Dealing With Project Team Turnover

There are several specific phrases that Project Managers tend to get anxious about and one of them is “I quit”. Admittedly, we have all been in a situation where this can have a good impact on the team. However, for the most part, any team member leaving a project, before completion, can be cause for concern.

Project Team Turnover

The complexity and the duration of a project can determine the amount of turnover you might experience over the course of the project life cycle. Projects that have a timeline spanning years will see some turnover in addition to any projects that are particularly complex or need specialized skills. Additionally, project team members may be coming and going over the course of the project effort due to the specific need for their skills and expertise during various phases of activity.

However, if a team member indicates that they want to leave the project, permanently, I would suggest that the first course of action would be to determine why they want to leave the project. I have heard this level of frustration expressed and it can, usually, be addressed with some timely and candid discussions which can result in changes to processes, roles, tools, and/or team functions.

This is a discussion worth having! Yes, it may be awkward especially if they are dissatisfied with the project overall, your management style, or their role on the project. Yet as professionals, it is our responsibility to establish and uphold an environment of process improvement and learning. A favorite Albert Einstein quote is “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” This scenario provides us with a valuable opportunity to learn.

Let’s take a dive into some of the issues that I have heard over the years from displeased project team members:

  • Lack of communication within the team
  • Undefined processes for the project work
  • No clear methodology defined
  • Project objective is unclear
  • Lack of skilled team members
  • Lack of understanding of their role and responsibilities

The first thing to recognize is that these are common issues for project teams. I am sure that, like me, you have heard all these issues before. Now is the time to reflect on what we may have overlooked in the management of the project activities that would have pushed a team member to the point of wanting to leave the project.

The process that I follow with my best practices includes a very detailed Kick-Off meeting for the project team where these topics are on the agenda. This is a great opportunity for discussing these topics before they become issues. The Kick-Off Meeting agenda should include topics such as:

  • Review of the Project Charter – which will offer clear and definitive information on the objective and the scope of the project.
  • Roles & responsibilities of the project team – which will make sure that all team members understand their specific role and responsibilities with respect to the project activities. It is also at this time that any gaps in skills will be discussed.
  • Team protocols – a discussion about how the team will be working together, the project method that will be used along with any processes that need to be reviewed, the identification of collaboration tools that will be used for communication within the team, meeting schedules and format, and other needs and preferences.

If your project team attends the Kick-Off Meeting, then many of these issues should not escalate to the point of wanting to quit. However, there is another scenario that we need to discuss – the team member may be new to the organization and did not have the opportunity to attend the Kick-Off Meeting. This has resulted in the team member not having the information they need to be a productive member of the project team. This can very easily lead to feelings of isolation, frustration, and resentment toward the project team, the project itself, and, sometimes, the organization. Many of us can relate to this situation. You are hired on a Monday and are expected to deliver the winning touchdown by Friday. Yet, you have not been provided with any information about the project, your role, communication methods, processes, tools, or even how to get access to the project folders on the network drive. How annoying!

If this is the case, then the project onboarding program would include all of the same elements of the Kick-Off Meeting in addition to other information about the project deliverable, a review of stakeholders, identified risks, team members and roles, and the impact of this project to the organizational strategy.

We have all witnessed the frustration that can develop with project team members when dealing with some of these issues. My best advice to all of you is to discuss these topics before they become issues. Also, if you begin to identify patterns in behavior that could be damaging to the project team dynamic, I strongly recommend that you schedule a project team meeting as soon as possible. Provide an agenda listing the topics of discussion based on your observations and feedback from team members. Ask open-ended questions, based on your observations, to get the discussion moving so that outstanding issues can be identified, discussed, and resolved, together, as a team. Don’t forget to follow-up on any action items identified during this meeting. 

The bottom line is that we don’t want our project team members to experience isolation, frustration, and anger over a project. Especially if these are feelings based on issues that can easily be resolved by having a discussion with the team, reviewing a process, and identifying a solution – together. It’s our responsibility to help everyone on the team be successful. Let’s give them the information and the tools they need to make that happen! 

Onboarding of Project Team Members

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Mary Beth Imbarrato
Mary Beth Imbarrato