BLIC StopNow is that time of year when you’re tidying up your desk to take a few days off to be with family or friends, and managing your tasks and assignments to accommodate a well-deserved break. It’s also the time of year when there’s a midnight ping or a dawn phone call from a crazed program or project manager demanding a budget number for a critical initiative you’ve never heard of before for a budget you don’t control. Oh, and by the way, he needs it now.

Ah, budget planning season. The pressure can feel overwhelming. The project manager breathes down your neck (because someone is breathing down his neck), pushing you to give an estimate. You know you’re not thinking at your best. You’re worried your vacation is fast disappearing right before your eyes. You’re in a reactive state of panic, instead of a calm, proactive planning frame of mind.

That’s when cynicism can hit. You roll your eyes, and either say, “NO WAY!” (decorated with some other colorful language) or blurt out a number, which might be based on some experience, but is really a hope for the best. Either way, the short term relief feels marvelous. But longer term? A thoughtless reaction or pulled-from-the-air estimate can bite you in the you-know-where, which can impact your reputation in the organization.

I have a suggestion to help you navigate the moment, so that you can manage the pressure, make a budget estimate that’s reasonable but provisional, and still take that well-deserved time off. I call the process STOP, so it’s easy to remember.

  1. S=Stop. This means you don’t have to respond at that moment, regardless of the pressure from the project manager. It’s okay to say, “Stop. I need more information, and I will get back to you.” (Why not practice this a few times out loud, before you get that all-caps email or melt-down phone call?) This is also a good moment to loop in your manager, if that’s your organizational structure. Your manager could be as surprised as you are, or aware of the demand. You manager may even have already formed an opinion or taken action. Get some facts.
  2. T=Take stock. If nothing has been done, gather the basic who-what-when-where-why details from the program/project manager. You’re not designing a communications strategy. You’re at a high level at this juncture, getting a sense of the scope of the project. What you learn serves as your working assumptions. Document them.
  3. O=Observe. Now take your document, observe what you’ve written as working assumptions, and discern between your regular operational or organizational communications, and communication elements that might be additive. Sometimes project managers draw pictures of game-changing initiatives with lots of bells and whistles, but when you look at the effort calmly you find that the existing organizational communication channels and budget cover the communication actions that are needed. Or you may see potential areas or types of services that are outside the scope of your regular operations and offerings, and, for those areas, you want to be explicit and identify a budget.
  4. P=Provisionally propose. You propose an estimate that is based on the documented working assumptions combined with your expertise. Depending on the circumstances and what you’re thinking, you might want to get some vendor bids, but usually there’s no time and you have to make reasonable guess-timates. Suggestions: (1) Be conservative. (2) If you’re uncertain, check with your manager. Your document will make your assumptions transparent, and give the project manager what she needs.

Okay, you’ve used the STOP approach. The project manager is now satisfied and you’re done, right? Not so fast. Be sure to save your document.

As projects go, and as the marketplace exerts pressures or boosts expectations, many projects change. The system that was a pilot in one city turns into a global initiative. The program that was scheduled for March is delayed until September. The live training that was targeted to managers becomes online training and expands to employees. This is where your documentation helps. When the project becomes real and you’re brought into the work, you can see what has evolved from the original assumptions. You can also find out what budget was actually approved. (It may be different from what you proposed.) Your document helps avoid misunderstandings, as you prepare your communications strategy and plan more thoroughly, and revise your anticipated spend accordingly.

Taking a little time up front when the pressure is on will enhance your reputation as a solid communications planner. And that will give you the peace of mind to really enjoy your time off. Have a good vacation!