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PM Focus: Winning a War Against Attrition

PM Focus: Winning a War Against Attrition

If you’re in the project management realm, there’s a good chance you’ve dealt with unplanned departures in the middle of your project. When two-week notices start to pile up, it can truly wreck your delivery plans.

Dealing with team member attrition is one of the most difficult challenges that we have to coach clients through. The standard reaction is to load more work onto the remaining team. However, that only leads to resentment, lowered morale, and ultimately, more attrition. 

“Attrition is like an infectious disease, if not controlled effectively, in time, it can spread to the masses and … adversely affect the business.” –Mohanty

It is incredibly important to be strategic in reacting to a mounting attrition problem. The goal is to minimize delivery impact while maximizing energy and motivation within the ranks.

Standard project management teachings will lay out the appropriate programmatic response. However, experienced managers can give you the right tools to deal with people dynamics.

If you are currently dealing with attrition issues, or want to know what to do should you encounter them in the future, read on for strategies that can save your project.

1. Bolster Morale

Have a great team culture

Healthy culture and morale go hand in hand.  It’s simply impossible to have one without the other. They will form the social and psychological environment of the project. As stated by Deloitte,

“Organizations that create a culture defined by meaningful work, deep employee engagement, job and organizational fit, and strong leadership are outperforming their peers and will likely beat their competition in attracting top talent.”

This also applies to retention. Team members who feel connected to a shared vision are more likely to commit to see the effort through to the end. Some ideas to help keep your culture fresh and empowering include:

  • Maintain team focus on the impact of the project to the mission or business
  • Communicate a clear vision for the team’s future
  • Recognize and reward accomplishments
  • Maintain equity in work distribution and opportunities
  • Provide windows for growth and advancement
  • Mix things up so that assignments don’t become mundane or boring
  • Listen actively to team member ideas and proposals

Practice Transparency

Trust and credibility is a vital part of overcoming adversity in any circumstance. It only follows that honesty and openness is an essential component of healthy team morale. People like to be dealt with honesty. We all appreciate and respond well to leaders who provide timely updates and set clear expectations. 

If you attempt to hide or downplay the coming changes and their impact, you will only serve to undermine your own credibility. Don’t do it. Instead, let the team know what you are doing to mitigate the impact of losing a team member and offer to listen to their input and ideas.

2. Minimize Your Vulnerability

Heroes need side-kicks

As a PM, having high-performing rock-stars as part of your team is quite the nice luxury. However, what happens when your superhero employee who has massive institutional knowledge decides to move on? Will they leave a huge hole in your project timeline?

It’s never a good idea to get in the way of progress and efficiency by creating redundancy. It’s also never a good idea to allow single-threaded work to create high impact risks. Your job as the PM is to strike the right balance between the two. Some approaches that can help you find balance include:

  • Maintain a collaboration space where important knowledge and artifacts are kept
  • Conduct design reviews focused on knowledge sharing
  • Have junior and new team members shadow senior workers to learn the ropes
  • Spread out work assignments across functional areas or layers and rotate frequently
  • Practice paired or group assignments where applicable

Know Your Weak Points

Sound PM practices require you to identify, rate, and mitigate your risks. If your schedule depends on the creative work of your team, then their potential departure is a risk. 

Do you know which items within your project deliverable are most critical? The most complex? Are they documented? Who knows how they work?

Answering these types of questions allows you to assess your where you can be damaged by a key loss. If your top performer wins a windfall lotto jackpot, what activities and items fall on the floor? What is the resulting impact?   

Take Preventative Action

Now that you know which potential impacts are most damaging, decide which of them are unacceptable. List out your available responses and rate them. Your goal should be to optimize efficiency and benefit. For example, can you offer retention incentives to essential team members? Work with senior leadership to decide the best course of action, and move forward accordingly.

3. Have a Solid Contingency Plan

Obviously, it’s impossible to eliminate attrition vulnerability. We don’t want to be on our heels when we receive a departure notice. Instead, we immediately enact our plan. Some elements to think through and include in planning are:

  • Options available to retain the team member(s) (counter-offers, job incentives)
  • Key activities and responsibilities that will need coverage
  • Transition events that must occur prior to departure
  • People or offices within the organization that need be informed and take action
  • Backfill processes and procedures
  • Best and worst case scenarios for delivery impact

4. Understand Why People are Leaving

Know Your Team

We can’t emphasize strongly enough how important it is to engage actively with your team members. Through effective engagement, employees feel valued and understand their contribution(s) to the organization’s core mission. If you are engaging properly, you should know which team members might be unhappy and the source of their frustration. 

You can never please everyone.  However, if the concerns are legitimate or the remedies simple, then by all means, address them. There will always be obstacles outside of the span of your control. However, it is important to have and display genuine empathy for their concerns so that team members know that you are doing everything that you can.

Know Yourself

Now for the hard part. Statistics suggest that almost 40% of employee turnover is caused directly by the immediate supervisor. The remedy can be difficult for all of us. Swallow a dose of humility and take the opportunity to reflect that you might very well be the root cause of the problem. Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback. Don’t be so uptight that a team member would never dare share their true feedback. 

There is no one size fits all management style. However, if your approach is consistently resulting in negative outcomes for otherwise positive situations, be open minded about trying a new approach.

5. Never Stop Recruiting

Recruiting is the life blood of a thriving team. Don’t recruit only when you are understaffed. Once you have developed a sound profile for the type of person that fits well in your environment, never stop looking for them. Mine your sources consistently for new candidates and assess their interest in joining you. Where there is mutual interest, complete the connection. If you don’t have openings at the time, let them know that you would like to re-connect as soon as an opening becomes available.

Through this approach, you can develop a “back bench” of candidates who can potentially expedite the backfill process in a staffing pinch.

6. Coach Your Team Through the Changes

Manage Expectations

One of the biggest mistakes that is often made when combating attrition is to panic. Don’t embark on a hiring spree without consideration for the ramifications to the overall team dynamics. For example, if your new hire incentives do not match retention incentives, the existing team is bound to feel unfairly rewarded for their loyalty.

Another common mistake is to set unrealistic expectations with candidates about roles within the team before re-organization and re-assignment planning is finalized. For example, if you hire a candidate for a role on Task A and then assign them to Task B when they arrive, they can feel misled and you might never gain their trust. 

Embrace Adversity

Teams often reflect the mood and attitudes of their leadership. If you panic and become stressed, your anxiety will poison your efforts to navigate the project back to equilibrium. You’ve got this! Let your confidence be the pillar that holds the team together. Make it is clear that while there will be challenges, as long as every team member steps up and contributes fairly, the team will endure. 

Communicate and negotiate frequently with the team, senior leadership, project sponsors, and stakeholders. Make sure that everyone knows what is occurring, what the impacts are, and what the plan is moving forward.

7. Seize the Opportunity to Enhance Your Team

Yes, you read that heading correctly. The goal should not be to simply survive the unforeseen events of the day, but rather to enact a prescribed plan to increase alignment between team composition and culture. Because you have been diligently working to upgrade your culture, you have a prime opportunity to find the right people who can raise the bar and improve your overall talent mix. Some tactics that you can employ to accelerate positive outcomes include:

  • Re-organize the team to better address delivery needs
  • Promote team members who have demonstrated ability into more prominent roles
  • Re-assign misaligned team members into roles more suited to their skill set

Maintaining a positive attitude can go quite a long way. If you fight this battle strategically with a clear picture of what success look like, you will come out on the other side stronger for the experience.

Conclusion

The simple truth is that attrition and turnover are a part of business.  Especially in today’s evolving work landscape.  However, through preparation and resolve, you don’t have to become a victim of events.  We realize that there are other determining factors not covered in this page, such as market forces, compensation, and employer dynamics. However, we chose to focus on project managers, who have significant influence in winning a war against attrition. We have enjoyed sharing some of the tools that have worked for us and our clients. We would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

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