I’ve written before about how to deal with one’s removal from a project. But when it actually happened to me, I gained a better insight into what causes it and the best ways to deal with it.
Set up to fail
We all knew it was going to be a tough project. It was a program actually; five projects that were supposed to interact with each other. But they didn’t. The client had a program manager. He collected information from the various projects. But that information wasn’t shared well among the projects.
The project I was assigned to manage didn’t have an initial scope defined. Our first task was to define the scope. There were many other issues that should have raised red flags from the beginning. It was a very political environment where many people were in fear of losing their jobs. That always creates additional work, frustration and general hoops to jump through.
We met weekly with the client management for status. We never seemed to have the right things prepared. If we spent hours preparing change requests, they focused on a schedule variation. Every weekly status presented a new reason to fail.
About half-way through the five-month project, I felt like we were starting to turn a corner. We had defined the scope and our developers were developing software on schedule. Just about that time, my firm’s top management was scheduled to meet with the client’s top management. They were led to believe it was to discuss additional work, with the client. Instead, it was the proverbial come-to-Jesus meeting.
The firm’s leadership was told that we weren’t helping. Instead of identifying issues, they wanted us to resolve them. If our project succeeded and the program failed, there was no success.
On one hand, there were specific things that were completely out of our hands. We were on the hook for the program’s success. Yet, we were kept out of the loop of critical program information.
On the other hand, there were specific things that I wish I had done differently. I felt I had communicated things that, in hindsight, were not as clear as I thought. For instance, when I talked of scope, I was referring to the scope of the project. The client though of scope in terms of the entire program. When I told them something was out of scope, the client disagreed. We were both right, but the client was more right.
Because the scope was a moving target for several weeks, I couldn’t pin down the true project timeline. We were given an initial budget and a target deadline. I was supposed to fill in the blanks from there. That proved to be difficult and time consuming. And it made me look weak when I couldn’t present a plan within a week or two.
The meeting pointed out a lot of things that were wrong about the project. The way it was initiated and defined as well as the way it was run. Some of those things I could have done better. Some were out of my hands.
The day after the meeting, two of my bosses within the firm took me to lunch “to talk about some of the issues.” After getting through the obligatory – and somewhat painful – small talk, the conversation moved to the previous day’s discussion.
They shared some of the things that were said. They were very good at focusing on the bigger issues. They made it very clear that they didn’t hold me responsible for the problems of the project.
But they did say that they had to make some changes. Some were in the way we approach the client. Some were simply to demonstrate for the client how serious they were. “We’re going to take you off the project,” came soon after that.
As disappointed as I was, I understood. They explained the process to me. They had arranged for another project manager to take over. They asked me to cooperate with the transition. The way it was explained, they needed my input to help manage the project behind the scenes.
I’ve always prided myself on being a team player. This was an opportunity to prove it to myself and to others. I embraced the role.
For the following two or three weeks, I still attended many of the management meetings. I was able to provide historical information on why some decisions were made. I also continued to do some of the project management tasks while the new PM was drinking from the taking-over-an-in-progress-project fire hose.
On the Sidelines
Other changes were implemented as well. Two senior people from the firm started working full-time on the project. They focused on nailing down scope and communicating better between the projects in the program. They attended the weekly client meetings.
As the new project manager came up to speed, and other senior people took on management responsibilities, my role diminished. They still wanted me around for the occasional question that required a historical perspective. They still had me update the occasional spreadsheet. But I quickly became less needed, less relevant, less utilized.
Meetings were being held to which I was no longer needed for historical perspective. I still sat around the team. They were busy turning the project around.
As much as I wanted to be a team player, I personally felt demoralized. I eventually felt like the guy whose girlfriend broke up with him. He couldn’t afford to move out. So he had to sit and watch her having sex with the new boyfriend. As it turned out, the new boyfriend was a pretty nice guy and she was a total psycho bitch. But it didn’t matter. He had to still sit and watch.
I was no longer seen as an “A Player”
It hurt not to feel needed
Regardless of what the management said, i saw it as a failure, I was frustrated
My job was to be there and available just in case. I was the third string quarterback that still got paid to be ready. He just never saw any action. I was the baseball manager that was fired, but was forced to sit on the bench to watch the new manager.
There are probably a few unemployed souls out there without sympathy. “At least you get paid to do nothing.” True. At least I was putting food on the table. But being unutilized is no fun either.
- Other issues: firm didn’t just want to make this project succeed. They needed it to succeed to stay afloat. The sales pipeline was dangerously thin
- In the previous year, the firm had gone through a 10% cutback in their ranks. They were now reporting that they were profitable. But there were no signs of growth. When the current projects completed, where would those employees go?
- You are held responsible for things that are not necessarily in your control. “The first rule of management: It’s always your fault.” – Hopper in “A Bugs Life”
- Always be in risk analysis mode. I’ve always tried to have a positive outlook. I’ve ridiculed people for being worry warts. I thought they were always looking at the dark side. As much as I’ve touted risk analysis in the past, I’ve drank the Kool-Aid. I will raise red flags much sooner and have mitigation strategies in place.
- Communicate well beyond what you think is important. There were times on the project where I would communicate status, deliverables, issues, and other critical items. The client would smile and nod. Then the next day, they would tell their boss that they had no idea what was going on with the project. I initially wanted to punch them in the throat. But I realized that if they don’t understand, it’s on me. I need to communicate until they understand.
- Leadership matters. If your feelings are hurt because you were taken off of a project, or because you are now out of the loop, get over it. Maybe you were treated unfairly. It’s not about you. It’s about the team. Put your feelings aside and do what you need to do to help the team succeed. Get over yourself.
Also, my direct manager made things go much better with her leadership. At a time when other leaders failed to lead, she stepped up. She was a true leader in the way she informed me that I was being removed from the project. She was a true leader in the way she handled things through the rough transition. While it was a difficult period for me, she made it much easier. I sure hope I have the chance to have a boss like her again.
- Shit happens. A successful career is not a constantly upward slope. There are ups and downs. Sometimes you take a hit for something that was completely out of your control. There are other times when you get a lot of credit for other peoples’ hard work. I’d like to think that karma balances everything out. Either way, you have to take the bad days with the good ones.
- Everything works out in the end.
Have you ever been removed from a project? How did you handle it?
As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.
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