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The Most Important Lesson
By Barry Otterholt

“Expect of people only what they will give”.

To expect more is foolish. They will not give it. And you put the project at risk trying to get it.

You’re right to want high performance. That’s not the problem. The project has been formed for the very reason that results are needed that regular business-as-usual performance won’t deliver. The problem comes when the required performance goes beyond what a team member is likely to give, regardless of how you ask for it. Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying:

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

To expect a different result simply by asking for the same thing over and over again shifts the problem from the underperformer to you.

A football coach puts even the best players on the bench if they see a pattern develop which could cost them the advantage. The player may be on the bench for a single play or the rest of the game. But the coach does not sacrifice the game because of a deeply held conviction that the player is supposed to be performing better. If they did, they would lose their job.

Humans are complex beings. We all have circumstances that impact our performance. We are not always comfortable discussing them with others. We may not even be comfortable admitting them to ourselves. Regardless, it is your job as Project Manager to discern these patterns and provide relief to the underperformer while the momentum of the project is still intact.

Each situation is different. It is your job to decide what “relief” is appropriate in each circumstance. Can you simply offload a small amount of work to bring the player’s performance back up? Do you need to shift the player to some other role in the project to better align with their skillset? Do they need a short dose of immersion training? Do they need more supervision, measuring their work and adjusting their focus more frequently? Do they need to be removed from the project and returned to their business unit? You must decide, and act. You are doing them no favors keeping them in the same role, allowing the consequence of their underperformance to compound and hurt their team, or even the project.

Be alert to performance patterns and provide relief to the underperformer while the project is still on track. It will be best for the project, and better for them.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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