Project management case – dealing with the weak link in the chain

Project management case – dealing with the weak link in the chain

Imagine this – you’ve come into an organisation six months ago, your job is to coordinate a project across multiple organisations and multiple sites. The task is difficult – there are many groups involved that all have different agendas and priorities. You have managed to get buy-in from senior members (much higher up the chain than yourself) and everything seems to be going fine.

Except for one thing – the weak link in the chain. A manager in one of these organisations has completely dropped the ball. He misses meetings and appointments or calls into meetings rather than attend in person, often seeming distracted or absent. He makes continual promises that things would be done, but they are not.

Now the whole project is on the brink of falling apart because one key person didn’t fulfil the promises made (a true story).

What does hierarchy have to do with it?

Organisational hierarchies can create a powerful undercurrent. There are things you would say freely and comfortably to a co-worker on your level of the hierarchy that you would hesitate (or avoid) saying to a senior manager or director. So in this case study you have someone at the lower end of the hierarchy that is trying to influence the way senior members of many organisations are working and interacting. Yet, despite the most professional and thorough efforts, someone wasn’t working effectively.

What recourse does the project coordinator have? His hiring manager needs to be alerted, but will this be enough to set the project on course again? What if it has no effect? Does his hiring manager have the influence required to get a manager in another organisation to contribute correctly?

Promises that aren’t kept

One thing that made this case particularly difficult was that promises were continually being made. When someone says they haven’t finished their component of work the next natural question is “when will you have it done by?” In this case the response was always “I’ll do it by next meeting”, but that target would come and go with no results.

Broken promises do terrible things to a team. A broken promise is very different to a mismanagement of time. We all run out of time and miscalculate how long things will take, but the way this is usually handled is a ‘heads up’ email before the deadline. In this situation it seems that the promise to complete work was just lip service, to remove any potential for immediate heat or conflict.

Early warning signs

The coordinator noticed ‘something strange’ about the person from day one… a lack of focus, poor listening skills, and strange responses that didn’t always make sense. This gut-feel intuition then grew from a seed of doubt to a full-blown problem.

How do you manage the weak link?

So what should you do if you get a sense that someone in a project group is going to be a roadblock or problem? One strategy is to marginalise the person – try to limit the responsibility they have so that if they do underperform the project can still be delivered. But there was no way to run this project without this key person, who was also responsible for large budget sums.

So what can the project co-ordinator do?

He can take a more focused approach to managing the person – working with them more closely than you would with others, making sure that you keep the pressure on them to deliver at each checkpoint. But how does this work if they are much more senior and in a different organisation? It doesn’t!

It must involve other stakeholders. The project officer cannot manage the problem alone.

Always realise – when this happens you get upset and frustrated, so:

  • Be factual – dates, times, responses – all documented.
  • Provide accurate non-emotional information to one or more relevant stakeholders re deadlines, delivery issues and blocks.
  • Ensure there is someone senior to take responsibility and manage the problem

The organisation employing the weak link in this case must deal with the underperformance, which clearly requires formal performance management, well beyond the role of the project co-ordinator.

What do you do?

Usually the answer for anything you can’t handle is “talk to your manager”. But what if you’re the CEO? What if you don’t have that option? You must act immediately. Confirm facts and performance manage the person, give specific feedback and set standards and timelines for change. If they don’t change, they must go. Support the project manager that brought it to your attention once their case is verified.

Eve Ash is a psychologist, author, filmmaker, public speaker and entrepreneur. She runs Seven Dimensions, a company specialising in training resources for the workplace.

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