Avoiding using Ultimata in Project Management

01 December, 2014

At one point, the American band, The Grateful Dead, had to confront its lead guitarist, Jerry Garcia, about his heroin addiction. They were frustrated by Garcia’s erratic performances and wanted him to sort himself out. So they presented him with an ultimatum: Heroin or the band. Heroin won and now Jerry Garcia is dead (although history does not record whether he is grateful for this or not).

That is the problem with using the ultimatum: forced into a corner, the recipient can behave quite irrationally and pick the option that damages both parties. When faced with a no-win situation, a project team member might decide: if this is going to hurt me, I might as well hurt you as well. This is something that needs to be considered before a Project Manager confronts a team member with a “shape up or ship out” decision.

In the classic western movie, Shane, Walter Brennan’s character has one telling line: “When you pull a gun, kill a man”. In other words, never make a threat that you are not prepared to follow up on. Better still do not make threats at all. Bullying your team into submission might get over the current crisis, but will not be effective in the long run.

For the Project Management Professional (PMP)® entering into the Manage Project Team process, s/he is often faced with team members who are under-performing for one reason or other. The important thing to do first is to identify the issue clearly. What is this person doing that is detrimental to the team and the project? This can be an interesting exercise: you might not be able to quantify anything wrong! In this case the problem could be with you – you simply might not like the person! You might not appreciate their sense of humour, object to their dress sense or be put off by their politics, but maybe these factors actually do not impinge on the work getting done?

But if there is a problem – work taking longer than scheduled, shoddy work that needs several attempts to get right or even too much work being done (what PMPs® will call Gold Plating) – then the second step in the process is to draw the problem to the team member’s attention. It is amazing how often Project Managers sit fuming in their offices, while the offending team members go about their business blissfully ignorant of the headaches they are causing. Just because the Project Manager is unhappy with the person’s work, does not mean that team member shares that view.

So it is important, before you start ranting about shaping up or shipping out, to sit down with the offending team member and clearly state what the problem is. Also, make it clear what damage the problem is causing – again in purely objective terms. So show how the schedule is falling to pieces because of late deliveries or how much reworking shoddy work is costing. Make it clear that the situation cannot continue and then open the meeting up for discussion.

Even focusing on the problem there is still a chance that the team member will be defensive and offer excuses, or try to blame others. Do not be surprised if s/he tries to turn the problem back on you – blaming unrealistic schedules, or poor equipment for the problems. This is where project management training comes into play: explain the constraints that the project is under – the schedule is tight because of a hard deadline; the budget is constrained because this is a small company.

Of course, be open to genuine issues. The person might have personal issues that have affected performance during the project. There might be project-related issues too – which may not have been obvious from previous project reports. It can happen that the root cause of this problem was mentioned before, but not acted on. It could turn out that your own inattentiveness could be why this situation arose. It is much easier to admit a failure with your project management work when you are calmly discussing the issue than if you introduced the topic using threats and insults.

Once you have determined the root cause of the problem and it is clear that it is due to the team member, you will need to agree some corrective actions. The person may need some extra support because they simply cannot do the job on their own. Alternatively, they might not want to do this particular task. This can be overcome by planning more appealing work down the line – do well on this task and we will get you into the area that you really want to work in.

At the end of the day, you might have no alternative but a shape up or ship out ultimatum. The important thing is to have both parties clear on the problem and its cause before you do that. Also, if the ship out option is required, make sure that you can make this happen – remember Walter Brennan.

Velopi’s PMP® exam preparation courses cover the Project Human Resource Management knowledge area and rest of the material you need to obtain PMP® certification. Please visit our training page or contact us directly for more details.

By Velopi Seamus Collins

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