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The high performance project team

I am very interested in what makes a high performance project team. I don’t have all the answers to this topic, and I am really interested in other people’s views. This article contains some of my views of what helps. I hope it encourages you to share yours.

The difference in performance between the best and worst performing teams is vast. Most of us have had the opportunity to work with brilliant teams who seem to overcome every problem and quickly develop all the deliverables. High performance team deliver substantially more than poorly performing or even average teams, sometimes several times as much. Experiencing truly high performing teams is exciting, fun, and provides lasting learning. On the other hand, most of us have also felt that malaise of the really poor team where everything seems to be a reason for delay and the energy levels are permanently low. What can be done, as a project manager, to try and ensure our teams are like the former and not the latter?

The project manager’s role in team performance

It is the project team that creates deliverables and achieves outcomes, not the project manager. As in an orchestra - the project manager may be the essential conductor, but the players make the music. The project manager’s work (plans, managing issues and risks, encouraging sponsors and so on), is forgotten once the project completes. What is left and of value, are the outputs from the project team - the deliverables. 

The project manager’s role is critical in creating a high performance team. Unless you are lucky, such good project teams do not just happen. They are selected, created and sustained – mostly by project managers, ideally with the assistance of sponsors and stakeholders. Unfortunately, this aspect of the project manager’s role is often overlooked.

Building a productive project team has specific challenges. Project teams are typically short term structures yet forming productive teams takes time. Many project managers, even good project managers, focus on the technical aspects of project management (e.g. planning, issue and risk management), above the human aspects. Project management training tends not to focus on people management and motivation. Some project managers and teams have never been part of a high performing team, and so they don’t know what to aim for or how much is possible. Yet without aiming high, you are unlikely to achieve the best result. 

All of these are resolvable issues, and given enough emphasis, project managers can build productive teams, with increased creativity and output.

High performing project teams

The most productive teams have a certain culture. They are action, outcome, and team orientated.  Let’s have a closer look at such teams.

First of all, individuals in high performance teams feel part of the project – helping the project manager to identify and resolve issues and risks, as well as doing their explicitly allocated work. Team members put the goals of the team above their individual goals. Individuals have specific responsibilities which they strive to achieve, but everyone delivers together. When someone has a problem, it is not just their problem - others contribute to identify and implement solutions. Everyone feels that success or failure is shared. 

It is not always true, but such teams are usually fun. If everyone is miserable then the chances are you are not working in a high performing team. (Although being fun does not, alone, mean it is a high performing team!).

High performing teams tend to be more creative, finding better approaches and ways around issues and risks. 

What really differentiates the most highly performing teams is the speed with which they progress – both in terms of the project work and in resolving impediments to progress. From the highest performance team you will not hear that someone is waiting for a reply to an email, or nothing can be done until a meeting occurs in a month’s time.  They find their way around such progress barriers. 

How do you develop such a team?

Developing such a team starts with the choice of people in the team. Obviously, you must have the capabilities and skills to do the work required, or the resources and time to learn how. However, attitude is usually more important than absolute skills excellence. It is a cliché – but it is true, you need team players, not star individuals or lone heroes.

When it comes to the people in the team always go for quality over quantity – don’t think in terms of ‘my plan shows me I need 10 people’, think in terms of ‘what are the best people I can get within the project budget’.

Once you have a team give its members clarity. Every team member should understand the desired outcome, and be absolute clear about their role and responsibilities. Most important is clarity about the expected behaviour and how the project will work. RACI charts and responsibility definitions are powerful tools you should use, but they are never foolproof. You want team members who are empowered to resolve issues and gaps in responsibilities. 

Providing such clarity is not a quick exercise. It is one of the most important activities of the project manager, and time should be invested to make sure it is done correctly. 

Team members will be motivated if they feel they will benefit from the project. Occasionally, this may be as simple as personal belief in the project goals. Consider also what you can give back to every team member. This does not need to be major or difficult: perhaps some training, learning on the job, exposure to senior managers or new ways of working. Often, if the team is highly performing, the satisfaction and fun of being part of the team is sufficient. 

Push the team hard, expect high output, and set the example yourself. Allocate the right workload: there is an optimal balance point between boredom and anxiety. You want people who feel a real challenge, but one that they believe they can achieve.

Give team members the freedom to plan their own work within the framework of the agreed outcomes, priorities, and schedule. Great teams do not need to be micro-managed.

Don’t assume that conflict is a bad sign. Encourage disagreements to surface as something natural to discuss and resolve, rather than as problems to avoid. Resolve team issues like any other issue on a project. Don’t shy away from them.

There is a definite advantage to co-located, dedicated teams. This enables people to really work as a team, to come together to discuss and resolve problems, and to spark off each other’s creativity. This is not always possible, but do not just accept it is not possible – do whatever you can to bring the team together to work together full time in the same location. (For lessons on geographically dispersed teams see section 3.2).

There are thousands of books, blogs and training courses on developing winning teams. Invest some time in them. The rewards in terms of better performance will justify this.

Sustaining the team

When you have built the perfect team, the job is not over. The team must be sustained. This is especially important on long term projects, in which team members leave and new people come in. Keep on giving clarity on outcomes, roles, behaviours and project mechanics to both old and new members of the team.

As projects progress pressures change. Good intentions can be lost as the project comes to high pressure times, and yet these are the most important to keep focussed on good team behaviour, which will lead to productivity.

Reinforce the behaviour you want. The project manager and sponsor should act as role models for the rest of team, acting as central parts of the team.

Observe and learn as the team works. A high performing team should not simply be regarded as a way to achieve project outcomes – it is an ideal learning opportunity. Try to capture how the team works, their approaches and tools, their behaviour and styles of interactions. You want to use these again on future projects.

Disbanding the team

Prepare for disbanding the team. For the highest performing teams this can be a painful experience. I do not exaggerate when I say that working on the highest performing teams can be a life changing experience. People do not like it when this ends. Think it through with some kind of formal end: time to say farewell and perhaps a final dinner together.

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