How To Handle A Key Team Member Leaving At A Critical Project Point

You know that moment when everything is going so well on your project, that you’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop? For some major catastrophe? Something that will totally blow this sprint, and the project schedule?

An example of such a moment is when you’re several key team member leavingweeks out from delivering on a project iteration, and one of your key team members informs you that they’re leaving the company.

In your head, you’re breathing into a brown paper bag. You know that you can’t do this without them. They have specialized skills, skills that are vital to the project. But it’s more than that. You know that with a search, you’ll be able to find someone to replace them. The problem is time. You need to finish this sprint or this iteration in the next several weeks. And you can’t do it on time without them.

But, believe it or not, even when a key team member leaves you during a critical time period, you can recover. Here’s how.

 

1. Attempt Negotiation

No one likes to be the manager on their knees begging, but sometimes you have to take one for the team. If a key developer is leaving, and it’s a crucial moment in the project, ask them to stay on an extra week or two to get you through this critical period. During this talk, it is important to remind them that:

1. It would be meaningful to a lot of people if they could simply push the departure date from two to four weeks. The tech world is small, and this action would go a long way to boosting their reputation as a must-have team player.

2. More often than not, companies are amenable to a slightly delayed start date. If asked, the company they’re leaving you for may be fine with waiting another two weeks for their talent.

The worse that can result from this conversation? They say no, and you’re in the same boat as you were ten seconds ago, moving on to step two in the process. And the best that can happen? They agree to stay on for a little bit longer, buying you some time to find a permanent replacement.

 

2. Examine Your Risk Management Plan

A risk management plan is a map of what you’ll do should anything go wrong during project execution, including what happens when you lose a key team member. Being the brilliant manager you are, you established such a protocol, one that varies with the circumstances. Now you need to determine which plan of action fits your current situation.

The first step in this process is examining the key team member’s role. What exactly did they do? What skills made them capable of performing that duty? Once you can succinctly pinpoint their contribution and skill set, it’s time to take action.

 

Scenario 1. Someone else on the team can perform their duties

Is there someone on the current team who has these skills? Someone who can take the place of the departing developer? If so, consider shuffling your team around slightly. Put this other developer in their role, and delegate their duties across team members.

Unfortunately, more often than not, this scenario doesn’t work out. Rarely do you have another person on the team who has the same skill set as this essential team member. Furthermore, shuffling around the team and reassigning duties not only hampers your team’s productivity, but also makes it so that everyone has more duties. Overworking your team is not the answer to this problem – there will just be more mistakes, more bugs, and a team ready to mutiny after too many 18-hour days.

 

Scenario 2. It isn’t a technical knowledge, but a business knowledge

Sometimes the person who is leaving isn’t a key player because of their technical prowess. Sometimes it’s because of their business knowledge. If that’s the case, you may be in luck. You might be able to bring in support from elsewhere in the company.

Understand the specialized business knowledge your departing member has, and then seek it out. Talk to other managers in your organization, and see if anyone on their team has the knowledge. In such a tight pinch, a fellow manager may be willing to lend their person out in order to help you.

 

Scenario 3. Need specialized tech knowledge? Hire a consultant!

Assuming that scenario one or two didn’t pan out, and you’re still looking for someone with a specialized technical knowledge, you should consider hiring a technical consultant. Many technical recruiting firms will be able to have a consultant in your shop in less than 24 hours. The consultant will come in, impress you with their mad technical skills, get the job done, and leave. They can save the day.

In a slightly different spin on things, you may be able to convince your leaving superstar to come on as a consultant. Offer to pay them a consultant’s rate for 10 hours of work a week. This can often get you out of a really tight jam.

 

3. Re-examine your project plan

Now that you’ve either re-organized your team or brought on someone with the necessary business or technical skills, you must re-examine your plan. Does it still make sense with the current players? Can you keep the project on schedule? If so, kudos. If not, don’t be afraid to make schedule tweaks. It’s better to do this now, then set unrealistic deadlines for your team that will only disappoint your stakeholders.

 

4. Complete the sprint, and think ahead

You’ve got the temporary fix, one that will get you through this critical time. However, as soon as you put out the fire, you have to start thinking long-term. What’s the long-term solution? Can your current team get the project done? Do you need to bring on someone else? Do you want to keep your consultant on for more than a couple of weeks?

Answer these questions, and take the appropriate actions to give yourself the best shot of completing this project on-time, on-budget, and within scope.
While it’s easy to panic when a vital team member leaves the fold, don’t. Through conversation, risk management assessment, and planning, you’ll still be able to get the project done. So no more breathing into a paper bag, okay? You’ve got this, key player or not.

Has there been a time when you were about to lose a key team member at a critical point in the project? What did you do? Let us know in the comment section, or join the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or LinkedIn.



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Thanks to gen gibler for the use of their photograph.