Losing team members

Every project has its own unique risks.  Some of them involve cost overruns, others may focus on lack of participation or turnout and many risks revolve around getting tasks completed on time.  Recently, however, I was reminded that the biggest risk that could affect any given project could be the loss of core team members.  During a recent trip to Germany, I learned that many of the issues my firm encountered with a major project over the past few months were due to severe illnesses.  This year two team members have been out with illnesses for multiple months, one of them for most of the year.  The team in Germany has been coping as best they can, but due to the nature of the illnesses, they were never sure if the two coworkers would come back one week to the next.

One of the many questions this points out, is how in the world can a project manager actually plan for the risk of someone being gravely ill?  Or to take a less somber approach – how would a project manager handle a key team member quitting halfway through a project?  For some teams and organizations, the answer might be easier than for others.  For example, perhaps there’s a suitable backup or fill-in available, which may very well be the case in large organizations.  But of course that person has other responsibilities or projects too.  Another option may be to hire a replacement, which sounds like a good solution if the project still has some time until completion, but in reality, we have all seen how long the hiring process can take (not to mention training).  Other options could include having different team members pick up part of the slack.  As long as the skillset isn’t proprietary within the organization to that single individual, this may be the best short term option.  But if the skills are not seen within other team members, then the project manager is forced to look at outsourcing or hiring contractors to fill in.

Both of the latter choices were pursued by my company in our example, with other team members filling in for the business process side of the project, and contractors hired on for pure coding / development work.  Thankfully the other team member’s had some amount of knowledge in the missing area, and my company had already worked with outside contractors on an ongoing basis.  Neither of the options were ideal, but the team has struggled along as best they can.

So although it’s impossible to anticipate these types of risks, the loss of key team member for any reason should be considered when assessing a project and managing risks, especially for longer term projects.  Even if an ideal solution isn’t available, the next best alternate for each key player should be known at project start.

How have you dealt with losing team members in the past?  How would you deal with something as difficult as an unknown illness affecting your team?

8 thoughts on “Losing team members

  1. Alex, I think this is a great point to bring up and one extremely difficult to deal with. I can reflect on two experiences I have had in which I have lost a key player to a project. Recently, my MGT 598 group experienced a change of general manager at the Potbelly’s location we were planning to host our event. While this was not someone directly on the team, the GM was an indirect, yet essential component to the project’s success. As the project moves forward with a newly hired GM with past experience, we hope the event runs smoothly but no guarantees exist.

    For my other example, I reflect back on my collegiate athletic career. A common challenge for athletic teams is injuries; however, for a team of 13, can a coach realistically plan for 5 season ending injuries? In my senior season, 5 players went down with extremely serious injuries and we were barely able to fulfill the line up requirements.

    With both of these examples being extremely detrimental to the teams’ success, in neither situation could my team have planned for the events. But after these experiences, I have learned that cross training and increased communication of which team member is doing what and how they are doing it is key. In athletics, you have to simply train players to play more than one position. In the professional world, team members must be familiar with what the other team members are responsible for and how the process is progressing. Cross training and increased communication can greatly decrease negative outcomes when team members drop, for whatever reason.

  2. When I read your title, I thought you were going to talk about team members that were losers. I guess that’s a topic for a different team.

    As an internal operational/compliance auditor, I usually work on 2-4 person project teams on 1 week audits. I often ask individuals during an audit “what happens if is sick?” And sometimes the answer is a concern. I think this is a problem for most companies. Particularly in this new economy were everyone is stretching all their resources.

    As far as our team, we mitigate this risk through cross-training as much as possible. It is important that expertise be developed, but we can a tremendous disruption because a team member has left our small team.

  3. I am working on a project that has had a similar situation, but it involved replacements on the consultant’s side. We have multiple solutions that all make up the one software package we are putting in. Each of those solutions has there own designated expert, but we have been through at least 3 experts for each solution now due to visa issues and simply other scheduling committments, which makes it very difficult to progress the project forward without a significant portion of time dedicated to a knowledge transfer. Sometimes, we would find out about this only 1 to 2 weeks in advance of the change. Because the project includes significant technical design and coding, we have, at times, had to spend time trying to reach former team members to understand why or how they designed what they did. I would suggest when agreeing to a contract to ensure that your consultants or at least key members are contractually required to remain on the team until completion whenever possible because it will minimize any hiccups due to team member transitions.

  4. When working on a team, I feel it is important to have other members of the team somewhat familiar with other aspects of a project do they can fill in if some leaves or is out for an extended period of time. It is very easy to get tunnel vision and only focus on your part of the project but the problem with this is you never know when you are going to be asked to fill in and take on other responsibilities.

  5. I think it’s necessary to have a back up on all project roles to be prepared for a situation like that. It’s not just projects where this is a risk, but business in general. A good Project Manager will make sure that they have at least one back up, preferably more on all tasks so someone quiting or getting sick does not cause an issue. The bigger problem for a project would be if the PM is sick or quits. In this case, there is probably not going to be a back up ready to fill-in, and most likely will result in significant delays/problems for a project.

  6. Besides being a great point for discussion, I think it’s possibly the most important thing one must be prepared for when leading a team in any situation: the loss of a team member. Whether it be temporary or permanent, the loss of a team member can hurt a project the most. In my opinion, I think there is only so much one can prepare for, but after that, it’s out of one’s control. Yes, a manager must be ready to take this hit, so having the back up would be the first step in trying to recover from a loss. There is no one who can magically replace a team member perfectly without investing more time, money, and space. I think about my current job, and there have been times where an employee may call off. In the cases where that happens, others either stay later or manage to cover their tasks. In the end, there will always be some sort of hit, prepared or not.

  7. Luckily, I have not had the chance to experience this in the workplace but I have dealt with the problem of losing a team member in group projects for class. One particular case was this 4-members group I was assigned to. Right from the moment, we lost one of the team members for she had dropped the class. With the two members left, only one was willing to do the work while the other one did not. In the end, it was really a team of 2 trying to do the work of 4 people. We did pull through but this experience did teach me that you can’t really prepare for losing members or members not doing their fair share of work. Especially in the workplace, most likely you as the manager cannot pick all the good people or be too prepare fro when someone leave. You can only estimate and plan for the worst while hoping that everything will pull through till the end.

    However, to answer your question on how to deal with something like illness affecting team is being flexible. The company I worked at really stress this idea of promoting flexibility among its employees. Team leaders and members both work together to achieve this vision. For example, if a team member needs to take off early he can come to work earlier that day or the next or he can stays later the next day. Flexibility means communicating with your team. You can’t just take day off without telling your team. Let them know ahead so they can plan for it. So the next time they would do the same without surprising you. So at the end of the day, it’s all about teamwork. By the way, if someone leave (meaning quit their job) they can tell the team so the other members can prepare for it once the person leave. So communication again is key.

  8. This is a common problem faced not only by professionals but also by students in schools.
    After taking 2 MIS(management Information System) courses, i believe MIS is the answer to your question. It helps companies keep track of resources and processes. Documentation of all processes that are carried out are recorded so that present and future employees can benefit from it and hence, not waste time or indulge in unnecessary research. However, this might not be a 100% effective in replacing the individual but it can help address immediate problems.

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