Handling the Transition of Key Project Resources  

Losing a key project resource can be devastating to any project.  And the reality of it is that the project manager rarely has much say in who they can keep and who they can lose. 

In a professional services organization and a matrix management environment the most visible and/or mission critical project is going to win out – and it just has to.  The PM is usually only going to be changed out for two reasons:  a very extreme need for his/her leadership on a key project or poor performance. Why?  Because they are the face of the project and if things are going at least fairly well, few are brave enough to rock that boat.  But with project team members – while possibly even more critical to the success of the team but more faceless on some projects – they tend to get moved around as needed in some organizations.

The real problem is, on some projects – especially technical projects where skill sets and specific technical knowledge can be critical to the success of the project - the business analyst or the technical lead become just as visible if not more so than the project manager once the project moves from ‘planning’ to ‘doing.’  Replacing one of them can be like replacing your staring quarterback mid-way through the season.  It may help or it may hurt, but it will definitely change the team chemistry and it will definitely affect how the other side reacts and responds…in this case the other side being the customer.

So how do you deal with such a major change at mid-stream on your project?  There are definitely several things to consider:

  • How will it affect team chemistry?
  • How will it affect the comfort level of your project customer?
  • What will happen to the resource’s tasks in progress?
  • Will the project budget be affected?
  • Is the right replacement skill set available in time to make a smooth transition?

These are all real concerns and none can be taken too lightly.  However, you are to the point where you have no choice – no method of negotiation – to keep the resource and you must align all actions with moving forward and finding the right skill set as quickly as possible to replace the outgoing resource.

When this happens it’s best to follow three key steps to make the transition as smooth as possible for everyone involved…

Inform the project customer.  At the first sign that a key resource is going to be moved off the team, go to the customer.  They need to hear it first from the project manager to keep confidence in the PM and the communication flow high.  Understandably, there’s no easy way to do this without the customer feeling a great deal of impact.  Take it to the customer, explain the situation and outline with them the steps you are taking to find the right replacement.  This is all about the comfort level and confidence level of the customer.

Work with your senior management.  If you’re working in a matrix organization, then someone takes the resource requests and turns them into real resources.  You must work closely with that person to find the right resource because you’re not dealing with a new project – you’re dealing with a customer who has an existing relationship with a key resource you are losing and you’re in grave danger of losing a lot of customer confidence if the transition is handled poorly.  Work with this resource manager to get the right resource as quickly as possible.

Begin the transition.  How you onboard the resource can sometimes be as important as the resource itself.  It’s best if you can slowly transition with the new resource shadowing the outgoing resource for 2-3 weeks.  This is usually the best way to keep customer satisfaction at its highest.  If this is not possible, then the weight of taking over tasks and transitioning the new resource into the project successful falls to the project manager and the rest of the team.  However it’s going to be done, the key is to be open and honest with the customer about how the transition will be taking place and who will be responsible for the outgoing resource’s tasks during the transition.  At this point, over-inform, rather than under-inform, the customer.


Being thrown into this situation by your management team is never easy for the project manager – and it often happens unexpectedly.  Quick customer communication, honesty, a smooth transition to the new resource, and close management of the learning curve are the best things the project manager can help to make a reality in order to keep customer satisfaction and confidence high and help a change like this to have minimal impact on project performance.

What about our readers?  What are your experiences with losing a key resource?  What strategies have you used – successfully or unsuccessfully – to manage the process and try to minimize project, customer and team impact?

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