Here at =mc, we encourage every participant we meet on our programmes to get in touch if they have specific issues they want to follow up on. From this we hear some common problems, issues, challenges, and worries. In this regular feature we share some of those challenges, and our advice for dealing with them.
This time the challenge has come from an anonymous Project Manager at a mental health charity. The =mc consultants offer advice on a difficult scenario that you may well identify with: performance managing someone you don’t line manage.
Dear Safe Space, I’m a Project Manager for a charity supporting people with mental health challenges. I am responsible for a large project that needs input from colleagues in other departments. This year, it was agreed internally that project managers are expected to coordinate project team members and are responsible for delivering projects on time and to budget. The problem is that one person from another department isn’t completing their tasks within the agreed timeline. This is pushing other activities back, affecting not just me but other team members. The project is way over schedule and I’m feeling terrible that the very people our charity supports are missing out because of it. I don’t know what to do. I realise I am responsible but I’m not their line manager and I don’t know if I can performance manage them? Or should I escalate the issue to my manager, who is the project sponsor? Please help.
Dear Project Manager, many thanks for getting in touch and I do empathise. People not delivering project tasks on time is a problem faced by many project managers. However, it is great to hear that your organisation has clarified roles and responsibilities for projects. When there isn’t a clear governance structure for projects this issue becomes much harder to resolve as responsibilities and accountabilities aren’t clear to anyone.
In your situation, the organisation has given you responsibility for the coordination of the projects, which means you have been given authority to manage the work others are doing to contribute to the project. As a manager, this also means you need to support your project team members to deliver their work. Before escalating, I would suggest that you check that they understand exactly what is needed, and that they have the information and resources to do the work. It might be clear to you what is expected, but don’t assume it is clear to everyone else.
Problems often arise in projects because there isn’t clarity between people about who is doing what, and who is responsible for ensuring it is done. Before going any further, I would suggest you have this clarifying conversation with them first.
Hi there, I agree with Laura that the first step is to check and agree responsibilities – theirs and yours. Once it is clarified, I would suggest you then use open coaching questions to understand what is going on from their perspective.
Do they agree with the project activities they are supposed to be delivering? Or do they think there is another approach that might work better? Interact with your colleagues as an expert in their field rather than a resource for you to use.
Do they understand how their work is contributing to the project? Are they interested or invested in the project outcome? All these questions can help you work out how committed and motivated they are to the work.
You can also ask them questions about the project communication. Are they getting enough warning and information about upcoming deadlines? Are they having enough opportunities to talk to you about what is coming up? Talk to them about what is working from their perspective and what could be improved.
Finally, if the questions above haven’t provided you with a way to resolve the issue, you may need to ask them directly what is preventing them from delivering the work on time. You might not be able to resolve it all in one conversation – but listen to what they say and then give yourself thinking time to consider how to move it forward.
Hello Project Manager, thanks for reaching out. We hear this same challenge a lot on our Project Management training courses – you’re not alone. Working on projects often means you are effectively in a matrix management situation. Whilst your colleague has a line manager, you are their manager for the work on the project. I agree with Philly that taking a coaching approach is a great way to approach the issue. The questions above will help you understand what is preventing them from contributing to the project.
I would also strongly suggest that you give them feedback about their missing of deadlines. It is important you are open and honest with them. Include the impact that it is having on you, other team members and the project more widely. They may simply not be aware of this impact. As project manager it is your responsibility to give affirming or adjusting feedback to your team members throughout the project, based on their contributions.
Then you can work together on solutions. Ask them what they can do now to get current tasks back on track. You can give your ideas and suggestions, but it is much better if the solution comes from them, as they will have more ownership of them.
Hi Project Manager, I agree with all of the above: clarify expectations, ask questions and give feedback. However, you might find through the conversation with your colleague, that they just don’t have time to devote to your project. They may say they have other higher priority work they have to do instead. Whilst this is a difficult to hear, it is better that they share this with you, rather than promising work they can’t deliver. If they don’t have time now, ask them when they could deliver their project tasks, but don’t make any decisions. Instead, promise to get back to them soon.
The next step is to talk to your colleague’s line manager, explain the situation and ask if they agree with your colleague – that your project is a lower priority than other work. If they think your project should come first, you and the line manager can then explain this to your colleague. However, if they think your project can’t be a priority, then it is time to talk to your project sponsor.
Go to your sponsor with different options. Ideas may include: pushing back the project timeline; adjusting the project to remove the element your colleague is providing; engaging someone else to deliver the tasks internally, or outsourcing the work. Your sponsor may have their own ideas. They may even be able to influence what the priorities should be. As your sponsor is accountable for the project, ultimately they should make the decision.
Whatever the outcome is, go back and tell your colleague what is going to happen next.
Dear Project Manager, I do hope the approaches above help with your current situation. I would also suggest that you consider how to avoid similar problems arising in future.
Engage your team members when putting together the project plan. If colleagues design the plan with you, this can increase their commitment to it. Using their expertise can also ensure the right project activities are chosen.
Ask colleagues to compare the project timeline with their own department plans. Be willing to move your timeline to avoid pinch points. Once the plan has been agreed, check that the project activities are built into other departments’ plans. This will help your colleagues see the project activities as central to their work, rather than an added extra.
Schedule your project team communications so you can highlight upcoming work and deadlines for each phase of your project.
Despite all this planning, unexpected high priority issues may arise that your colleagues must deal with instead of delivering their project activities. Consider this when doing your risk management. Identify which activities are critical and which are nice to have. Then identify which critical activities have to happen on time for the project to be successful. You can then design risk minimisation plans for these, should the person responsible not be available. Share this risk planning with your sponsor, as it is their role to support you in the thinking.
Every project we manage is a chance to hone our skills and learn for the future. If you can, approach the current situation as a development opportunity. Both to develop your skills in navigating tricky situations and to strengthen planning for future projects.
Good luck, and please let us know how you get on.
If you’d like to explore ways of preparing for situations like this, take a look at the Project Management training programme.
You can also contact us online or call 020 7978 1516 to discuss similar challenges and how we might be able to help.
Finally, if you’re facing a challenge you’d like some advice on in the next issue of the Safe Space, email us on email@example.com. While we can’t promise to publish all the requests we receive, we will offer advice by email as a minimum.