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Losing A Key Player Can Derail Your Project

Key players are great to have but, when a key player leaves, there is bound to be disruption. Cultivate and acknowledge key players and be prepared for the time when they will leave to minimize the impact and reduce the likelihood of occurrence.

Related Article: How to Increase Teamwork to Ensure Project Success

What is a Key Player?

A key player is a stakeholder who has an important influence on the outcome. They can be a performer, subject matter expert or manager at any level – an integral part of the project team or a sponsor, functional manager or client. According to the Business Dictionary, a key player is an “Individual whose knowledge, creativity, inspiration, reputation, and/or skills are critical to the viability or growth of an organization, and whose loss may cripple it.” []

In an organizational change project focused on performance improvement, a key player would be:

  • a knowledge holder of the organization culture and environment, its procedures, constraints, people and history
  • able to see both the big picture and the tactical details and the way they are interdependent
  • able to lead stakeholders to make smart decisions that consider all the angles and factors at play while being neutral and non-threatening
  • committed to making the project and all of those working on it successful
  • self-managing and able to run their team with a minimal need for management and supervision from above
  • reliable to competently do what they say they’ll do
  • personable, a good communicator in writing and orally and able to work with minimal authority.

In a more general sense, a key player is an individual who brings an array of skills, knowledge and personal characteristics that are hard to find and which make the individual almost indispensable.

The Impact of Losing a Key Player

Of course, no one is entirely indispensable, and everyone is important to the project outcome. However, a key players’ impact is often proportionally greater than the average stakeholder’s, and they are much harder to replace.

For example, if there are 6 programmers on a software development project, all with roughly equal capabilities and working on well-defined functions, the loss of one of them would impact the schedule, but they would be fairly easy to replace. It is much more difficult to manage the loss of the team-lead who has been onboard for several years, has comprehensive knowledge of the entire product, a sense of where the software fits in the business context, the ability to translate computer-ese into non-technical language, knows the technology intimately and is a strong influencer of how team members relate to the project and one another.

The impact of the loss of this key player will affect the schedule as well as the momentum and direction of the project. This player may be impossible to replace during the course of the project and, maybe, for years to come.

Alternatively, the key player may be a senior executive with vision and a sense of where the project is headed on a strategic level and is willing and able to exercise the will to keep the project funded, staffed and moving in the right direction as things change. Their replacement could take the project in a new direction, re-prioritize the project or add confusion based on a lack of understanding of organizational goals and how they are affected by the project. The replacement could change a healthy dynamic into an unhealthy one if they came to a collaboration-based organization with an authoritarian rather than collaborative approach.

The impact of the loss of a key player is a disruption. Loss of a key player can derail the project. It affects morale, the ability to make the right decisions and the efficiency of having a team member who can cut through with decisive thinking, ask the right questions and motivate the staff.

Be Prepared

As I point out in my forthcoming book on Managing Expectations, don’t expect things to work out exactly the way that you want them to. Change is inevitable. It is wise to expect change and, particularly, disruptive change.

Expecting it doesn’t mean it will happen. It means that you will at least consider it as part of your risk management process and can avoid or minimize the impact of changes, like the loss of a key player, that can disrupt you project.

Being prepared for the loss of a key player involves making sure that there is back up and that key decisions and their rationale are memorialized – written down in easy to retrieve documents. As much as possible, transform tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge.

In addition, it is wise to have a backup – one or two people to work in parallel with the key player and who can pick up the work quickly and effectively if the key player leaves.

However, documentation and backup are not cure-alls. They moderate the impact but do not eliminate it. The key player usually brings more to the table than concrete skills and decisions. Documentation is limited and often falls short of being a true reflection of the decision it is meant to memorialize. Backup people are often not as skilled, not as knowledgeable and not as emotionally and socially competent to do the magic that the key player often does.

Being prepared means having realistic expectations – the loss of a key player is a major and hard to manage event. It will likely impact the schedule, lead to higher costs and can impact the level of the quality of the result.

If you lose a key player, be sure to step back and reassess your plan forward. Manage the change on the people involved through effective communication.

Cultivate and Retain Key Players

Key players are valuable. They are “are critical to the viability or growth of an organization, and whose loss may cripple it.”

When you are fortunate enough to have a key player, make sure you recognize and acknowledge their contribution and value. Sometimes you can do it with money and promotions; often it is done through clearly communicating the message. That communication is not just limited to the individual. Everyone on the team needs to be made aware of the contribution that this person is making and its importance.

Often it is obvious, and everyone knows. However, be aware that there may be denial, resistance or simply a lack of conscious recognition. Some key players may be so good at what they do that they make it seems as if everyone is doing the work themselves. Other key players may be less transparent. Some stakeholders may be threatened by or be jealous of a key player. Relationships must be managed.

You cultivate key players by recognizing the people who have that relatively rare capacity to see the big picture and the details, can manage the work, communicate effectively, have good judgment and can work well with others. Once recognized these people must be put in positions that enable them to learn and fine tune their skills. Put them on a fast track and let them know that you appreciate them and their contribution.

Avoid the workings of the Peter Principle – the idea that people in organizations are promoted until they reach a level of incompetence and that marginally competent managers fail to recognize and promote talented junior people to preserve the hierarchy and the status quo.

At the same time, teach your highly competent people that emotional intelligence, humility and patience with “lesser beings” are at least as important as analytical capability, IQ and content knowledge.

In the end, you want to cultivate and recognize your key players and their value while keeping in mind the risks and challenges they bring.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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