How to keep your big project going, even after key team members leave

One of the great surprises of the remote and hybrid teams spurred by the pandemic is how productive they have been. A January 2021 PwC report found that the number of employers who said that remote work has been successful for their company jumped to 83% (from 73% just six months before). Technology, broadband internet, and teams ready to embrace remote work facilitated collaboration and productivity. And many team-based businesses were able to find ways to launch and continue projects across multiple teams, even remotely.

But then, the Great Resignation began. Depending on the stats you choose, anywhere from 26% to 55% of U.S. employees are planning on quitting their jobs this year. And that’s a headache for companies that have big, multidisciplinary projects. When a team member—or members—leave a project, institutional knowledge, productivity, and momentum can be lost.

Sean McKean, principal with leadership advisory firm ghSMART is seeing these scenarios play out in real-time daily. He points to a client at a health care company that is overseeing a “huge digital transformation” at his company, and the person leading the project got an offer to go to another company. “So, I think we’re seeing it firsthand at the highest stakes levels. And it’s really important that companies have ways to mitigate these issues,” he says. Here are some moves to make both before and after key team members leave:

Plan like it’s going to happen

When you combine the statistical probability that a key employee will leave a project with Murphy’s Law, chances are that it’s going to happen, quips Eric Verzuh, founder of The Versatile Company, a project management training company, and author of The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management (Sixth Edition). “If you know Murphy’s Law, [it] tells you that not only will you lose that person, but you will lose them at the worst possible time.”

At the project outset, determine how you’re going to capture information so it’s widely available, he suggests. When the loss happens, inform the entire team at the same time so you limit speculation and rumors. In addition, think about how you’ll keep new and existing team members informed of the purpose of the project and how it fits into organizational goals, and how you’ll share information and understanding within and across disciplines. That way, even team members in other disciplines can help bridge the gap when someone leaves.

Build redundancy

While there is such an emphasis on being efficient and productive with everyone’s time, especially on a big project, you also need to build in cross-training and backup for each key role on the team, McKean says. That way, you have one or two other people within the discipline who know what’s going on and can step up to fill the role if need be.

In addition, it’s a good idea to have sessions where team members go out and find out more about the roles of team members in other roles and departments, says Robert D. Haughton, senior consultant with management consulting firm BerryDunn, and whose PhD dissertation, “Exploring Knowledge Retention Strategies to Prevent Knowledge Loss in Project-Based Organizations,” addresses this issue. “Find out what those other teams do, how they run. How do they impact the business?” he says.

If you’re a designer or engineer on a product development team, sit down with the marketing department team member and find out more about their role and how it affects the project. Those active knowledge-sharing sessions can help other departments share the best information to get a new team member up and running faster, he says. In addition, a better understanding of each role can facilitate more effective collaboration and brainstorming.

Always be succession-planning

As you cross-train team members, it’s also important to keep your talent bench deep, McKean says. If you do have a high-impact team member leaving, having a candidate to replace them at the ready allows you to plan some overlap and information-sharing time with the two individuals rather than losing time to decision-making about a replacement.

You also want to have “a really crisp plan on what you want that transition to look like in terms of content knowledge that you expect for this new leader to develop, the individual relationships that are required for them to have, and the most critical kind of potential fail points for the project,” he adds. Waiting to think about these key issues for each role until you’ve lost someone is going to lead to lags in productivity.

Create a clear and comprehensive information trail

While it’s important for teams to be agile and not get bogged down in paperwork, information capture and sharing are also important, Verzuh says. You want to capture enough information about why decisions have been made and what the next steps are (and who is accountable for them) that your team has a roadmap to consult when they need to look back or forward. Some best practices include:

  • Determine how often meetings need to take place for effective information-sharing and schedule them with appropriate team members. Establish accountability for meeting agendas and attendance.
  • Capture meeting notes, including the reason why decisions were made, what the next steps are, and who is responsible for carrying them out
  • Use a uniform collaboration tools (e.g., Slack, Asana, Monday, etc.) to clearly track project steps, progress, communication, and outcomes.
  • Establish a communication hierarchy so the team has norms regarding where information can be found.

This seems like a simple process, but it’s easy for teams to forego such processes, which can lead to the loss of critical knowledge that the team needs to be effective. It should be the job of team leaders to constantly assess risk and act accordingly to have the next best person in line, Verzuh says.

Perform triage if you need it

If you’re leading a team and a key member announces they’re leaving, don’t try to solve the issue on your own, McKean recommends. “A lot of times, what we’ll see is, especially for senior executives, they put all the weight of the world on their shoulders, and how to solve it on their own. But the reality is a lot of people out there that can help them,” he says.

One way to do this is what McKean calls a “talent pop-up.” Bring together HR and a set of cross-functional peers. Look at the scorecard for the role—what’s required for them to deliver in terms of business outcomes and competencies—and brainstorm about who could best fill the role. “You’re going to get lots of great ideas from your peers when you bring that group of people together,” he says. They may even recommend people you’ve never thought of.

Similarly, document the most immediate team needs and actions and identify those people who can fill those roles. In some cases, you may be able to hire temporary or freelance help to fill gaps until you get the team up to speed again.

Trust is an overlooked asset

In his dissertation, Haughton found that team members may tend to keep information to themselves, especially if they felt some sort of threat in the organizational culture. One of his findings was that organizations should work to establish a culture of trust to help employees feel more comfortable with knowledge-sharing. Part of that trust-building is giving employees a sense of ownership and empowerment so they feel like they are valued and making important contributions, he says.

Fast Company