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How to ensure a smooth project transition

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a project manager in possession of a deliverable, must be in want of a project transition.

With sincere apologies to Jane Austen for mauling a classic piece of literature, there comes a point in all projects when work is handed onto a different individual. Either the project completes and transitions into business as usual, or a new delivery partner arrives, or the client simply decides it is time for a change. As every project team and/or contractor knows, transition comes and it is in our gift to make it as smooth or as difficult as we like.

Whilst it can be tempting to make it a difficult situation - particularly if you think the client has behaved badly or foolishly, this is not a recommended approach. We are all employed for our professional skill and expertise - and managing a smooth transition is a skill like any other. This blog looks at the 4P's of project transition, with some thoughts on how this can be a positive closure for everyone involved.

  • Be Prepared

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Never is this more true when it comes to handing over and transitioning out of a project.

Your preparation for exit starts when the project starts. All projects have RAID logs, plans, meeting minutes and a wealth of documents explaining the context, requirements, policies and other critical information. Make sure these are organised in a central repository and easy to transfer to a different IT environment. Create your goals for the project and include successful exit and transition as the final milestone.

Set up your email folders (or tags) to align to the document repository. Be ruthless about only keeping what needs to be kept and delete as you go on. A colleague of mine created .pst files at the end of every month as an archive which made their exit much smoother. Ensure that personal data is not retained anywhere - specifically CVs or invitations that include a colleague's home address. Another colleague of mine found his mortgage application buried in a work folder - much easier to prevent embarrassing moments if you review and delete regularly.

"Fail to prepare, prepare to fail"

  • Be Positive

Being positive won't guarantee you'll succeed. But being negative will guarantee you won't (Jon Gordon). True in all aspects of life, and particularly at project transition.

It is hard to hand over a project you are passionate about, particularly if the job is not (in your view) quite complete. But remember, your role is to make the project succeed, and a positive transition is critical to success. Make successful transition a key goal (see Be Prepared above) and define clear success criteria so that you know what you are aiming for - and when you've finished you'll know what you've achieved.

If you're finding it hard to remain positive through the chaos of transition (and there will be chaos because there always is - and not everyone will have read this blog!), use proven techniques to improve your mood. Check in and socialise with colleagues (virtually or irl). Reflect and celebrate what you have achieved - and what is still to come. Visualise the next success - and maintain a balance between getting everything completed and being realistic about what you can achieve (see Be Pragmatic below).

"Make successful transition a key goal"

  • Be Professional

This is probably the most critical 'P' of them all. People remember people - they will not remember the detail of what was delivered. But they will remember how you responded to them as individuals, and to situations. But what is professionalism and how do we demonstrate it? The definition of professionalism is unique to each individual, but I like 'the skill, good judgement and polite behaviour that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well' (Merrium-Webster).

It can be hard to remain polite, to maintain your good judgement or to demonstrate your skill when you are juggling continuing to deliver outcomes with handing over the background and detailed knowledge to your replacement. But managing transition professionally is what will make you stand out and be remembered for all of the right reasons.

And, at its harshest, you might want or need to work with those colleagues again - and they won't recommend you or want to work with you, if they don't believe you are professional and will do a good job.

"managing transition professionally is what will make you stand out"

  • Be Pragmatic

It is not possible to handover all of your knowledge in a short transition period. And it is guaranteed that the person you are handing over to will do things differently to you. So it is critical to be pragmatic - think about what you are handing over, why and how you are handing it over.

This links to all of the themes above - you can only be pragmatic if you have organised your work and have some sense of what is important and what is not. In a recent transition, I was asked to transfer all emails to the new cyber security lead. This seemed a reasonable request, but this meant 4 years of email being transferred across, including all discussion threads and attachments. I'm quite good at deleting unwanted email, but even with this discipline, this was so many emails that they would be impossible to interrogate. It was more relevant to share the working group presentations, documents, decisions and actions log than the email discussions that led to those outputs.

If you can keep your head, while all about you are losing theirs (Kipling) is never more apt than during a project transition. There will be gaps in documentation, gaps in decision logs and knowledge that is held in the longest serving members head. One project I worked on, kept three or four original personnel on a retainer so that they could be called upon to locate elusive information or provide colour and context when it was needed. That isn't alway possible, but as the person leaving the project, maintain your perspective and remember you were there to do a good job and deliver better outcomes than when you started. That includes enabling the next team to take over the baton and go further - and if possible sharing contact details so that you can be asked that random question when it occurs.

"keep your head, while all about you are losing theirs"

Project transitions are always a challenge, particularly when you have been fully engaged and involved in the outcomes delivered. Remember the change curve - and be kind to yourself as you go through it. Following these tips should allow you to transition smoothly and cleanly into your next adventure!

About the author: Rachel Gentry is a information security and assurance consultant, working with colleagues to improve the cybersecurity posture of business and nationally critical programmes.

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