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Projects have problems. As project manager, you won’t be able to fix all of them. Unfortunately, you don’t have a crystal ball. What do you do when a critical team member suddenly resigns? Consider this story about a project I’m working on right now.

A state agency hired a small consulting firm to undertake a change initiative due to a major change in state law. The new laws mandate certain ambitious outcomes with strict deadlines. Thirty days before the only significant deadline on the project, the state’s project manager resigned.

I am the project manager for the consulting firm – a team of people who have never worked together before. It’s the middle of the summer and the state employees with the most history with the organization have each accrued about 25 weeks of vacation. Guess what? The state employees with all that vacation time are very hard to find – especially when you need them the most.

I should have predicted that my contact at the state might resign. We did predict that someone on the team would leave, we just didn’t know which one. That’s correct! We don’t have a crystal ball.

So, what do you do when a critical team member suddenly resigns? Here are some suggestions:

Celebrate the person who has resigned.

This is no time to harbor grudges, express frustrations, stop the game, or otherwise act like children. People move around these days. Expect it. Celebrate it. With every change comes an opportunity.

With change comes opportunity. How will you seize it? Click To Tweet

Understand the new void on your project.

In our case, the person who resigned worked as the project manager from the state side. It could just as easily have been a subject matter expert on the consultant’s side or a key executive on the state’s side.

The first step is to define what that person was doing and how it fit into the balance of responsibilities on the project. You will need to transition some work to others; you may need to do a substantive amount of responsibility juggling. It depends on who has resigned and where you are in the project timeline. A responsibility matrix can help you understand who is doing what.

Revisit your RACI or responsibility matrix and key stakeholder log.

A responsibility matrix, sometimes nicknamed a RACI, is a great step towards getting clarity on your project roles and responsibilities. There are some good practices that will ensure that your RACI doesn’t create more problems than it solves.

Strike the right balance between too many and not enough decision makers. 

I’ve seen projects with RACI charts where ONE person makes every decision. Typically, that person is trying to hold down a full-time executive position and this added work involves reviewing a slew of work products developed by an entire team of people. It takes a lot of time.

In government work, there can be an unusually large number of stakeholders. Everyone seems to want input. And no one has time for the homework that needs to be done on the outstanding questions. (Remember, they’re all on vacation.)

Avoid writing documents by committee. 

In many cases, RACI charts can show large numbers of people who should be invited to review and comment on every deliverable. If your project is set up that way, you may find yourself writing documents by committee. Should that start to happen, try designating one person to coordinate and analyze the different opinions on each outstanding question, and resolve conflicts.

When possible, use this time of change to simplify your RACI. Identify an appropriate number of consultants and decision makers. Strike a balance between good stakeholder involvement and writing documents by committee. Don’t let perfection become the enemy of completion because there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Document stakeholder perspectives and communication preferences. 

When there are many stakeholders, it can be challenging to identify all of the constituencies. You may need to create a stakeholder log to document the different perspectives and communication preferences.

You should also identify potential troublemakers. The vocal ones that stir up trouble in open meetings are the easy ones. The harder ones are the quiet ones who quietly spread poison. This is a good time to review what you know about your key stakeholders. That means understanding what their involvement is on the project, how and why they are involved, and the best ways to communicate with them.

Assess the statement of work, project charter, and other organizational documents.

It is quite normal for projects to evolve. As teams dig in and work, they will uncover more details and clarify the scope. Timelines will change, people will grow, and their perspectives will develop.

This is a good time to make sure that the scope, schedule, costs, and quality of work are all in line with what was originally planned. It may also be a time to revise some of those plans. As you do this, you may see the number and size of deliverables grow. This is normal as meeting the demands of client can come with misunderstandings. In change projects, there may need to be more executive briefings. Make sure you control the number and size of the deliverables.

Create or revise any team norms documents.

Every team and every project is different. What kinds of documentation do you have that outlines how the team will get its work done? In change projects, there can be a lot of document creation, review, and revision. This is the time to review any team organization documents and look for opportunities to simplify and streamline processes.

Document the process for submitting, reviewing, revising, and approving work products. This seems so obvious, and yet, it can be so difficult.

Some managers will want to get early drafts of your proposals and advise you every step of the way, while other managers will delegate early draft reviews to others. Some stakeholders will promptly provide feedback to every new deliverable, while others will wait until the project is almost finished to give you input that might have saved you days of work.

The socialization process, which I have written about before can result in more re-work than necessary if it is taken too far. This is a good time to re-think the step-by-step process for how work goes from beginning to end, and what inputs are needed at each stage.

Sound complex or time-consuming? What will you do when a critical team member suddenly resigns? It will happen, sooner or later. Call me if you want to talk.