Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on a real-life situation. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
I typically mentor project managers at Blue Sky Manufacturing, but from time to time, members of a project team also ask for my advice. If they come to me directly, it usually means they have a concern about the project manager. Two days ago, a project team member named Peg came to me with just such an issue.

“I have a lot of respect for my project manager,” Peg began, “but I am concerned about some of his staffing decisions.

“I was involved in putting the project workplan together, and I have a pretty good idea of what skills are needed. It appears to me that the project manager is putting unqualified people in some of the key team positions. We have a tight deadline as it is. We will never meet it if we do not have the right people in place.”

I know from experience that the project manager doesn’t have the luxury of choosing the perfect people for every project. Sometimes you must make compromises.

“Are you sure that the people coming into the project cannot do the job?” I asked. “Maybe your project manager just has a difference of opinion.”

“The current team all agrees that some of the assignments don’t make sense,” Peg said. “The project manager has not managed a project like this before. We are concerned that he doesn’t have the perspective to understand how people with the wrong skills could jeopardize the project.”

“Have you spoken to the project manager yet?” I asked.

“No,” Peg said. “The team asked me to talk to you first. You are always giving advice to project managers, so we thought you might be able to advise us as well.“

Mentor advice
Peg should first have this discussion with the project manager. It may be that he doesn’t understand the implications of his staffing decision and might change his mind if he had better information.

For example, if there is a need for a database administrator, usually only a database administrator will do. But the project manager may have put someone with different skills in such a position for some overriding reason of which Peg is not aware.

The team can also raise a project risk around the staffing direction. Raising a risk would invoke a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of the team skill sets, and it should result in a plan to mitigate the project risk. The team may find that they can mitigate the risk through a combination of training and mentoring, for example. If the staffing decisions still seem dangerous and arbitrary, Peg always has the option to escalate her concern to the functional manager or the sponsor, although this step is not to be taken lightly.

Staffing decisions can be some of the most difficult, yet critical decisions that are made at the beginning of a project. A project manager rarely has the ability to pick and choose exactly the team he or she wants. In many cases, the best people—because they are the best—are also the busiest. A project manager will most likely have to build a team based on who is available. His assignments may also be motivated by his desire to provide opportunities for people to learn new skills, or he may build his team based on how well certain people can work together.

Without more facts, it is hard to second-guess staffing decisions. The project manager and the functional manager may have great reasons why they chose the staff they did. Because the team is new, they may be uncomfortable talking directly with the project manager about these decisions, but this is still the first place to start to solve the problem.

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.

Oh…that guy…

While there are jobs that project team members can learn as they go, you don’t want a HTML hobbyist to develop the back end of your Web site. If you’ve been in a situation where a seemingly unqualified person rose to the occasion—or sank in the attempt—tell us about it. Post your comments below or send us an e-mail.