Project Management | Entries from March 2015

How to Coach an Underperformer

How to Coach an UnderperformerIt can be one of the most uncomfortable situations a project manager faces: You have a team member who simply isn’t delivering. Their work may be late or poor. They skip meetings or don’t file their progress reports in a timely manner. For whatever the reason, their role in the effort hasn’t gelled, and the gap is causing everyone else to scramble.

Most PMs dread such scenarios. After all, it’s never easy to call out someone on their performance. But when the need arises, you have no choice but to address the issues quickly and firmly. If ignored, personnel challenges can spread as other team members shoulder extra work and become distracted from their own priorities. Ultimately, the project’s quality, schedule and budget can be threatened.

The conversation is made all the more awkward by the unique relationship PMs usually have with their team – a position that’s more about dotted lines than formal reporting structures. When the underperformer isn’t a direct report, the PM must take the approach of an interested and invested colleague, a fellow team member whose focus is on solutions rather than blame.

Talk to the Person. Your first order of business is to meet with the person and examine the issues you face. Express your concerns, but make clear that you’re beginning a conversation and looking for a solution, not issuing edicts. Be sure to get an acknowledgement of the problem and an agreement that it has to be resolved.

Be Clear. Explain the ramifications of the person’s lagging performance. For example, by missing his own deadlines, he’s holding up the work of his teammates. Or, because she’s skimping on quality control, her colleagues have to put in extra time to identify and fix problems on top of meeting their own responsibilities. Be honest about what you’re seeing, and specific in your observations.

Understand the Problem. The issues may be symptoms of a larger problem. Your team member may be facing challenges at home, with his boss, or something else. Whatever the underlying cause, it’s important to understand the forces that are at work here. After all, you can’t address a matter until you know its dynamics.

Have Ideas. Good project managers always have solutions in mind. That’s as true when it comes to working with people as it is when facing logistical or technical hurdles. As you come to understand the problem, develop approaches for addressing it. It might be the person has too many competing priorities and needs clarity. There could be a personality conflict with another team member. Whatever the issue, proactively work with the person to develop an approach that will get their efforts back on track.

Put in the Time. Coaching people takes time – sometimes a lot of it. Chances are, a single conversation isn’t going to do the trick. Set up regular one-on-ones with the person so you can track her progress and follow up on previous discussions. Develop metrics so you have an agreed-upon mechanism to measure her performance until the situation is resolved.

Remember, this process should be interactive. Encourage the team member to develop his own ideas, and listen to them carefully. Sometimes, all a person needs is an opportunity to talk things through in order to get refocused.

For more information about how Merit Career Development can hone your leadership and management skills, please contact Jim Wynne at

Tips for Negotiating With Project Stakeholders

StakeholdersProject managers have to be expert negotiators, able to forge agreements between people who often have competing agendas. For example, the sales team may be determined to speed up a project so that it launches before the holiday shopping season, while Product Development wants to delay long enough to include a hot new feature. Meanwhile, the development team warns that a change in either schedule or scope will wreak havoc on the work they’ve already done. Whatever the dynamics, the project manager has to labor between parties to develop an acceptable solution.

Negotiating with stakeholders is tricky. They can be possessive of a project and pressured about its outcome. Because they have so much riding on its success, they can become prickly when issues challenge their assumptions or their comfort level. At the same time, their lack of technical expertise can make it difficult to understand the options that are viable for resolving an issue. And, of course, project managers can’t unilaterally impose a solution. They have to rely on their negotiating skills to keep things moving forward.

In the end, all participants want the same thing: a successful project that is complete in scope and delivered on-time and on-budget. For this reason, maintaining a perspective of partnership often pays the most dividends.

Think About Their Point of View: Recognizing why your stakeholder approaches an issue in a certain way is as important as understanding what they’re arguing for in the first place. For example, grasping the Sales department’s considerations – their overall targets, the competitive pressure they face and the demands salespeople hear from customers – will allow you to have more effective discussions around their concerns about schedules or feature sets. Similarly, understanding the technical and logistical constraints of the development staff will lead to more meaningful conversations about delivery and quality control.

Be Prepared. You can’t go into a negotiation assuming you’ll wing it, so anticipate your partner’s concerns, and be ready to address them. If you know tradeoffs will be required, outline the stakeholder’s choices and explain the impact each will have on the project’s scope, timeframe, and budget. In some cases, schedule is the overriding concern. In others, it might be cost. Bear those priorities in mind as you lead the discussion. It doesn’t make sense to stress the schedule-related aspects of a problem when the stakeholder’s mind is on how much money they’re spending.

Be Honest: It’s just as important for stakeholders to understand the challenges you face. So be proactive about sharing your perspective and remember that the stakeholder’s goals are impacted by many of the same things that influence yours: You all want the project to succeed, for example, and for your company to be well positioned in the market. Always be forthright in discussions about business outlook, project status and any difficulties you may anticipate. Not only will this provide a complete picture, it could help uncover solutions as the stakeholders weigh in with their own experience and ideas.

Listen: In any negotiation, it’s important that both sides be heard. Be sure to let the stakeholder outline their viewpoint and ask questions when necessary to make sure you understand where they’re coming from. As your discussion continues, address the issues they’ve raised or promise to research areas that you can’t reply to on the spot. Too often, negotiations go off-track when one party believes their concerns are being given short shrift.

Of course, the situation is complicated by the unique place where PMs sit. Responsible for addressing everyone’s concerns, they almost never have the pure authority to pursue a particular approach without building some kind of consensus. Even if they did, successful projects are rarely built by edict. The best project managers have a knack for getting all sides to understand the others’ point of view and work cooperatively to attain the effort’s overriding goals.

Stakeholder Management can be tricky. Learn how to work with your internal partners more effectively in Merit Career Development’s Stakeholder Management course. To learn more, please contact Jim Wynne at