I am currently part of a project team evaluating the products of a vendor to develop an integrated solution to several of our legacy systems.

I am not the project manager on this particular project, but the designated project manager and I have a very good professional relationship, and I know that she values my feedback on project management issues.

Our main problem is the volunteer we are working with.

Our parent organization is a non-profit, membership-based organization with a small core of full-time and temporary staff. However, it is common for these staff members to delegate decisions or even entire projects to volunteers from within the organization.

We have been told by the parent organization staff member (let's call him Bill) who brought this volunteer (we'll call him Mike) on board that he (Bill) "doesn't understand the technical details", so Mike was brought on to "tell him if our plan makes sense".

Unfortunately, the volunteer sees things very differently. He has made it very clear that he feels he is the project manager, and attempts to take charge of every meeting, regardless of whether it is an internal meeting or one with our vendor.

We have repeatedly asked Bill to speak with Mike and clarify his role, as Bill consistently tells us that Mike's role is simply to act as a SME. Each time Bill says he'll talk with Mike, but after every conversation where this has supposedly been "fixed", Mike demonstrates the exact same type of behavior.

While it might seem easier to simply let Mike lead, it has become very clear that doing so would be a disaster. His background is from a relatively small IT environment (albeit in a leadership role), but his project management skills are non-existent. He has yet to fulfill his role as SME, and has literally wasted months of project time by providing irrelevant documents, attempting to radically redefine the scope of the project, and generally causing problems.

I have already told my management team that I do not believe the project can succeed until the problem with Mike is fixed. Both my supervisor and the project manager agree with that statement and openly support it. However, due to the politics it seems like we have to proceed anyway.

Are there any strategies that can minimize the damage that Mike will do, while acknowledging the political necessity of not insulting him? I keep holding out hopes that he'll be pulled from the project, but it seems unlikely.

6 Answers 6


Mike is doing exactly what Bill asked, as evidenced by, "tell him if our plan makes sense," and reinforced by several role confirming, fixing conversations that have changed nothing in Mike's behavior. In fact, with the order of "tell me if their plan makes sense" as his mission, Bill has given Mike some accountability of project success and, with it, authority. Therefore, you can expect no change from Mike's behavior.

This is a common symptom of role ambiguity; or role sharing; or unclear, blurry scope lines between roles. There is only one fix: remove one of the roles.

So I guess the PM's alternatives are 1) to do nothing and continue plugging along with the project's success and her reputation at severe risk or 2) to escalate in a very formal way--face-to-face meeting with all required principles, documented--with the outcome of role clarity, e.g., he or she goes away, as a desired result.

Alternative #1 is not really an alternative with a good ending so I think escalation is your best bet.

  • Option #2 is exactly what we've been pushing for. So far it hasn't happened, but we keep trying.
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:38
  • Your PM's reputation and project success are at severe risk; in fact, it might be imminent at this stage. If she is unable to get them to the table, she needs to have the guts to remove herself from the situation. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 20:10
  • You hit on a good point. This is a role ambiguity issue not a volunteer issue. I have seen similar situations in For Profit too.
    – MathAttack
    Commented Feb 8, 2012 at 18:13

The project manager needs to have an open and frank conversation with Mike. You will need to set down clearly what expectations are, what he should focus his efforts on, and where he will be able to make the most meaningful contribution.

Ideally do this informally and try to spin the conversation so that he isn't being blamed for not understanding his role, for example by starting by saying "Mike, I may not have clearly defined team roles as well as I should have....".

Remember to be considerate about his perspective. If he has experience limited to a small company he probably just doesn't know what he doesn't know. It can be hard enough re-educating someone who has bad habits, let alone one who hasn't had a good role model in the past. The vast majority of people are rationale and reasonable. Mike almost certainly has a good reason for why he is doing what he is doing. Once you establish that you can work with him rather than against him.

  • The problem is that the Project Manager has had this conversation already, several times. Mike doesn't have confusion about what the PM says his role is; he just disagrees. It's clear that you're right about him not knowing what he doesn't know. Unfortunately, he's stated repeatedly how much experience he has on this type of project, and has made clear that he considers himself an expert.
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:33
  • One option is to get a second SME to provide balance. You could keep Mike around but with him competing with someone. Hopefully Mike would then either shape up or ship out on his own. If he does ship out at least you have Plan B in place and can give Mike's work to the new guy.
    – Doug B
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:52
  • A second option is to revisit the value added by having Mike on board. He may be politically "necessary", but at some point the cost of having him around will have to outweigh the benefits. This is a discussion the Project Manager should have with the executive ultimately responsible for project success.
    – Doug B
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:54

I feel your pain. Politics with volunteers can be very tough because oftentimes there is an unknown, hidden element at play that you may or may not be aware of. For example, perhaps "Mike" is somehow affiliated with a large donor to your non-profit and your management is simply allowing him to volunteer as a favor.

Since he's a volunteer, and since your boss has affirmed repeatedly that "Mike", is just the subject matter expert, my suggestion would be to use him as the subject matter expert, but stand firm in any decisions you make and be very clear when you disagree.

I'm assuming you have a project manager on the project. If you and "Mike" do disagree on something and cannot come to an agreement, casually suggest pushing it back to the project manager and ask him/her to make the decision. Just be sure to do it professionally.

  • So far Mike has provided no useful information on the topic he's supposed to be SME on, primarily because he doesn't think it is possible to document the requirements (it's too "big" to document). We can't push back to the PM because Mike insists that he's the PM, and ignores anything the actual PM says.
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:35
  • Can't you just go about your business and do your thing? It doesn't sound like "Mike" has any real tasks or deliverables, so why not just say "noted" and move on? What kind of real, authoritarian power does this guy have over you? To be safe, you might have a very frank conversation with your PM and say "I'm going to do X despite what 'Mike' says." Or, if that's not going to work, just remember this phrase: "It's better to beg for forgiveness later than ask for permission now."
    – jmort253
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:40
  • The actual power this guy has is that Bill needs to give his approval in order for the project to actually go through (Bill is a primary stakeholder), but he's essentially said "I don't know what all this stuff is, so I'm trusting Mike to be the one to give my approval".
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 19:58

Lyssa Adkins provides advice to agile coaches on how to handle conflict in a team. the short form is, it's not the agile coaches job. This extends further, it's not the manager's job, it's not the project manager's job. It's the teams job to resolve.

When a team member comes to an agile coach with a complaint (she uses really bad body odor as a great example), then you ask them a series of questions. 1- Have you shared your concerns an feelings about this with ? 2- __ should know of your concern. Would it help if I go with you? 3- May I tell ____ that you have these concerns?

The point here is the only people who can resolve the issue with "Mike" is you and the project manager (who in this case is part of the team as well as the PM). You can talk to "Bill" all you want, but that's going to filter any message through him and we've seen that doesn't work.

Have you sat down with "Mike" and discussed roles and objectives? The team needs to make sure they are all on the same page (We are building a Ford Pickup truck. "Wait, I thought we were building a Chevy SUV?") and need to understand clearly what everyone is doing ("I thought you were picking William Shatner up from the airport?" "Me, I thought you were."

A good project manager or coach can facilitate these conversations but in the end, only the team can solve them.

Buy Mike a cup of coffee and have a chat.


It would seem that what you have not addressed is "why is he poisonous ?", is it because he is attempting to sabotage the project or is it because there are fundamental differences as to what is to be done? You state:

He has yet to fulfill his role as SME, and has literally wasted months of project time by providing irrelevant documents, attempting to radically redefine the scope of the project, and generally causing problems.

Since you have not stated the exact goal of the project, lets hypothetically assume it is to build a new datacenter. Further lets assume that you are attempting to build a traditional datacenter. Lets also assume that for whatever reason (like perhaps that is what Bill wants) Mike is intent that the datacenter have a zero carbon footprint and be powered entirely with renewable energy. In a case like this isn't it entirely possible that you would end up in a quite similar situation?

Mike would be wasting your time with "irrelevant" documents like how to use wind turbines and solar energy (which have nothing to do with YOUR datacenter). Then when you come in with project plan for your building he would attempt to "radically redefine" the building materials being used pushing for renewable materials like wood instead of plastics etc.


From your comment:

In this case, from our perspective the project (which we have initiated, and are funding) is a software/database implementation. From his it is a "technology plan" that involves components that have no relation to the vendor, project, or the stated interests of any of the stakeholders, such as cell phones and printers.

I used to work on methodology for a major firm and one of our key concepts was the "hexagon of change" in which we stated that virtually any project would involve six domains to a greater or lesser extent, namely: process, organization, location, data, applications and technology. One of the things we would ofter observe was that firms would undertake to implement new systems without providing adequate planning or funding for training.

In your case you are viewing this as a "software/database implementation", and it may very well be that your stakeholders are viewing it in an equally narrow way. That however does not change the fact that there may be (I am not saying that there are, I do not have enough information) other factors which are critical to overall success of the organization and it's mission. Is there perhaps a legitimate difference of opinion between you and Mike as to the importance and relevance of these other factors which you consider to be "out of scope"?

  • I had actually started to detail all the ways in which he was poisonous to the project, but it came across as too much of a rant, so I removed the details. However, you are correct as to there being fundamental differences as to what needs to be done. In this case, from our perspective the project (which we have initiated, and are funding) is a software/database implementation. From his it is a "technology plan" that involves components that have no relation to the vendor, project, or the stated interests of any of the stakeholders, such as cell phones and printers.
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 20:51
  • In response to your edit, no, there is not a legitimate difference of opinion here. Based on conversations with Bill, Mike appears to be confused between his charge in this project and a separate committee appointment relating to technology use. Mike is taking that committee appointment to mean that this project includes documenting (not necessarily changing) every bit of technology in use by the parent org.. Mike has repeatedly demonstrated lack of familiarity of basic PM techniques, resists drafting requirements as "too big" of a task, and overestimates his knowledge of technology.
    – Beofett
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 12:50

I see two possibilities to understand Mike's behavior (keeping in mind that he is a volonteer): 1: Mike is "blinded" and is not able to evaluate his own competence, potential and abilities as a project manager. Maybe then refer him to a mentor if it is possible. He could joint another team after a training session. Maybe hire him. 2: He really wants to have his chance to take more responsabilities. Maybe he had a bad experience in the past and want to have a second chance, pushing a little bit. The other thing would be that your senior manager wants to influence your project, using Mike to destabilize your planification: a kind of an ideas shock. I would put Mike in charge of a part of your project. Keep an eye on him and coach him (become his mentor). Maybe there is a chance that you can seize in your situation and improuve what you have in mind (what you wanted to acheive with your project before Mike's arrival) with Mike's and others input (participative management). It is more work, but the degree of motivation and innovation will increase rapidly in your team dynamic. We all deserve a break, someone to give us our first chance in the business world.

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