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I am participating in a ~2 years OpenSource computer science project involving my school, we are 8 students joining the development team and contributing to the project.

Half of the members didn't produce any output for a few months, some almost one year. I tried to monitor every week their advancement, they often ignore my emails or reply saying that they are trying but it's hard, or they advance other personal problems.

We are not getting paid, only our degree depends on this project. This is different from any real world situation where people are either involved or getting paid. It's a challenge beyond my skills.

What is the best solution: kick them out, or ignore idle members and reassign them to other tasks?

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    Hi Aki, thank you for putting all this detail in your question. However, PMSE is not a discussion site. Questions like "What would YOU do" or "How would YOU handle this situation" aren't a good fit for the Q&A model. I edited your question to remove the polling parts, but I encourage you to edit your question further, stick to the facts, eliminate extraneous information to make it more concise and easier to understand the problem at hand. Good luck! :)
    – jmort253
    Jun 13 '12 at 13:40
  • @jmort253: Alright, thanks! Done.
    – Aki
    Jun 13 '12 at 13:54
  • Well done! :) +1
    – jmort253
    Jun 13 '12 at 17:44
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I faced a similar problem when working on a group project for my degree.

The first thing I'd question is if you actually have the authority to remove people from the team, especially if the project has been underway for more than a year. Are you in a supervisory position? Do the terms of your assignment allow you to democratically remove other team members? If you decide to go down this route, fully consider all possible consequences, as the people being 'removed' will presumably object to this, and might take actions against the other team members in response.

Also, consider that regardless of other outcomes, the assignment will definitely look like a failure in at least one respect ('person management', 'good teamworking' etc) if the team is broken up in this way.

And - although it's difficult when some people are clearly doing far more work than others - in the absence of objective proof, I think you have to give people the benefit of the doubt if they claim to have personal problems. If nothing else, consider how bad it will look if you remove someone from the team, and they then provide evidence of (eg) health issues or bereavement to your academic supervisor.

With all that in mind, our solution was to call a 'clear the air' meeting where everyone discussed their concerns, with an emphasis on how to solve the problem, rather than blame or accusation. We also agreed that:

  1. As far as practically possible, the work was reassigned into independent 'chunks', and poorly-performing members were teamed together when assigning the chunks. That way, we ensured that continued failure by one or two people couldn't jeopardise the entire project; their section might end up missing, but other parts could proceed unaffacted. This also gave them the motive and opportunity to 'pull their fingers out', as it increased transparency regarding who was responsible for chunks that were delivered (or weren't).
  2. At the end of the project, every group member provided an evaluation of the group as a whole, and of each member's contribution to the project, as part of the submission. This gave us an opportunity to give credit where it was due, and allowed us the chance to explain to our academic supervisor why certain parts were more successful than others.

The benefits of the above were that it kept the team together (which is a success in itself), that it treated all members of the team equally (everyone still had the same opportunity to succeed, if they wanted to, but with increased individual accountability; and the same opportunity to critique other members at the end), that it did not give anyone cause for grievance or 'appeal' etc, and that (IMHO) it was the most morally correct solution.

The outcome was that some (although not all) of the lesser-performing members improved considerably, the project was broadly successful (ie in terms of the specific 'academic' targets), and got a good mark. Also, it greatly reduced the personal tensions within the team for the remainder of the project.

I'm not sure if all the above will be relevant to your particular situation, but hopefully it provides some points to consider, at least. Good luck!

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    +1 for reminding that even removing the faulty cog will raise a flag of failure at some level.
    – Tiago Cardoso
    Jun 15 '12 at 11:16
  • I like this, accountability and risk management. I can call a meeting with the school to remove them from the group, this should be justified, and can be. But this is indeed a failure as team management. Since no salary is involved, the project is not losing so much by keeping them, now I guess I should focus on enhancing their motivation, keep track of everyone's work and assign them minor tasks. Thanks a lot.
    – Aki
    Jun 17 '12 at 6:43
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As you pointed out, they aren't earning anything to commit to the project. Well, there's the other side of the coin on it that they aren't realizing, though.

In real life, why a manager would put lots of efforts to keeping the whole team progressing? There are several reasons, that could be summarized as it's complicated to let people go.

In your case, however... I see no reason for keeping people around if they aren't adding value to the project (actually, they're negatively impacting on the project, since you're spending time chasing them).

Suggestion:

  • Have a candid conversation, explaining how the team is progressing and how much everyone is progressing. Explain that, from a project perspective, there's no reason for keeping the current structure.
  • Define goals for each one to contribute to the team (with deliverables and target dates). If they don't meet, they'll understand why they're invited to step down from the project.

I had a similar case in a MBA project where one of our team members had a low attachment to the project tasks plus had several issues during presentations. We had a frank and objective conversation, telling him we weren't happy with his performance. We passed on some tasks to him, no progress was perceived, I personally told him we were removing him from the team.

It's not easy at all, you'll be dealing with people's emotions. But that's a first opportunity to get used to make people go. Better a neat team doing a fair project rather than a big team doing a poor job.

Success!

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  • Thank you, this sounds like the right thing to do. I tried to define goals several times and I was there to assist them in any way... As most of them are my friends I feel awkward telling them that, but I guess I should. This week-end will bring answers as it is a major target date for the whole group and an occasion to communicate with the school about this matter. I will keep this question in stand-by and edit my question to explain how it turned out.
    – Aki
    Jun 13 '12 at 15:11
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I sounds a bit mercenary, but treat this situation like any job. The point of school is to teach you, and to prepare you for the working world. Here you have a prime example of how that works.

You said you're not getting paid - that's not quite true. You're getting paid by earning your degree.

This isn't really any different than "any real world situation." My advice is to treat this like any other professional obligation. The team members need to work together to accomplish the task. If someone chooses to slack off, then it threatens the whole team (project success), and isn't fair to the rest of the team. In an normal business situation these people would be replaced.

Explain that this is a team effort, and that you have a lot riding on this (as do they.) They need to step up, or be moved out.

In any team effort, someone eventually has to step into the lead role. That appears to be you. Look at this as an additional learning opportunity.

Good luck.

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  • Thanks. You make me feel more confident about replacing them. I asked them to step up a few months ago already, it's always the same pattern: "Got it" -> "Problems" -> No communication -> "I had problems" -> Deadline. They always seem up to something and it's hard to remove them from the group when they extensively explain what it is they are doing and why they take time though.
    – Aki
    Jun 13 '12 at 18:23
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    Glad it helps. Ultimately it's simply a question of which is more important - being nice, or securing your degree. Best of luck. Jun 13 '12 at 18:45
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You might want to take it through your professor first, as you may get into serious disputes throwing people off a project that they have their degrees pinned to, even if they have done less than their fair share. The problem is they can claim that the project is a joint one and you have no right to claim it as your own; therefore, you either disband the whole project (ouch!) or drag them along. This is where you professor may be able to help.

You could also look at splitting the project into two teams and put all the non workers on one team with its own deliverables - with no one to cover them they will have little choice but to get on or get out. This may benefit you if you are able to deliver a major part of the project (and it is stand alone) even if theirs fails to materialize. Take a step back and see if that is possible. Again, the professor may be able to help and may officiate the break into two projects.

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It sounds like you've tried to work with your non-performing team members and they haven't responded. Your simplest solution is to not assign them further work. This is a bit different in semantics from "firing" them or "removing them from the team", but the end effect is the same. If they complain be honest with them and tell them they aren't reliable and the team isn't going to rely on them anymore. If the rest of the team complains that the non-performers are going to get credit for everyone else's work tell them that was what was going to happen in any case and it isn't fair to you or the performing team members to chase after the non-performers.

As for the explanations the non-performers have, ultimately they need to learn the lesson taught to me by a sergeant-major a lifetime ago:

Excuses are like a..holes - everyone has one and they're all full of s..t

I'm sure that if they don't learn it in school they'll learn it the hard way....

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    I'd say that keeping the non-performing folks just without assignment would be considered a weak leadership from the leader... as there's simply no reason for keeping the broken cogs in the machine. In fact, it would make the working cogs workload heavier.
    – Tiago Cardoso
    Jun 14 '12 at 20:13
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    Doug, is this just theory or have you tried such a solution yourself with success?
    – jmort253
    Jun 14 '12 at 22:02
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If team size is big then ať least two three member must be great in performance. Other are follwers of the active members another are workless or least performer .so assign task according to performance.

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  • Hi user, welcome to PMSE. It's customary to provide some supporting explanation and detail in your answer. I'm not sure what you've provided is much different than what other answers have provided, yet there's no explanation as to why this is the correct course of action. Take a look at other answers on the site as a guideline of what is expected in answers on PMSE. Afterwards, consider making an edit to your answer to add more details. Good luck!
    – jmort253
    Jun 17 '12 at 17:04

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