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

The dilemma
Larry and I sat down to share sodas and talk in the company cafeteria. It appeared that his project to implement a document imaging system for the legal department was going well, but Larry had a problem he wanted to discuss.

“I have had pretty good teams on projects I have managed for Blue Sky Manufacturing,” Larry said. “However, it seems like every team has a person like Billy. He’s a good guy, but a marginal performer. I’m struggling with whether to replace him and I need your advice.”

“Tell me a little more about Billy.” I said. “Is this something we need to get HR involved in?”

“Billy gets along well with everyone.” Larry replied. “On the surface, he seems to have all the skills required to do the job. In fact, he usually does do the job, but often he is late. He’s not a top performer, but he’s not necessarily a terrible performer either.”

I knew exactly where this discussion was headed. “I see. What options are you contemplating?”

“That’s where I need your help,” he said. “I can continue to work with Billy and try to get him to step up a notch or two. I guess the other option is to try to replace him. Of course, if I bring in another person, I’ll have learning curve issues to address, and the new person is not going to be as productive as Billy in the short term.”

I summed up his problem: “I think you have a dilemma that many project managers face: trying to balance the short-term pain of replacing a team member against the risk associated with keeping a marginal performer on the team.”

Mentor advice
When deciding whether to replace a team member, there are no set rules: Project managers must make the call on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the short-term pain, long-term risk to the project, availability of a backup candidate, and corporate culture.

Don’t just let the situation slide without acknowledging the performance gap and attempting to resolve the situation, though. Recognize the problem and decide how you want to proceed.

I can say that this problem hits close to home for me too. It seems that every project I manage has one or two “Billys.” If the person were a poor performer, there should be no hesitancy in replacing him. Marginal performers are a different problem. They consistently disappoint you in their ability to meet their commitments for quality and completion dates. They always have an excuse. Where top performers overcome obstacles, marginal performers get stuck.

I know many project managers who say they want only top-level people working for them. Of course, everyone does, but not everyone fits that profile. So, what do you do? I think ultimately the answer depends on your analysis of the risk to the project.

It probably wouldn’t make sense to make any personnel changes if the project is to be completed within a short period of time. If you’ve gone awhile with the marginal performer, you’ll get through the rest as well. Replacing the team member and going through the learning curve with another person will cause a lot of pain, and could put the project at risk of not completing on time.

On the other hand, if your project has a long way to go, you might want to make the move. You’ll have time for the new person to get up to speed and become much more productive than the replaced team member. But remember that, unless you know the replacement, there’s a chance that he or she will be no better than, or worse than, the person being replaced. That is always the risk with new team members; having a good process in place for screening new team members will minimize this risk.

Now for the hard scenario: The project is not at the beginning or the end. Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy rule or best practice to fall back on. Each situation and each person must be evaluated separately.

If you decide to keep a marginal performer, you can take steps to help them improve:

  • Make sure that the team member has all the skills to do the job. Sometimes what looks like a performance problem is really a skills gap that can be resolved with some training or coaching from an experienced team member.
  • Be clear with your expectations. This includes being very specific on the work that is assigned and when the work is due. Some people work better if they’re placed within limits and can focus on the matters at hand.
  • As much as possible, try to isolate the work so that the employee has one deliverable to work on at a time. Marginal performers are usually weak at multitasking.
  • Provide performance feedback close to when the event occurs. If the team member does well, praise him or her at that time. If he or she misses a deadline and doesn’t meet an expectation, let the person know at that time as well.

Many times I’ve made the decision to keep a marginal performer because I didn’t want to go through a new learning curve for the replacement. Often, later in the project, despite my efforts, the person was still missing expectations. It is at that time that I wished I had suffered the short-term transition pain and been done with it. At other times, the person ended up contributing nicely and I was glad they stayed on the project. You’ll find no hard and fast rules with managing people, only situations and potential responses.

Is there a Billy on your team?

Have you ever worked with a “Billy” ? If so, let us know how you handled the situation by sending us an e-mail or offering your feedback below.

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. In prior years he worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.