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Background: I worked for an organisation that delivered services to a number of public sector clients, geographically dispersed. A series of security-related changes were required to allow one such client to comply with centrally-mandated security policies. Most of these changes were not technically demanding, but the volume was very high.

The senior manager on site was a technical manager who reported into a different leg of the organisation from me. There is no question about his technical skills or knowledge of what had to be done, but he was recognised as being a big personality who had his own agenda and his own views on the importance of this work.

The technical manager knew more about the client than I did, and because he was based on site there, had a strong personal relationship with client staff. I was based elsewhere, and had been parachuted in to create and run a project to deliver the things that this technical manager had failed to deliver in the past. His "reason" for failure to deliver in the past was that he could not be expected to both manage the technology and run the project - hence my involvement.

Situation: I established the project, created the WBS, got the technical manager's agreement to the plans, presented the plans to the client, and started to push out work packages, which the technical manager accepted. He then failed to deliver any of the work within timescales, and, worse than that, started to undermine me in meetings with the client, saying that his estimates had been misinterpreted, and the client expectations were unreasonable. Given his personal relationship with the client, he was able to persuade the client that he was right, and he effectively hung me out to dry . His line manager would not intervene at this stage. I ended up delivering an incomplete project late, and finally got the technical manager's line manager to step in to support me, and we did enough to allow the client to pass the security review - but no-one ended up happy.

Question: What could / should I have done?

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I think the discussion in front of the client was an unhealthy result of some sort of source issues. A few ideas what might be wrong:

  • If such blame game happens on the meeting with the customer it means that there's friction between you and technical manager, but more importantly, that you haven't agreed common statement before the meeting. For this example it doesn't really matter what kind of excuse or explanation you were going to use but it should be something you both support, at least in front of the customer.

  • You haven't written what happened after the first slip. It shouldn't be left alone until the client get pissed. First missed delivery, or couple of them, was the moment where you should have started looking for reasons why things aren't going as planned. There should be some discussion between you and technical manager on what was going on, and then what were you going to tell the client (see above).

  • If you have agreed how to talk with the client, but nevertheless the technical manager ignored your arrangements, it was the time to act. First I'd talk directly with him, but if there was no reaction I would bring the issue to the attention of his manager and mine as well. Such behavior is a big hit on reputation of the whole organization so if you two couldn't solve it without any help it was a good time to call for some.

  • I've accepted this as an answer as it confirms what I felt... I should have done more, and sooner, to deal with the issues before they developed so far. We (I) established poor controls, failed to intercept problems early enough, and did not establish my authority adequately. It was, I have to say, a real wake-up call for me in terms of keeping my finger on the pulse and changing my default from "trust unless proven untrustworthy" to "don't trust until trust is earned". – Iain9688 Apr 5 '11 at 13:46
  • Well, I really like "trust unless proven untrustworthy" approach. Actually that's the thing I wouldn't change. I'd just act quicker when I see first signs of untrustworthy behaviors. – Pawel Brodzinski Apr 5 '11 at 15:02
  • Pawel, I don't disagree with you in principle, but if I trust people, I am less likely to see untrustworthy behaviour as early as I should. Taking the opposite stance means that I now look for problems so that I can fix them, rather than hoping that I don't find problems. Sad but true, and not the way that I would prefer to work. – Iain9688 Apr 5 '11 at 19:29
  • Iain, actually, when it comes to people, I prefer to start with optimistic assumption (I trust you) and get disappointed at some point in time than the other way around. So well, if I convinced you to do something opposite it definitely wasn't the goal. – Pawel Brodzinski Apr 5 '11 at 23:35
  • Pawel, the decision to change my stance was mine, not influenced by your comments. This project was some time ago, and I still have an optimistic outlook on peoples' ability to do the right thing. I just don't relax until I see the good stuff starting to happen, but with a good team, that doesn't usually take long. – Iain9688 Apr 6 '11 at 6:32
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It seems the project could it drive more accountability to all individuals. For what I understand the technical lead was not on-board with his own estimates, or they were misinterpret. A similar situation happen to me in a medium size project, and I ended up asking for approvals and description of each estimate, so that we did not have that situation.

Also, you cannot do much about the relationship between client and technical lead, but you can request and request again until it happens to be in the loop at all times.

One more thing, mid-project milestones will let you know if your tech lead is failing to meet those, allowing you to escalate earlier in the game.

Hope that helps. Geo

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He then failed to deliver any of the work within timescales

What could have been done?

Wondering why the situation reached this point?

  • Was wasn't the technical output progress monitored?
  • Why wasn't the slippage (when viewable over the horizon) raised (with tech manager's line manager) and addressed earlier?
  • What were the (direct) accountability criteria were for the technical manager ?

[he] started to undermine me in meetings with the client

I ended up delivering an incomplete project late

This is highly unacceptable behavior and in my previous experience such a situation has invited "disciplinary behavior" irrespective of whatever level the person is on and of whatever relationship he has with the client.

Such a reprimand should happen (through the tech manager's line manager) and moving forward, ideally only one party should be managing the relationship with the client and that should be you, so such a farce should be avoided in the future.

This message should go out loud and clear to the tech side and it should be from you.

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