When Project Decisions Get Difficult

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Categories: Teams

Two important members of your project team recently ended a six-year romantic relationship. While they're both trying to keep their domestic problems out of the workplace, the inevitable tensions between the two ex-partners are obvious and are causing the team to split into two camps.

The situation is affecting the team's ability to achieve a successful outcome on a high-stakes, high-pressure project to deliver critical capabilities to a customer.

You've tried working with both team members and sought assistance from the HR department to minimize the issues with limited success. Each of them is vital to the delivery of the project's objectives. However, you've suggested to both that perhaps the team would be better off if one of them moved onto another job. Unfortunately, neither have a viable option.  

Your analysis of the situation is as follows:

If either of the people leaves, the team's ability to deliver the project will be reduced by 10 percent.

If both of them leave, the team's ability to deliver the project will be reduced by 20 percent.

If both stay, the team's ability to deliver the project will be reduced by 25 percent and will get worse over time.

The customer cannot afford any reduction in the team's capability to deliver this business-critical outcome.

As the project manager, what would you do next? Post your comments below, and in my next blog, I'll summarize reader reactions and look at the options.
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: December 03, 2010 02:53 PM | Permalink

Comments (12)

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Stephen van Jaarsveldt
I would offer 1% of the project budget to the first person to leave voluntarily. This is a rather small cost to the project, particularly considering the alternatives.

At the same time it will give one of them a good boost to cover costs while looking for something else. I would then ask the one who takes this offer first to continue contributing on-demand and at a distance in order to minimise the 10% impact of them leaving.

For example, team members can still contact the former colleague who now works from home. In the end, the impact will be somewhere between 1% and 10%, which is better than all the given alternatives. Considering that projects should typically have some risk buffer in the time line, as well as the budget and that this is often 10% or more, this impact may well be handled within the normal risk parameters of the project.

Mark C. Allman
Clearly a change is required.

1. Research swapping one of the two persons with someone as close to comparable who's working on another project.
2. Investigate rearranging assignments to separate the two as much as possible. The two persons will still be around to lend expertise.
3. If all else fails research substituting a consultant for one of the two persons. Hopefully this won't mean someone loses their job but as the PM you need to do what's necessary.

Also, I'd document and communicate this all to my stakeholders and add it to my risk register (if I hadn't done that already).

I would move both of them out of the team. It does look like there is an impact of 20%. I feel this is short term. The team would cope and forget the incident faster without the presence of both of them. This is lesser than the 25% if both would stay.

I my opinion, the 10% impact would continue longer as 1 person stays and there is a topic to talk about.

Srikanth Prabhala
Hi Lynda,

The following are the options that I could think of. It would be interesting to read others' opinions also on this.

a) As an immediate option, if feasible, check if one of these two resources to work from another location/home to minimize the confrontation. 25% loss of productivity on such a critical project can't be afforded.

b) If this project is due for completion over a long-term, may be look for another resource who can immediately be made available to take over from one of these two.

c) If it is due for completion within the next few months, (thereby making the above option not worthwhile), arrange a meeting with HR, management and the two resources asking for cooperation until the project is completed.


This is a really difficult situation. I understand that both of the team members are really important to the project. We have tried to discuss with them on the situation. HR counseling option has also been exercised. But these have produced no significant improvement. So, how do we approach this case.

While it is clear from the given case that both of them are trying to keep their personal relationship out of the workplace, the delivery capability is impacted because the whole team has been split up into 2 camps. This means that both of them individually are sensitive enough to try to keep domestic problems at home. It is the other team members who need to be sensitized and influenced so as not to take any sides.

As a manager, I would first discuss the issue of drop in delivery capability with each of them and tell them of the split that has happened within the team and how it is affecting the delivery. Once they agree to my view, I would seek their help to identify key sensible people who can see how things have changed after the split.

I would discuss this with the key members and let them know how the split up is dividing the team in camps and why it should not happen. I would tell them that in a team environment, trust is of utmost importance. We can have differences of opinion, but it should not affect the delivery. I will use them as the messenger to try to diffuse the situation within the team.

Subsequently, I will have a open discussion with the entire team (assuming the team size and location is such that it is possible) on why our delivery capability has gone down with specific examples and try to get solution from the team.

I believe, with this approach, I can retain both of the team members, without delivery being impacted by 25%. If this does not work out, I would not hesitate to drop one of the team member and get a replacement for him/her.

From a risk management perspective, I would not have had a couple in the same project in the first place. Not because of the fact that they can break-up, but because of the fact that they would want to take vacation at the same time, if one of them falls sick, another may have to take a day off as a carer, if anyone in their family has a personal problem, both of them will get disturbed, and last but not the least, if by any chance they have a reporting relationship, it may create a wrong impression with other team members.

Alex Mendoza
When I read this I thought this sounds too familiar. I had the same situation.

Not to say that what I did will work for all but it worked in my case. I had to consider between the proverbial "carrot" or the "stick."

My primary communication piece to them centered on professionalism. That a project is driven by schedules and their performance as professionals are rated based on their ability to deliver as a team. They can both agree to disagree in some cases but a decision must be made to the betterment of the project - not their individual egos.

They also could have all their time outside of the project to "vent out" their issues but when the team is needed to function as one - they would need to perform at that level or their year end performance ratings will be affected and their salaries and bonuses will get hit. Those things will hurt then individually so they got the "what's in it for me" part of behaving as professionals and not children in the team.

On subsequent thoughts, this is a classic case of a dilemma. Whatever decision one takes, it is bound to leave some stakeholders unhappy. There can never be a perfect solution to this situation.

When decision making gets difficult it's best to have a decisive project manager. One who isn't afraid to make the hard decisions, even when it calls for compromise that leaves many not-so-happy.

Muhammad Oumair Khan
Hello Lynda,

Being Project Manager, I also know the over all behavior of my team and i am aware of there expectations in terms of fair and justice so i need to make a rational decision. The better solution would be either to separate their jobs with in the project and different tasks may be given to them so that they remain present but be at arms length to each other.

I also would consider the emotional attachment of the team members to their colleagues removing any one is not the good solution because that can create further problem and can create an atmosphere of insecurity among the other team members.

The best idea should be have a word with them firstly one by one and then together and divide their tasks and if a strong decision is needed then the teams trust must be kept in mind in order to get better performance and maintain a good organizational atmosphere.

I am a newbie to Project Management. Please let us know whether this solution will work. I believe there is a huge person dependency on the project. I personally hate one or two person to dictate the team's ability and there by the success of the project. My first thing as a PM is to tighten the 'Process approach' rather than a dependable 'person approach'. I will encourage each team member to document and define the process for each and every activity. Once this is achieved then any person can able to work as there is a pre-defined process for all the activity. As a short term measure, I informed both the individuals that Project success is more important than any other thing. Though there are some differences, we as a team need to address them towards the success of the project.

Atul Jadhav
Hi Lynda, When you mean romantic I guess they are not married. Such things are unavoidable in the team. 1. However as a Project Manager one should always have an "eye" on what is going around and take some remedial measures immediately. Manager cannot interfere in team members life outside office hours. 2. Proper allocation of work should have been done to both when the relationship was sensed first. If the relationship would have succeeded then it could have posed a problem of work bias. 3. Take a long term solution approach. If the productivity in near term drops to 25% let it be. For the long term solution take the team and customer in confidence and replace both. With Due Regards Atul

Preeti Kanwar
Project Managers can not afford to be emotional yet they have to be people oriented.

Project manager's position is very sensitive and tricky. If you are too soft, your project management is at stake but at the same time if you are too strict and take emotionless decisions your rapport at organization level is at stake where no member wants to work for you.

Ensure to build up the backups and terminate both but at the same time ensure to take other key team members in confidence so that they realize the reason and justification of your action.

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