How To Deal With Underperformers By Bennett Quillen

How To Deal With Underperformers

By Bennett Quillen




Before it comes to a transfer or pink slip, every IT project manager should take these basic steps.

How do IT managers handle project team members who are either non-productive or not performing to their potential or expectations?


If the individual reports directly, or even indirectly, to you in your function or department, you have the authority to deal directly with the underperformer. Your ultimate leverage is your ability to transfer, demote, or fire the person. You also have the annual employee evaluation or less formal day-to-day assessment as your stick. But as a project manager, especially if you’re an external consultant, you often don’t have the time or leverage. 


As a consultant, I’m continually parachuted into situations requiring the management of 25 to 35 people in an intense situation with aggressive milestones and tight time frames and budgets. If one or more of the project team members isn’t performing up to a standard (and that standard is often set high because of the project’s immediate objectives), I have a BIG problem on my hands.


So how do I deal with such situations? First, I confront the individual one-on-one to find out the underlying problem. Is it a lack of time management or an inordinate amount of requirements? Is the individual dealing with difficult diversions, perhaps not work-related? Or is it simply that the individual is in over his or her head? 


If there are outside diversions, there isn’t much I can do for that person. Such individuals must come to grips with their situation and assure you they can handle it. Even so, it’s important to establish some key dates for those individuals and closely monitor their progress. As Ronald Reagan once said: “Trust but verify.”


If the problem is one of conflicting requirements, the obvious next step is to discuss them with the person’s manager and find ways to reduce or shift the workload. However, for individuals who just can’t cope with the workload or don’t have the needed experience or skill set, you need to replace them immediately.


Again, as the project manager you must take up the issue with the individual’s manager, followed by a meeting among the three of you to identify a solution — that is, to bring in someone who has the necessary skill set and capacity.


In one situation, I had the charge of improving the performance of the production and infrastructure support staff in an IT department. After one or two weeks, it became evident that team members weren’t following daily production support procedures, or they were performing them lackadaisically. After meeting with the individuals and setting performance criteria, we turned the situation around. 


However, the infrastructure staffers were a different issue. They simply didn’t understand the full complexity and scope of telecommunications for the organization. So I redefined their jobs, let three people go, and brought in a facilities firm to manage the function.


Another company was in the midst of making major changes to the delivery of its electronic banking products for both its retail and commercial customers, affecting Bill Pay, ATMs, POS, Wires, etc.  The team tasked with rolling out and converting all of its electronic products had other ancillary activities.  The Manager in charge was simply swamped with his regular day-to-day activities as well as the many new responsibilities for this project. He and his team were falling behind schedule. We developed a two-pronged approach, whereby I helped with some of the tasks and senior management assigned another experienced individual to work under him for this project. The result was a successful effort.


Another department manager at the same bank had a different challenge: As a recent transfer into her position. She wasn’t well versed in all of its functions. Yet we still depended upon her department for a series of projects. In this case, I advised her to find a subject matter expert in the organization with whom she could work. We assigned a fellow from another department for the remaining five months.


How do you handle a situation where a high-ranking individual is responsible for the success of a project but can’t cope with its requirements? I faced this situation when I was called in to convert a company to a new set of core applications within six months. The clock was ticking.  It was clear after about two weeks that the CIO wasn’t prepared to make timely decisions on key tasks.


I discussed my concerns with the individual and laid out what was needed and when, but the situation didn’t improve. He was either unable to deal with all of the changes or trying to focus on all of the tasks – over 2,000 — to make decisions. There was no alternative: I had to talk with the president of the company, because the project was in jeopardy. I recommended that the CIO be sidelined, if possible. The president’s solution was to place the individual on a leave of absence and replace him with one of his key subordinates.   


Every situation and individual is unique. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The key is to identify the source of the problem and resolve it quickly and creatively. Sometimes you have to take the position of solving today’s problem and let tomorrow’s problem take care of itself.