Three Approaches To Building Project Team Excellence

Last month we discussed why many technology projects fail. We identified a culture of exclusion as a significant force in many failures. In this issue, we will discuss three practical things you and your project managers can do to create a culture of inclusion, building momentum for group effectiveness far beyond what you think is possible.

1. Understand the broad range of customer needs
On a technology project, business requirements that your project team gathers should reflect the concerns of most of your customers. Often the identified needs are too narrow and are colored by the roles of those charged with speculating about the upcoming change.

Take for example, a large-scale internal database conversion. The Information Systems department may be responsible for building the new application. Your project team might look to department heads within the organization to determine business requirements for the software. This seems reasonable, however, department heads are often not aware of the specifics involved in end-user use, manipulation, and reporting on data. As a result, without broader user input, an inadequate product or an unaccommodating design may end up being created.

How can this outcome be avoided? First, have your team solicit input from groups that represent a diverse point of view about the change. Executive, management and administrative staff have unique and complimentary points of view on what's required for a new system or process. Although this broader group will likely generate a laundry list of needs and concerns, your team will be in a better position to more closely meet the needs of the larger audience. When organizing what you learned, group the information in three categories:

  1. Ideas that you can implement within the project timeline
  2. Ideas that should be implemented at some future date
  3. Ideas that will not be implemented

This grouping becomes the basis for communicating back to your constituents. Everyone understands that all features or processes cannot be implemented at once. That's easy to explain. It's the third point (ideas that will not be implemented) that is most challenging to address. Addressing this requires straightforward communication, leadership and a willingness to take a stand for what best serves the organization. (a topic for another newsletter)

2. Reward and encourage team collaboration, not just individual performance.
Another element that helps build project momentum is spreading the learning across the team. Project managers are tempted to rely on selected individuals to do the heavy lifting. Although the performance of motivated individuals is certainly beneficial to your projects, broadening the involvement (and learning) of the larger team will result in much greater long-term benefit, especially as the project moves toward completion. Projects are often left with few burnt out overachievers and many non- performers.

While individual "stars" give you short term results, they don't provide long-term organizational benefits. Think of it this way. Toward the end of a project, internal team members will be looking for their new assignment, often expected to return to a role in a department. Too often projects are left with inadequately trained project members who cannot provide value in this turnover stage. Even worse, your best performers are often external consultants, whose role is to get the work done, and take their knowledge with them.

How do you best transfer knowledge on a project? Start by encouraging your team leaders to establish standards for x-team skill development. Do the following:

  • Be explicit that you expect the team (especially external technical resources) to share information and document how to perform tasks. Explain why this is important relative to the turnover stage of the project. A meaningful discussion to open early in the project is "who should be inheriting what tasks when the project is complete?" Although this will be difficult to answer, it's important to start this dialogue early and keep that question on the table.
  • Conduct a facilitated session with team leads and identify what it will take to create a "learning culture" across the group. Ask the question: "What behavior will we observe across the team that demonstrates knowledge and skills are being shared?" Examples responses could be "my people don't just do a task for someone, we show them how to do it, then watch them do it themselves" or "We regularly revisit who will be doing what when the project ends?"

Developing a "learning culture" is a work in progress and requires regular reflection. The pull will be for your teams to revert to old behavior of doing things themselves, and not focusing on developing each others skills. It takes leadership to keep this question on the table, reminding people when they are not helping others to be independent. Again, periodically pull people into a room and ask "How well are we sharing information across the team?" You'll be surprised to hear how much room there is for improvement in this area.

3. Establish public standards around cooperation.
Balancing individual needs and the needs of others can be a challenge. Luckily, one of the ways we can learn new behavior is through observation. I discovered this recently at my gym while taking the time to wipe down an exercise machine I just used. Without thinking about it, I walked over to the spray bottle, grabbed some paper towels and wiped down the hand rails. It then occurred to me I had been observing this behavior in others over the last month. A simple sign hangs by the spray bottle that reads "Please wipe down the machines when finished." After only a few visits, I found myself unconsciously following others example. Good will promotes good will. How does this translate to the workplace?

Let's say you're meeting with another team that "owes" your group some information. Surprisingly, they don't have it ready. (I know this never happens!) Instead of canceling the meeting or expressing how much of a burden this is on your team, offer your expertise or assistance to get the information. Consider using your resources to help others fulfill their goals. By taking this cooperative stand (how can we help you?), your team will find what they need from others will come much more easily and others will begin to follow suit (wiping down those handrails). Most importantly, you've created relationship across the team that will pay off dividends at a later time, especially in the event your group falls behind and needs help.

How about putting up a sign that states "Ask first-how can I help?" The goal is to broaden your groups view on how to contribute to "the big picture". Making cooperation standards explicit and leading by example will create unexpected benefits across the team and will go a long way toward creating a culture of inclusion. What goes around comes around.

In conclusion, broad customer feedback, rewarding collaboration over individual performance and establishing public standards around cooperation will have internal as well as external benefits. This philosophical shift requires your leadership to step back from the details of the work and establish a context for HOW work gets done. Creating a culture of inclusion has more to do with the process of how people work, and less to do with the work itself. Ironically, this shift will have direct impact on the quality, performance, and teamwork associated with an end product or solution you're driving towards.

Presentation Tip Of The Month

Always leave them wanting more! People remember a presentation that leaves some questions unanswered. They also remember presentations that went on too long and could have made the point in half the time. Focus on the first outcome.