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See title. Description below.

I am the project leader for a research effort with a small team (< 10 people), with a multi-year schedule. One of the things I do when communicating with my team, either individually or as a group, is to remind them of each other's requirements in order to continue and complete their tasks. In other words, during a meeting, if person A says, "I need ______ by _____ from person B" I ask person B "What can I/we do to help make this happen on time?" I believe that explaining how their work affects others helps them understand the importance of their work and the importance of taking responsibility for their work and maintaining accountability.

Some of my teammates are better at scheduling than others. I've learned that in order to ensure that teammates own their tasks and have agency in getting them done, to let them choose their due dates as long as those dates are reasonable and don't adversely affect anyone else's tasks and the project overall. If they need help, I'm there to help do whatever needs to be done, or get them the help they need to be successful.

On more than one occasion, a teammate has set task due dates for themselves, then changed them. Reasons for the delay vary, and I always ask what I and the rest of the team can do to help prevent those delays in the future. I make it clear to them that their delays are affecting other people and that they need to work more cooperatively. I try to avoid micromanaging, but on a few occasions, I tried setting the due dates myself, which did not make any difference with this teammate. When I ask what I can do to help, they say "nothing, I'll take care of it." When I follow up with "this has happened before, what can we do to prevent it from happening again?" they become defensive. Other times, they claim ignorance about having had prior issues with delays and schedules.

Whenever this person comes to my office, I ask that they please bring a pen and paper to take notes to ensure that we're on the same page. If they don't bring one, I ask them to bring one, at which point they leave and do not return. More recently, if they don't bring one, I give them a pen and paper for our discussion. When they call, I send a follow up email so there is a record of what we discussed. When they email, I follow up similarly.

I feel like I am doing a lot of this teammate's job for them because they seem to know I care about the success of the project enough to step in and get the work done. I feel they take advantage of this fact. If I let them fail, then the whole team and project fails unless I do something.

How can I help this teammate be accountable for their task and scheduling without micromanaging them?

Full disclosure: I am not this teammate's supervisor (semi-matrix, semi-hierarchical organization in the public sector/government), so I can't put them on a Personal Improvement Plan, or remove them from the team. I have provided feedback to the teammate's supervisor and mine, but beyond that I have very little recourse, and neither my supervisor nor this teammate's supervisor have had any affect on performance from conversations. As this is government, it's very tough to fire someone, and poor-performers are typically dealt with via attrition: poor performers are not put on future projects after their current projects finish. Although it is a govt. organization, if you don't have enough project work to pay your salary, you are not paid, also known as "Leave without Pay" (LWOP). If you are on LWOP for long enough, you will likely be let go, but this is also a slow process. So, I'm stuck with this teammate for at least another 15 months.

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    I'm a bit confused, how are you leading a project without having even some nominal power over people in the team? What exactly is your own responsibility
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 28, 2023 at 14:39
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    Sounds more like facilitating than leading, someone with power/authority needs to be involved. OP won't get anywhere without backing
    – cdkMoose
    Jun 28, 2023 at 14:55
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    Estimating work durations is incredibly hard, even more so in a research project where the requirements are more fuzzy. How much difference between estimate and actual time are we talking about? Days? Month? The only real chance I see for your team to get stuck less often is to try to make people less dependent on each others work.
    – BDL
    Jun 28, 2023 at 15:11
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    @TymoteuszPaul: that is quite normal for a multi-functional team in a matrix organization. Engineers report into their functional manager, but day to day work is guided by the project manager on the project(s) they are working on. I once ran a multi-million dollar development project with a team of 30+ people but no formal reporting authority. Works well, if done well (as always)
    – Hilmar
    Jun 28, 2023 at 15:25
  • @Hilmar I mean, were you then responsible for delivery of the project? When you say guided that implies mostly advisory thing, so while no power, also no real responsibility if things go wrong.
    – Aida Paul
    Jun 28, 2023 at 15:27

1 Answer 1

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  1. Use a good project management tool. Capture all tasks, deliverables, dependencies, schedule, resource, etc. Full visibility: everyone can see what they and everyone else is on the hook for by when at any time.
  2. One version of the truth: burn the pens, shred the paper, block the e-mails and disconnect the phone. The PM tools is the ONLY place where tasks get captured and tracked.
  3. Update collaboratively, if you discuss a task, a deliverable or a schedule display the tool on a shared screen. Update right then and there in front of everyone. Ask "does that look ok?" "Have I captured this correctly?" "Do you guys all agree with that plan" "do you really thing that's enough time?"
  4. Do a weekly team meeting for schedule & Task review, cross functional alignments, discussing the impact of the most recent executive curve ball and check in how things are going.
  5. If you have problem people that consistently miss deliverables or deliverables (quality or timing), engage their functional manager (FM). "Alice is has problems estimating task duration correctly, how do you want to handle this?" It's the FMs job to pick a course. Could be to do it themselves, could be to assign a mentor, could be to have help scoping, etc."
  6. Once the plan is mature enough and he team is in the swing of things, your focus becomes exception handling and crises management. If there are no exceptions and crises you can sit on the beach and sip Martinis.

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