One of TechRepublic’s most popular columnists, Tom Mochal, receives dozens of e-mails each week containing questions from members about project management problems. Mochal would like to share some of those member questions—and the answers he provides—in a column each month. IT pros often tell TechRepublic that they receive the most insight when they learn about real-life situations encountered by other IT pros.

Q: How can I trust a team member with inadequate skills?
This question comes to us from a project manager who would like to remain anonymous:

“One problem I find difficult to handle is what to do when people repeatedly do not deliver. If I criticize them, I am likely to lose their support and upset my customer. I have tried to coach them, praise them when possible, and thank them when work is completed on time, etc.

“I also try to distribute the work according to abilities, but some members’ abilities are so poor, I know there is a good chance the work will not be done in an acceptable way. So far, I just kind of ignore these people and try to find someone who can do the work. Sometimes, I have to do the work myself.

“How should you work with people who consistently have shown that they cannot deliver on schedule?”

A: Evaluate what kind of help the team member needs
In many respects, project managers may find it easier to deal with the process side of project management, including creating your workplan, managing issues, and risk. Your situation is more challenging because it deals with the other side of project management—managing, motivating, and leading people.

People are unique, and a solution for one person does not necessarily work with someone else. You must also account for team dynamics, where people may behave differently because of a group culture than they might behave individually.

I recommend you look at a number of possible causes of poor performance. Think about these areas separately for each person on the team where performance is a problem.

Do team members need a mentor or training?
Sometimes, people do not deliver up to expectations because they do not have the right skills to do the job. For instance, you assign a person to complete the analysis for a new set of reports, but they are not sure how to ask the correct questions or frame a discussion with the customers. People who are late delivering code may be struggling trying to understand why they are getting logic errors. A related question is whether they have the correct level of training. They may have the basics, but do they need to understand advanced concepts?

If anyone falls into this category, you need to decide whether they could do the work with the right training. Training could mean a class, computer-based training, or even pairing them up with someone more experienced. If they do not have the right skills and can’t be easily trained, then the question becomes whether they can be replaced with someone with a better skill set for your project.

Reassigning the employee is another option. Is there a productive role that the person can play given their set of skills and experience?

Make the expectations clear
Do the team members understand your expectations? For instance, sometimes when a team member misses a deadline, they may come back and say that they did not think the work was due at that time. Or, instead of completing three programs on a certain date, they may have thought they were only required to complete one.

The project manager needs to evaluate what people say when they do not fulfill expectations. If there is confusion, change the system of accountability. For instance, require written confirmation that the person understands the expectations for deliverables and due dates. Or discuss assignments and status as a team so that each person confirms their current assignments and due dates.

Address barriers to performance
Another area to consider is whether there are any business or personal factors that could explain performance problems. For instance, some people on the team could be distracted if your company is in the process of being purchased. Another member of your team may show a lack of motivation because they are worrying about a spouse who is ill. If you can find a cause, it will give you the chance to respond, or at least acknowledge the problem. Perhaps the human resources department could assist you by providing information and resources to the employee.

Change the project
Even though you have a people issue, you can also use process experience to help mitigate the problems you are encountering.

For instance, if people are missing significant delivery dates, then you will probably be at risk of watching your project fall behind schedule. In that case, you can utilize risk management to consider alternatives with your team and your customer on how to get back on track. If dates have to slip, then you have an issue. Raise this to your team and customer and get their feedback on how the problem can be resolved.

If people are delivering late because they are doing more work than was assigned, you may have a scope change process that needs to be addressed. If people are not delivering the right level of quality, you may need to use quality management to set guidelines for the acceptable level of quality and what deliverables should look like.

Document all of these items in your status reports and status meetings to ensure the customer knows what the problems are and can participate in finding solutions. This is important to manage expectations. You don’t have to be personal; just use the processes.

For instance, if the dates start to slip, let the customer know the deadlines that are being missed on the project plan. You don’t have to say that anyone is a poor performer—just state that dates are being missed and that you are looking for ways to correct the situation.

Consider terminating the employee
Some team members may not be willing to do the job, or they may not be able to do the work regardless of the training and support you provide. If you feel you are at this point, you need to get the human resources department involved. They will give guidance about what types of remedies are available and acceptable within your company.

In many organizations, this strategy could lead to a period of documenting performance expectations and results, putting a person on a formal performance plan, and ultimately a reassignment, or termination, if necessary. (For more information, read “How to fire an employee.”)

Some project managers would rather take on additional work than fire an employee. But if you’ve exhausted all other options and the employee continues to perform poorly, you should meet with human resources to consider pursuing a formal disciplinary procedure that may lead to termination.

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.

We can’t guarantee that Tom will answer every letter, but he will read all of his mail and respond to the e-mails that will benefit the most TechRepublic members. Send us your questions, and we’ll forward them to Tom.