Jerry is responsible for a major enhancement to the inventory control system and
began meeting with me a few weeks ago to make sure his project begins
successfully. He has a team of four people assigned for about six months. I’m
concerned because the project is just a few weeks old, and he’s already missing
some of the early deliverable dates.
“It’s never a good sign when a
project starts off slow and starts to miss dates,” I said. “Sometimes you never
catch up. What’s the reason for the initial delays?”
“I don’t have a good
handle on it yet,” Jerry admitted. “The initial estimates may have just been too
I asked Jerry what the team members were telling him when
they missed a deadline.
“It’s been a variety of things,” Jerry noted. “In
one case, a person didn’t get the activity started on time. In another instance,
I had a mix-up in communication and had two people working on the same activity.
Another time, the person said that they could have had the work done, but they
thought it was due the following week.”
I was a little confused. “Your
work plan looked good. How are you assigning the work to your team?”
have an internal status meeting every week,” Jerry explained. “I make the
assignments then. I think I am being clear on who needs to do what, but maybe
I offered a suggestion. “Let’s take your work plan and visit your
team members. Let’s ask them to tell us what they’re responsible for working on
during the next 30 days and what the due dates are.”
So we did just that.
The results were not surprising: Two of the team members were pretty clear on
their assignments and the due dates. One team member thought that an upcoming
completion date was a due date for a draft deliverable.
member, who was expected to have her work underway, said she was held up because
she was waiting on the arrival of some software. However, the arrival of the
software didn’t affect her assignment. She should have been 50 percent through
her activity already.
The purpose of talking with the team members was not to try to catch Jerry doing
something wrong. I had a feeling that the project was in a bit of trouble
because Jerry was not being crystal clear on what work was assigned to each team
member. This turned out to be the case.
Some project managers make the
work plan available to the team members and ask them to work on what is
assigned. This takes a very mature team and one that is used to working
independently from a work plan. If the team is not experienced in this approach,
miscommunication about what is due and when can easily occur.
project managers assign work in team meetings. The problem that can arise with
this method is that the discussions aren’t always organized and can leave team
members uncertain about what they should be doing. Feedback suggested that the
latter problem applied to Jerry. He had a great work plan, but he had not
organized the team status meetings well; the meetings tended to move back and
forth among topics. Jerry was trying to assign work to people during this
discussion, but when the meeting was over, team members were confused about what
was assigned and when the due date was.
I have two specific areas of
improvement for Jerry. First, he must conduct his status meetings with more
focus and a standard agenda. If a project team meets every week, the discussion
shouldn’t be wandering aimlessly. He and his team should quickly get into the
habit of covering progress, issues, risks, upcoming events, etc.
Jerry is also assigning work at these meetings, he should set aside a portion of
the meeting to discuss the assignments. The team can go over the work plan and
Gantt chart so that they can get a picture of what they are doing today, as well
as upcoming work. Jerry should not end this part of the meeting until the team
members are sure of their assignments. Many project management tools can also
print to-do reports that list each person’s work on a weekly or monthly basis.
These will help reinforce the assignments after the meeting is
Second, Jerry can take several actions during the week to ensure
that team members know what they’re supposed to do:
- Meet face-to-face with each team member, asking each one about their
assignment and when it’s due. Jerry should weave these questions into a
discussion so that the team members don’t feel like they’re being tested. They
should be able to give exact responsibilities and due dates.
- Team members should also be able to tell Jerry what work is on their plate
during the next 30 days. If they’re not clear on what they should be doing and
by when, they may be duplicating efforts and missing other activities.
- Jerry is currently receiving his status update at the weekly meetings. He
should ask the team members to let him know as soon as an assignment is
completed. This will keep Jerry more up to date when work is due on days between
the status meetings.
- If communication problems persist and cause more missed deadlines, Jerry
should take this a step further and ask the team to report when they believe the
work is 50 percent complete. This will give Jerry and the team member another
opportunity to validate that expectations are in sync.
Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal
development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the
Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and
coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also
worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project
management methodology called TenStep.