Dealing with Performance Issues in Project Management – Missed Deadlines
By Dave Nielsen
This article is a companion piece to Performance Issues. If your project is continually missing deadlines you may have a performance problem with one of the members of your team. This article tells you how to determine if you have this problem and how to address it if you do.
Anyone can miss a deadline, it’s happened to us all but when you have a team member who consistently misses deadlines, you have a problem that you need to address. Be sure that the team member has the same understanding of their deadline as you before taking action; a work assignment and deadline for the assignment constitute a contract between you and your team member and the contract must be agreed upon. The deadline must be clearly stated and the team member must agree that they can and will meet it. It’s time for action if you’ve clearly stated the deadlines and your team member has agreed to meet them.
The first question to ask is: is my team member capable of meeting the timelines you’ve given them? The answer to this question will guide your actions. One way of measuring your team member’s ability to meet the deadline is to have a consultant, either on the team or external to it, assess the work package to determine the effort necessary to complete it. An estimate of the effort required will allow you to determine whether the duration allowed was reasonable. Be sure the consultant has all the information they need, both about the work and about the resource assigned to it. You’ll get different estimates for junior, intermediate, and senior resources.
If the time you’ve allowed your resource to do the work is less than reasonable, you may need to re-visit all your estimates. At the least, you’ll need to re-visit all the estimates for that resource. If the resource is identified as a senior performer and performance indicates a more junior one, you may need to consider training for the resource to improve their performance. The training might be formal such as courses, or informal such mentoring or coaching. Remember that when a senior resource is engaged in mentoring a more junior one, their productivity will be severely impaired so make allowances. Consider replacing the resource with a senior resource if that’s possible. At the very least, you’ll need to move this resource from the critical path or partner them with a senior resource capable of meeting the deadlines and mentoring your poor performer. If you were told a contract resource performed at a senior level and they actually perform at an intermediate or junior level, you have a problem with your source which should be addressed. Remember that your goal is to be influential and achieving this goal has a down side: no-one wants to disappoint you so they may agree to an unreasonably short deadline.
You may be dealing with a lack of experience in a particular skill set, that is the team member may be a senior programmer but have very little experience in data query languages. Your project should have provisions for training and now may be the time to utilize them. It’s always better to have training occur before the skill is actually required, but if the need for training is only discovered when it’s needed, and the team member is otherwise a valuable asset, you may be left with no other choice than to provide the needed training. Consider replacing the resource with one with the required skill set if tight timelines don’t permit training time. Consider going back to the source for a contractor, and demand that they replace the resource with one having the required skills (providing you identified the required skill in the first place).
The extreme case is where you’re dealing with a resource with all the skills and experience required to meet your deadlines, but is either too lazy to meet them or is actively trying to sabotage your project! Observe the behavior of the team member. Are they spending an unreasonable amount of time socializing? Are they constantly visiting other members of the team (or other teams) and chatting with them? Have you received complaints from other team members that your problem child is constantly pestering them and interrupting their work? If you encounter any of these symptoms, it’s time for a one-on-one meeting with the resource. Once again, you need to tread carefully here. Consult your Human Resources organization’s policies, guidelines, and standards; you may even want to ask for help from an HR representative. Take the team member aside and clearly articulate the impact of the missed deadlines on the project. Be polite but firm. You’re not asking to engage in a debate here, the conversation should be one sided, you talking and the poor performer listening. Now move on to the behavior you’ve observed and relate the behavior to the missed deadlines (e.g. “I’ve observed you over the past few days and you’ve spent at least 20% of your time chatting with other team members. I believe that’s the reason for the missed deadlines”).
Outline how the team member is to improve their performance next. The outline should emphasize the importance of meeting deadlines. You are much less concerned with behavior than results. You’ll need to address the behavior where you have received complaints from other team members or from people external to the team. Be clear that the behavior change must succeed in eliminating future complaints without identifying those who complained. Identify the next work package (or the one the poor performer is currently working on) as the pilot. They need to succeed at delivering that package on time, or identify any impediments that would prevent them from meeting their deadline. Ensure that the team member agrees to the actions you identify and schedule a follow up to ensure their corrective action is on track. Lastly, you should record this meeting so that the poor performance and the agreed upon corrective actions are documented.
Not all poor performers are interested in improving their performance. Where you are dealing with a team member with a hidden agenda, or someone who simply cannot take direction, escalate the problem to your project’s sponsors and let them help you deal with the problem. It’s always a good idea to identify what you’d like to see them do before escalating. Do you want the resource replaced with a better one? Have you identified the resource you’d like to add to the team? Can the sponsor succeed in affecting a performance/attitude improvement where you’ve failed? You should also be prepared to articulate the risk to the project if this resource is allowed to continue sabotaging the project. The ultimate tool in the Human Resource management tool kit is firing. This should only be used as a last resort and, if you are dealing with a permanent employee, you’ll need to engage the Human Resources department. Only when the HR department approve of a firing will you be allowed to go ahead with this. Usually, HR departments have a strict set of criteria for firing an employee and you’ll need to meet those criteria. The exception to this rule is when you’re dealing with a contract resource. Your agreement with the personnel agency should provide you with the authority to dismiss the resource if their performance doesn’t meet requirements.
Dave Nielsen is a principal with three O Project Solutions, the vendors of AceIt©. Dave was also the key architect responsible for the creation of the product. AceIt© has prepared Project Managers from around the world to pass their PMP® exams. You can find endorsements from some of his customers on three O’s web site (http://www.threeo.ca/).