have also worked in print and app development. My experience is on both client and agency side. I work with people who are passionate and help them deliver awesome!

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