The Project Notebook

Transition and Succession Planning for Project Managers

© 2013 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP


You arrive at work on Monday morning and find that your key software engineer did not show up.  You subsequently learn that he was arrested over the weekend for tax evasion for the past 8 years.  The week is tense and you hope you will get your key engineer back – after all, he should be able to make bail and get out of jail.

So he makes bail and returns for a week.  The following Monday he’s gone again.  This time you learn he fled to another country seeking asylum and abandoning his wife and children to avoid prosecution.  Looks like the key engineer won’t ever be available again! Your other engineers tell you he single handedly designed 60%+ of the system and they don’t really know what or how he did it. It’s going to take them months to figure it out.

This example was taken from a real-life. Project failure was imminent as several other major risks became issues.  What’s more, the failure led to a chain of events that effectively put the company involved out of business.

Compounding the issue is the low ranking resource risks typically get on projects.  Yet underlying almost every risk is the element of human behavior. And availability of required skills and talent accounts for a large portion of the human resources risks.  How can this be avoided?

The answer is transition and succession planning.  This human resources process, like budgeting, is often not a direct responsibility for the project manager.  As with budgeting, good project managers that want to deliver quality projects on time will keep an eye on the process.  This is especially important for longer, more complex projects.

Outside of the project environment, this might go by several names such as business continuity planning or professional development.  The key ideas are the same: you want the right people on your project, you want to be sure they are not irreplaceable, and you want to make sure that if a new resource comes on board, they hit the ground running.

The first step is to be sure your project team has clear roles and responsibilities.  For large complex projects, these need to be in writing and more detailed than a simple job description. Having this information is key to effective transition and succession planning.

Transition Planning

Think of transition planning as the on-boarding and exit process for your project team members. When a team member exits for any reason, you generally want to:

  • Make sure you understand the skills that need to be replaced
  • Understand the status of the work in progress and promised deliverables that need to be fulfilled
  • Discuss with the individual how their role may have changed over time
  • Update the roles and responsibilities as necessary
  • Collect any company property (these items should be on a checklist)
  • Get access to any passwords, codes, etc. (these items should be on a checklist as well) that may be needed to carry on work and have the remainder changed or deactivated
  • Depending on company customs, organize a departure gathering or celebration

Depending on how your company operates, you may or may not have an opportunity to participate in the hire or assignment of a new team member.  But when that new team member comes on board, you need to be able to:

  • Introduce them to the team; be sure they become an integral part of the team quickly
  • Describe their actual roles and responsibilities
  • Organize any training or professional development they may need to come up to speed
  • Be sure they have all the tools they need to perform their work (e.g. laptops, application access)
  • Set expectations for initial deliverables and timelines

Smooth transitions, along with scheduling techniques such as crashing (adding more resources) and fast tracking (doing more work in parallel) will help assure the timely and efficient delivery of your project.

Succession Planning

While succession planning at a corporate level can be complex, I like to think of the project version as having only two processes – talent evaluation and talent development. Let’s look at each of these individually.

Talent Evaluation

For project managers, this should not be your standard HR performance review, which can often be based on subjective measures.  The best measure to keep your project on track is based on deliverables.  For each role and responsibility on the project, you expect certain tasks to be completed.  Develop a check list of these tasks and check them off.

In the process, you should observe what other tasks the individual you are evaluating may be capable of completing.  Once a quarter, it will be helpful to sit down with each team member and discuss:

  • Your vision for the future of the project
  • Other roles this individual might be interested in exploring
  • What they hope to gain from the work
  •  Tasks they might complete to grow their capabilities

Completion of talent evaluation (and the identification of talents to develop, will lead you to the next step of the process.

Talent Development

To me, this is the best part of the job.  No matter what industry you work in or what type of work is performed, I’ve always noticed that the real high performing teams address the “what’s in it for me” question with personal and professional development.

As the project progresses, watch for opportunities to shift assignments that may build talents and satisfy needs. As new skills are required for successful project completion, consider carefully who will get that training.  And hopefully, you will network with other project and program managers in the company to see where opportunities for your team may lie.

As a related matter, also ask what roadblocks you can remove and make them more productive.

At one point in my career, I was faced with the challenge of managing a group that was perceived to be underperforming, unmotivated, and a major obstacle in the engineering process.  In less than a year, I was able to affect a complete turnaround, building a highly effective work team and culture, by the following:

  • Identifying roles and responsibilities
  • Identifying key behavioral ground rules for internal and external interactions
  • Forming a team vision with the help of the team
  • Reigning in chaos, but not to the point where innovation was stifled
  • Letting the team know their promotion was a goal
  • Identifying and removing road blocks and speed bumps (inefficiencies)
  • Providing essential professional development opportunities
  • Building work objectives that grew both the individual and the team
  • Cross-training the team – every critical skill had a backup

In less than a year:

  • Team efficiency increased many times, and it was noticed by those we worked with
  • Multiple cost savings were identified and enacted
  • One individual was promoted to another group
  • Everyone loved to come to work every day


PMBOK® Guide, Fifth Edition; PMI 2013
A Diagnostic Approach to Organizational Behavior (Fourth Edition); Gordon; Allyn and Bacon 1993
Identifying & Managing Project Risk (2nd Edition); Kendrick; AMACOM 2009


About the Author:

Ray W. Frohnhoefer is a hands-on executive with strong project, program, and portfolio management skills; a methodologist; and a creative inventor and “intrapreneur”. His leadership qualities have enabled him to save companies millions of dollars by efficiently making complex decisions, solving complex problems, and getting things done, even under pressure. Ray is currently EDmin’s Senior Program Manager for the Student Success Dashboard, a Project Management Instructor at UCSD Extension and a member of PMI’s Chapter Member Advisory Group. As a PMI affiliate, Ray makes project management indispensible for business results. You can contact him at

When Risks Become Reality

 By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

There continue to be an number of disasters around the world, both natural and person-made. Often after a disaster occurs, there is much analysis, second guessing, and finger pointing in an effort to determine what should have been done in advance. A part of the activities needs to focus on the entire project management process of risk identification and assessment to more effectively address other situations in the future.

What We Don’t Know Can Hurt Us

There are many organizations that do not conduct risk activities at any time during projects. There is a tendency to believe that even thinking about potential risks is a time-wasting process that ties up resources and costs more money that it is worth. Project managers who emphasize risk assessment may be viewed as negative and may be told to “lighten up”. Some organizations believe that merely listing a number of risks is sufficient. Others may set aside the list of risks for the future “just in case something happens”. Many risks can be mitigated or entirely avoided with proactive actions. However, organizations often put contingency plans in place without even considering that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

An All-Encompassing Approach

Traditionally, those organizations that practiced limited risk assessment focused their efforts on the identification and prioritization of risks. This approach was founded on the attitude that only the most important risks, those with the highest probability, were worth consideration. Virtually every project has more risks than can ever be addressed. However, there needs to be more effort in the overall assessment activity to specify the true magnitude of risks that have been identified. There are many risks that have such a low probability of occurrence that they would “fall off the radar screen” in a traditional risk assessment process. In order to obtain a more comprehensive perspective on risks, both the probability and the impact need to be identified. Addressing a low probability risk may seem to require a great deal of resources, both human and financial. But — the cost of disaster recovery is phenomenal compared to the upfront prevention costs.

The Domino Effect

Another aspect of risk that is often ignored is that risks seldom happen individually. If one risk occurs, it often triggers the occurrence of other risks. For example, a vendor’s default also impacts the project budget as well as quality of the substitute materials and even the total project outcome. This interrelationship means that even if one risk has both a low probability and low impact, the risk in combination with others may have disastrous impact.

Proactive risk management is a challenging responsibility for project managers. While it often requires strong leadership techniques, risk management is a critical component of successful projects.

 Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

Smaller is Better and More Effective

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2012, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

It seems as if everything comes in larger and larger sizes — including projects. While a giant pizza or a super-sized drink may be refreshing, a large and complex project often seems overwhelming to all participants as well as to the project manager. This article focuses on “small” approaches to major projects.

The presence of many unknowns is one of the most challenging aspects of projects. Regardless of the sources of the unknowns — technical specifications, scientific barriers, market demand, etc. — the project manager is the one who must provide the direction and the methods to convert unknowns into knowns. This responsibility does not mean that the project manager must be the one who conducts the research necessary to solve the mysteries. Rather, the project manager must assess the strengths of the team not only in terms of specific expertise but also in terms of problem identification and solution skills. All the knowledge in the world is useless if it is applied to a symptom instead of a problem. Determining when “enough” information has been assembled is also a critical assessment. Therefore, using a few people who can identify relevant problems and quickly resolve them is more effective than having an entire team running in multiple, counterproductive directions.

Another challenge occurs when a lengthy timeframe is estimated for project completion. Virtually every project of this nature needs to use a phased approach rather than attempting to schedule all of the activities at the beginning of the project. For example, a project to develop a new drug may span many years before the drug is finally brought to market. While a project manager may be tempted to fully populate a Gantt chart with thousands of activities that culminate in product release, a more effective approach is to “plan only what you know”. This technique means that accurate time estimates can be made only for the initial phase of research. The high-level project plan should definitely have milestones and deliverables defined for the full length of the project. However, there is no point in detailed planning beyond the first phase until there are indications of success. Even then, the detailed planning should only extend to the next phase. This practice forces an organization to identify upfront the criteria for success for each phase as well as to require that projects continue to “prove themselves”.

Most large projects require large project teams. In these situations individual participants may feel that their contributions are not necessary or valued. Large project teams provide lots of opportunities for people to “hide” or even “disappear”. Meanwhile, the project manager gets hounded as to why there is not a high volume of work forthcoming from such a large number of team members. Running “lean and mean” (using a small project team) is one method to ensure that each team member has high visibility and accountability. This method is not always practical given the amount of work that may be required to complete a project. In those cases that mandate a large number of participants, a more appropriate technique is to organize the total large project team into smaller teams within the project. Each team has a leader who can be chosen by the project manager or by the team. This method may require a different approach to project planning through specifying more tangible deliverables. However, it also keeps individuals focused on near-term accomplishments with defined responsibilities. Those who choose to “hide” or to attempt to “disappear” are quickly identified before their lack of participation negatively impacts project outcomes. At that point project management mentoring, coaching, and/or disciplining can be initiated in a timely manner.

The main emphasis behind all of the techniques and practices that have been described in this article is that even “super-sized” projects need not be overwhelming for project managers. Whether it’s building an aircraft carrier, chairing a fundraiser, or cleaning the garage, “smaller is better and more effective” when it comes to project management.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

I Just Want Everyone to be Happy!

By:  Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP

Copyright 2011, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

 There are many books, CDs, Internet blogs, and videos as well as numerous seminars that claim that any situation can be framed as “win-win” for all participants.  With so much emphasis on “happiness for all”, project managers are often pressured to sustain euphoria among everyone who is involved with a given project.  It may seen at times that the success of the project is measured by the percentage of “smiley faces” among the project participants.  However, project managers know that there are often unpopular decisions that must be made for the overall good of the project.  While no project manager lasts long if everyone is always unhappy, there are times when s/he may have to make some people temporarily unhappy.

I am leading a “damage control” project for a client organization that has a great deal of public contact.  A former employee consciously ignored a policy that had been developed with much balanced input for the benefit of the organization’s customers.  This individual claimed that customers were happy that the policy was not being followed.  In reality, this individual did not want to deal with any conflict nor take the time to work with customers to explain the policy’s benefits.  I was brought into the organization to lead the project because virtually all of the customers are unhappy, including the vast majority who understand the policy, support it and wonder why flagrant exceptions were made.

An example of a common project management situation that may make some people unhappy occurs when agreement must be reached on a realistic project schedule.  “Drop dead” dates for project completion are often set by individuals who have little or no responsibility in achieving a successful implementation.  It falls to the project manager to investigate what actually needs to be accomplished, to determine what is driving the completion date, and to negotiate an equitable resolution.  In carrying out these activities, the project manager may be subject to ridicule, threats, and angry exchanges.  However, if the project is completed on time because the final schedule is actually realistic, it’s amazing how people forget how “unhappy” they were with the project manager at the beginning of the planning process.

Similarly, some project managers feel that they keep everyone happy when they accept any and all changes that are proposed during the course of a project.  I’ve witnessed some project managers who develop a standard response, such as “We can finish your request in about two weeks”.  This type of response is made with the hope that the requestor will forget the request or that the world will end before the “two weeks” have past.  However, what typically happens is that the project flounders in a sea of “two-week” change requests.  The project manager who only wanted to “make everyone happy” by being agreeable then discovers that not only is everyone unhappy – but that they all expect their requests to be fulfilled.

I leave you with this little twist on a well known saying:  “You can make all of the people happy some of the time.  You can make some of the people happy all of the time.  But you cannot make all of the people happy all of the time (unless you have unlimited access to mood-altering substances).”

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia.  She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices.  Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States.  She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee.  She can be contacted at

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP