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?