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Winning Project Management
Secrets - Revealed!


Empowering a Struggling Team or Team Member

As a project manager, it is your job to empower a team to remove roadblocks to success. We all want to be impact players who can get things done. So, it can be frustrating when you think you've done your part, but the team is still struggling. You've completed your budgets, made the perfect project plan (or so you thought!) and most of the task items are being done, but it still looks like you are going to be missing critical milestones or the critical path is on a day by day slip. What is a forward thinking, thought leadership PM to do?

Well, here are a few techniques to help you wade through the murky waters.

First, you need to realize that it is not your job as PM to do the technical work. You probably couldn't do it anyway, but it can be tempting to roll up your sleeves and jump in and help. This is counterproductive in several ways: you are likely to mess things up, step on other's toes, and your own work of organizing and communicating will suffer if you start to get lost in the technical details of somebody else's job.

A better approach involves identifying the problem as quickly as you can. Is it a general team morale or cooperation issue or a specific player that is slowing things down? Go back to the project plan and see if you can find a pattern of missed dates or deadlines. Look for lapses in communication or unclear instructions. Try to determine if it is a time management issue or a technical complexity that can't be easily surmounted. Once you have a handle on what YOU think the problem is....

Ask the Team

The team may be part of the problem, but it can also be all of the solution. Re-focus everyone's attention on the idea that the team rises and falls together. We don't blame anyone for failing as an individual, we seek to work together to help out any team member who is struggling. Perhaps a less experienced team member is falling behind and could use some solutions from a more experienced player who as been there before. Maybe a person is going through a rough patch professionally or is bogged down with training or too many other irons in the fire. A short discussion with the team could rebalance things and get the whole project back on track. Try to work towards win-win negotiations so that nobody feels dominated or backed into a corner. If that doesn't work....

Brainstorm Solutions

Set aside 5 minutes at the next project meeting for brainstorming. Briefly explain the problem and open the floor for anyone to blurt out ideas. No matter what they say, write it down on the white board or whatever you use. Never edit during a brainstorming session. The idea is to get as many unfiltered ideas out there as you can. When the flow of new thoughts starts to dry up, organize the solutions into 3 categories: goods, maybes, and not feasibles. Usually, the best 2 or 3 ideas will be obvious to everyone, but if it looks close, put it to a vote. Then, implement the winner and let it ride for a week or two to see how it works. As PM, you can always over rule the team later, but it is best to let them try to solve the problem as a group first. This approach is particularly helpful when the problem is technically challenging and needs new ideas to be solved quickly.

Incentivize Solutions

Those things that are rewarded are repeated. Give recognition, rewards and encouragement when things go right, and you'll get more things going right! Is it possible to show too much recognition or encouragement? Probably if that is all you do, but it is much more likely you are among the 80% of people managers who don't do it enough. Incentives can take many forms. You should look to your corporate culture to see what kinds of things have been successful in the past. Maybe it's a nice, monogrammed leather project binder for everyone on the team or a night out at a video arcade or gift certificates to a nice restaurant. If you can leverage something the company already does or has, so much the better. Think free or reduce price products, box seats at a sporting event or meeting a famous personality the company does business with. If a person has kids, doing something nice for them can be an incredible motivator. Cash or bonuses are always nice, too, if that is in the budget and culture, but don't depend on purely monetary rewards. It is your job to root out what motivates each member of your team and then implement an incentive plan that rings each of those bells.

Communicate to the Personality

If it appears you have one team member alone who is dropping the ball, ask yourself if you are communicating properly for that person's personality needs. Some people do better with more detailed, written information. Some prefer verbal discussions. Some get easily bored if things don't move fast enough, some scared to death if things move hardly at all. Get the person alone, one on one in a non-threatening space where you both are comfortable and ask them about it. Cue into the signals they are sending you. Do they have their legs and arms crossed indicating resistance? Do they seem nervous and fidgety? Do they seem to be subject matter experts who are simply distracted, or in-experienced players who have bitten off more than they can chew? Once you get a read, try to tailor your approach to meet them on their terms so you can work past the problem and get back on track. This may mean giving more detail, giving less detail, changing the format of the information (diagrams instead of text for example), providing different motivation, or doing more research.

Visualize Success

Sometimes a simple visualization exercise can be helpful with the whole team or with individuals. Dim the lights, put on some relaxing, neutral music, have everybody close their eyes and do a few deep breaths. Try to get everyone to be present in the moment. Then, take them through the process of empowering them by visualizing what it looks like to be successful. The work is easy. The schedule is roomy. The technical challenges are trivial for the masters to handle effortlessly. You get the idea. Tailor the message to fit the specific situation. Don't let the whole process take more than 5 minutes and then bring the lights back up and get on with the work at hand.

Flowchart It!

A flowchart details every step in a process. Sometimes diagramming processes or workflow helps you understand them better, and answers more easily jump out at you. You could for example assign throughput numbers to each step in the flow chart to help you identify where backlogs, waiting and stress starts to pile up.

Identify Root Cause by Asking Why 5 Times

You think you've identified the real problem. The TPS reports aren't getting processed on time. So, you head out to the TPS manager's office to see if you can help. Why aren't those darned TPS reports getting done faster? She tells you the form is too complicated and isn't getting processed by accounts receivable. Why is it so complicated? The last manager in accounts receivable added 50 fields to the report and the software won't let AR submit the report unless all fields are completed. Why did we need those extra 50 fields? Because the division VP said it would be unacceptable to process one more incomplete TPS report because we lost an anchor customer by processing their payments incorrectly one too many times. Why did we erroneously apply their payments incorrectly? Because the account numbers assigned to that one customer had been used previously for a different customer and were never released and updated in the system. Why are we recycling old account numbers? Because the system doesn't allow enough digit fields to create new numbers.

You can see that the original root cause you identified isn't really the root cause at all. By asking "why" five times, you are much closer to finding a real permanent solution to debottleneck your system.


Assuming you have identified the real root cause correctly, now it's time to start the process of solving the problem.

Perhaps you have assigned, or allowed someone to take on, more work then they can reasonably get done in the allotted time. This can threaten your whole project time line if that work is on the critical path. Remember that balance is critical to project success, and if some one person or group is doing twice the work of other team members, your process is definitely out of balance. So, you might have to do a little bottleneck expansion.

What exactly is a "bottleneck"? Most of us probably have an intuitive understanding of it as a limiting agent to workflow. When all your processes or resources would allow higher throughput except one, that one process or resource that slows the whole rest of the team is the bottleneck. Simple right? But, entire books have been written about manufacturing and production bottlenecks. Sometimes it can be more of an art then a science to identify and resolve them.

If ever a process was fraught with political pitfalls, it is the debottlenecking or re-balancing process. Tread carefully! Some people enjoy being the bottleneck in a process because it makes them feel important, secure, and needed. Taking that away feels like a direct threat to their job or career security! Some managers have cherished bottlenecks on their teams for the same reason.

Other times, a job or task is so complex or universally disdained it is difficult to find anyone else willing to do it. As such, some skilled resources are extremely difficult to duplicate or replace.

Other times, a bottleneck exists due to technical limitations within an entire industry that remains unsolved. You may find it virtually impossible to de-bottleneck some processes because of these reasons, but the rewards to your company can be great if you are the one to figure it out.

Sometimes a bottleneck is imposed by rules and regulations and you have to play along to keep your company "in bounds".

In these difficult cases, your only option may be to reset delivery expectations by adjusting the time line. Take home message for project management: next time don't over commit this resource or risk burning him or her out.

But, in many cases, it is possible to address the bottleneck issue to get the original time line back on track. A lot of these ideas are similar to the Kaizen process in manufacturing also known as Continuous Improvement. You could for example...

Consider Training

As a manager, I would gladly spend 5 hours to train or teach someone to do a twelve minute daily job that I never have to touch again. This is because I know the payback period for that 5 hour investment is a mere 5 weeks! Sometimes a little training is all it takes to debottleneck a process - if time permits! Also remember that with training should come..... authority! That's right, once somebody has the skills to make good decisions, they need to be able to use that power. The more control people have over their work and how it is done, the higher their sense of empowerment. And 67% of employees are willing to give extra effort if they feel empowered vs. only 4% if their empowerment is low and their decisions are constantly being over ridden by management.

Prioritize the Bottleneck's Valuable Time

Make sure that whatever is being fed into the bottleneck step is as perfect and error free as possible. This means adding a quality control step immediately before the bottleneck to assure they are only getting perfect product to work with so none of their time is wasted.

Remove Activities

Take everything off the bottlenecks plate except essential functions. This allows the bottleneck step to focus only on what he or she does best.

Authorize Overtime

If a resource seems to be working as hard as everybody else but just doesn't seem to be able to get the job done during the normal work week, giving that person more hours may be the solution. Of course, overtime can get expensive and corporate culture may or may not encourage it, but sometimes it's an option if the project budget permits. Overtime can almost always be justified if it results in higher profits then the extra time costs.

Always try to justify overtime by first making sure that the resource in question is actually using their "first 40" effectively. If they seem to be spending a lot of time OOO (out of office) or in unnecessary meetings, those should be addressed first.

Add Capacity by Hiring Internal or External Resources

Temporary contractors can be brought in to help solve problems if the project budget allows and the technical skill is available. Always look internally first, though. Bringing external resources up to speed can be time consuming and expensive. An internal resource already knows the corporate culture and ways of getting things done.

Another easy to implement solution to add capacity may be to assign the most productive members of your team and best available technology to the bottleneck if this is possible.

Escalate to Management

No, this doesn't have to mean ratting out your victim to her or his boss! You should always prefer to handle things laterally when possible, but sometimes it is necessary to involve superiors or other departments. For example, you may be able to borrow resources from a different team or group temporarily to meet immediate needs. At the very least, you might get insight into a different way to solve the problem from somebody else who has been there before.

Temporary or Permanent?

Some bottlenecks are temporary. If a key team member becomes ill or goes on vacation, it may be the case that no one else is qualified to take over their part of the project. Unfortunately, the more skilled the employee, the more likely they are to have accumulated more vacation and personal days so this risk is built into most corporate compensation/benefit plans for their senior employees.

An example of a long term bottleneck would be a month end report that cannot be completed until the monthly numbers are available from all teams and this report is always late because either the numbers don't come in on time or the person responsible for generating the report is always buried in other work.

Whether temporary or permanent, bottlenecks always result in diminished capacity and eliminating or balancing them should be a target to achieve higher profits.

Empowering teams is a worthwhile endeavor. A balanced, high output team is a money maker and profit generating machine. Don't settle for less than you and your company deserves! Empower your teams and individual resources for success today!

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