We would all like to think that there is a strict formula to follow in order to create productive, high performance project teams. Yet in reality, there is no definitive checklist that will guarantee success. In the legal eDiscovery field, the equivalent formula must include equal focus on People, Processes and Technology in order to successfully create litigation solutions. I would like to focus on the People portion of the equation, since it is often the most difficult to control. One of the most important factors in effective project teams is the commitment of all team members to create and enforce an environment that encourages positive behaviors while discouraging negative behaviors.
For those hoping this article is going to provide an “Easy” button that will provide a checklist of actions that will guarantee project team success, this is fair warning that creating a high performing team is part art, part science and consistent hard work. Rather, the goal of this piece is to provide some of the essential features that will contribute to a successful project team if included in the project plan and highlight a few pitfalls to avoid. Let’s get some of the big negatives out of the way before we talk about the positives.
Common Problems of Struggling Project Teams
We have all been involved in projects that didn’t go well, and we wonder why that was the case. The team members were smart, the goal was set by management and there was an adequate budget to complete the project. So what happened? When you dig into the reasons for underperformance you will often find some or all of these issues:
1) No clear and galvanizing project goal. If team members are not aware of the importance of the project to management or the future success of the company and how it fits into the organization and how it is connected to the customer, the project will not get the best performance of the team members. If it is viewed as just another project, it is going to be difficult to get the best performance from the team. Taking the time to involve your team and get them vested in the project goals and understanding their individual importance to the team will go a long way towards improving results.
2) Involve all the key stakeholders. It is important to remember that you have both internal and external stakeholders in any project. While most organizations make sure that they include all the right departments when starting a new initiative, the customer/client is often omitted from the formula. Without understanding the client’s needs clearly at the forefront of the project, determining the correct project requirements, timing and costs will quickly become muddled. This is particularly important when Channel Partner input is not surveyed at the start of the project in order to help define what the needs really are versus the perception of the internal team. Since they will ultimately have to sell the end results to clients, their input is essential to delivering a successful project.
3) Project leadership is weak. Even if the project is being “managed” regarding deadlines and overall direction, a lack of active leadership can negatively impact the results. Leadership should be directing responsibility and accountability while implementing all the tools and templates available and making sure to coax the best performance out of each team member. Team leadership is an art that uses the science (tools) to constantly keep the project “live” and focused. And in today’s world of Agile Team Implementation, the most effective team leadership acts more in the role of team facilitator.
4) Ill-defined roles. From the outset of the project is important that all team members understand their importance to the project as well as the specific responsibilities that they have. If everyone is clear on these issues from the outset, understands their value to the team and that their opinions will be carefully considered by the group and the leader, overall performance will be better. More than anything, people want to know that their expertise matters.
5) Over commitment of human resources. Today’s matrix management style organizations have many positive attributes that make them so popular. But one of the largest negatives is what I call “project pliability”, which results when team members are distributed across multiple initiatives. While it is important to create cross-department teams to gain expertise, it is equally important to make sure that people don’t have too many simultaneous projects on their plates. Overtaxing your human resources will result in a lack of focus, poor work product and unhappy employees. Management needs to understand that there is a limitation on how much work they can assign employees and still expect quality results.
Considerations for Creating High-Performance Project Teams
While I am a huge fan of the effectiveness of using Project Checklists to help keep projects on target and make sure that all steps are accomplished, checklists on their own are no guarantee of success. Projects and people are not that easy to manage because they are a living organism with dozens of points of view with constantly changing allegiances and fluctuating time commitments. Building a great team is a blend of the science of human psychology and the art of leadership. The following will help you create a high performance team.
1) Make sure the project is viewed as a top priority. Make sure that all stakeholders, from top management to individual team members are aware about the nature of the “mission” and its importance to both the organization and to the customer(s) for whom it is being created. Every project should be seen as an opportunity by team members to highlight their contribution, applying existing skills while at the same time gaining new experience. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all ships!
2) Apply the SCARF model from the world of neuroscience. SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. These highly personal issues should be the foundation on which the team structure and management are based. It is up to the team facilitator to make sure that these attributes are part of the everyday structure of leader behavior in order to reinforce the individual growth potential and make sure that individuals actually feel like important contributors to the final output.
3) Develop team trust. In order to effectively lead a group, the team must believe that the team leader cares about the input from each part of the team and is focused on ensuring the success of the project. Leaders need to constantly ask how they are defining the behaviors they display in order to reinforce this belief. When the team trusts the leader, the effort they put forth will be at the highest level they can offer.
4) The “customer” and their needs must be included from the beginning. The customer is the key focus of any new initiative that a team has been put together to respond to. To that end, one of the preliminary steps in any new initiative is to survey the end clients to determine what they need to succeed and how best your team can address those needs. This client “scoping “ should be present throughout the term of the project development and team members must always think about what the client would say or think about an issue as it is being built into the initiative. The advantage of a cross-functional team is that this information can be examined from a number of different perspectives and the best answer is often a blended response.
5) Enforce critical skill sets: how to engage and how to make decisions. Just as the role of a jury foreperson is not to impose their will on the jury but rather to facilitate rational discussion and make sure everyone is heard, a team leader has to set the expectations for interpersonal communications among the team. Effective team leaders focus on facilitation approaches that keep the group focused on one issue at a time. Participants need to parse information into areas of emotions, risks, ideas and facts and make sure that they listen before they dismiss an idea or rush to judgment. At the beginning of developing a new initiative, it is often useful to just brainstorm ideas and put them on a whiteboard, reserving all comments and judgment until the list seems complete. Sometimes idea that appear off topic or even a little crazy at first blush will actually blossom into an important consideration once the team has time to reflect.
In order to facilitate effective decision-making, leaders need to assist teams to understand each major choice from multiple viewpoints and how to evaluate multiple options for each decision. This is the “art” part of team leadership. While someone can teach you the steps, how you implement and interact with your team is a wholly personal approach that must appear natural in order to be effective.
6) Fight on behalf your team members. Project leaders must work on behalf of team members to assure that they have the time to focus and contribute on the project. In short, this means that it is your job to engage in all internal, organizational politics with other team leaders and management in order to negotiate any issues on behalf of team members regarding things such as time commitments, special training and use of limited resources. When you remove barriers on behalf of your team, they can focus and contribute their best work. Just don’t forget that other team leaders have similar problems and this must be a give and take process to keep all organization projects moving forward. When you “borrow” someone for a week of exclusive work on a key aspect of the project, expect to return the favor when other needs are brought to your attention.
Leaving project team performance to chance will likely NOT result in a high performance team. As living organisms themselves that exist within larger living organisms (the company), project teams need constant attention and work in order to stay on track. Given the project centric workplace of today and the problem of “doing more with less”, most employees are already oversubscribed and have very little extra available bandwidth. It is important to remind everyone in the company, from executives down to team members that they have a stake in the successful outcome of a project and to have realistic expectations regarding project timelines and team participation. A successful team leader is like a circus juggler, focusing on the direct needs of your team, while understanding that there are a lot of external influences throughout the company that may impact your ability to keep everything in the air at one time. It takes a lot of hard work to create and maintain a high-performance team.