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Transition and Succession Planning for Project Managers
By Ray W. Frohnhoefer

You arrive at work on Monday morning and find that your key software engineer did not show up. You subsequently learn that he was arrested over the weekend for tax evasion for the past 8 years. The week is tense and you hope you will get your key engineer back – after all, he should be able to make bail and get out of jail.

So he makes bail and returns for a week. The following Monday he’s gone again. This time you learn he fled to another country seeking asylum and abandoning his wife and children to avoid prosecution. Looks like the key engineer won’t ever be available again! Your other engineers tell you he single handedly designed 60%+ of the system and they don’t really know what or how he did it. It’s going to take them months to figure it out.

This example was taken from a real-life. Project failure was imminent as several other major risks became issues. What’s more, the failure led to a chain of events that effectively put the company involved out of business.

Compounding the issue is the low ranking resource risks typically get on projects. Yet underlying almost every risk is the element of human behavior. And availability of required skills and talent accounts for a large portion of the human resources risks. How can this be avoided?

The answer is transition and succession planning. This human resources process, like budgeting, is often not a direct responsibility for the project manager. As with budgeting, good project managers that want to deliver quality projects on time will keep an eye on the process. This is especially important for longer, more complex projects.

Outside of the project environment, this might go by several names such as business continuity planning or professional development. The key ideas are the same: you want the right people on your project, you want to be sure they are not irreplaceable, and you want to make sure that if a new resource comes on board, they hit the ground running.

The first step is to be sure your project team has clear roles and responsibilities. For large complex projects, these need to be in writing and more detailed than a simple job description. Having this information is key to effective transition and succession planning.

Transition Planning

Think of transition planning as the on-boarding and exit process for your project team members. When a team member exits for any reason, you generally want to:

  • Make sure you understand the skills that need to be replaced
  • Understand the status of the work in progress and promised deliverables that need to be fulfilled

  • Discuss with the individual how their role may have changed over time

  • Update the roles and responsibilities as necessary

  • Collect any company property (these items should be on a checklist)

  • Get access to any passwords, codes, etc. (these items should be on a checklist as well) that may be needed to carry on work and have the remainder changed or deactivated

  • Depending on company customs, organize a departure gathering or celebration

Depending on how your company operates, you may or may not have an opportunity to participate in the hire or assignment of a new team member. But when that new team member comes on board, you need to be able to:

  • Introduce them to the team; be sure they become an integral part of the team quickly
  • Describe their actual roles and responsibilities

  • Organize any training or professional development they may need to come up to speed

  • Be sure they have all the tools they need to perform their work (e.g. laptops, application access)

  • Set expectations for initial deliverables and timelines

Smooth transitions, along with scheduling techniques such as crashing (adding more resources) and fast tracking (doing more work in parallel) will help assure the timely and efficient delivery of your project.

Succession Planning

While succession planning at a corporate level can be complex, I like to think of the project version as having only two processes – talent evaluation and talent development. Let’s look at each of these individually.

Talent Evaluation

For project managers, this should not be your standard HR performance review, which can often be based on subjective measures. The best measure to keep your project on track is based on deliverables. For each role and responsibility on the project, you expect certain tasks to be completed. Develop a check list of these tasks and check them off.

In the process, you should observe what other tasks the individual you are evaluating may be capable of completing. Once a quarter, it will be helpful to sit down with each team member and discuss:

  • Your vision for the future of the project
  • Other roles this individual might be interested in exploring

  • What they hope to gain from the work

  • Tasks they might complete to grow their capabilities

Completion of talent evaluation (and the identification of talents to develop, will lead you to the next step of the process.

Talent Development

To me, this is the best part of the job. No matter what industry you work in or what type of work is performed, I’ve always noticed that the real high performing teams address the “what’s in it for me” question with personal and professional development.

As the project progresses, watch for opportunities to shift assignments that may build talents and satisfy needs. As new skills are required for successful project completion, consider carefully who will get that training. And hopefully, you will network with other project and program managers in the company to see where opportunities for your team may lie.

As a related matter, also ask what roadblocks you can remove and make them more productive.

At one point in my career, I was faced with the challenge of managing a group that was perceived to be underperforming, unmotivated, and a major obstacle in the engineering process. In less than a year, I was able to affect a complete turnaround, building a highly effective work team and culture, by the following:

  • Identifying roles and responsibilities
  • Identifying key behavioral ground rules for internal and external interactions

  • Forming a team vision with the help of the team

  • Reigning in chaos, but not to the point where innovation was stifled

  • Letting the team know their promotion was a goal

  • Identifying and removing road blocks and speed bumps (inefficiencies)

  • Providing essential professional development opportunities

  • Building work objectives that grew both the individual and the team

  • Cross-training the team – every critical skill had a backup

In less than a year:

  • Team efficiency increased many times, and it was noticed by those we worked with
  • Multiple cost savings were identified and enacted

  • One individual was promoted to another group

  • Everyone loved to come to work every day

References:

PMBOK® Guide, Fifth Edition; PMI 2013
A Diagnostic Approach to Organizational Behavior (Fourth Edition); Gordon; Allyn and Bacon 1993
Identifying & Managing Project Risk (2nd Edition); Kendrick; AMACOM 2009

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at RayF123@aol.com. You can read more from Ray on his blog.

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