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The high performance project teams - preparing the team

I would like to continue the discussion I started a while ago on highly performing project teams. This is a topic that I think is very important, but one that we do not discuss often enough as project managers. In this article I want to focus in on preparing team members for a project.

As with my other article I am as interested in generating discussion and learning from others as trying to claim to be the expert in this area. This is an area we can all learn more about, and if you have any great advice or ideas, please share it!

The project manager’s role in team development

Project managers often underestimate how much effort is required to make a team perform well, and yet, in the end, it is the project team who delivers the project. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “I am not a line manager – so the preparation and development of team members is nothing to do with me”. The problem with this attitude is that it is the project that suffers from a poorly prepared team, and thinking selfishly, the project manager does as well! 

I think one of the most important jobs of the project manager is making sure a team performs well. Highly performing project teams do not just happen, they are built and developed. One person who has a significant role in ensuring they develop in the right way is the project manager.

There are many factors involved in building a project team. A good team is made up of the right number of people, with the right skill sets. My general advice is always to try to get the best resources you can, even if this means you end up with fewer people than you originally wanted. A good team is motivated and believes in the work it is setting out to do. A good team has a set of interpersonal dynamics between the team members that are productive and constructive.

However, let’s for now assume the project team has been selected, what happens next? This is the main topic of this article: the team must be prepared.

Preparing a team

The most effective teams are prepared for the work that they are about to undertake. Preparation for a project won’t happen by itself. Preparation should be an important early task in the project plan. The project sponsor and project manager should work together to ensure all the team members are briefed and ready for the project.

Key aspects of preparing the team for the journey they are about to embark are:

  • Describing the project objectives, scope, approach, key deliverables, and the plan highlights and milestones. Everyone in the project team should be crystal clear about these central pieces of information.
  • Making sure everyone knows their individual role and level of input expected. This includes clarifying whether they are part time versus full time, and what happens to their normal workload. It is also important for team members to understand how their role interacts with the roles of other team members.
  • Setting expectations as to what is it going to be like to work on this project. Some projects are regimented and the team work with almost military discipline. Other initiatives are less structured. For example, change projects often feel a little chaotic. Whatever the project will be like – team members should be ready for.
  • Stressing the characteristics in people that will make this work. This is good practice in any role, but particularly important in projects. Projects are usually about team work, not individual brilliance or heroics. I normally stress simple things like the importance of honesty about progress, rapid identification of issues, making progress every day, avoiding surprises, when bad news occurs sharing it as soon as possible, and so on.
  • Preparing the team members of the level of support and resistance the project will face. Some projects are straightforward and everyone supports them. Other projects are more controversial and team members need to be prepared to face negative views of other people.
  • Dealing with team members’ concerns. A team with fewer concerns is likely to be more productive. It’s not possible to plan for all the questions team members may have, but typical concerns for people on projects include:
    • What happens to their normal work whilst part of the project?
    • Will there be a job to go back to when they have finished the project?
    • Where will they work? From their normal location, or will a special area be set aside for the project?
    • How will their performance be assessed?

The project team as project ambassadors

One way of thinking of the project team is as a group of ambassadors for the project. At any time, anyone in your organisation may ask any of the project team about the project. Your aim should be to ensure that every project team member is capable, and ideally willing and motivated, to answer questions about the project correctly and positively.

If project team members are unable or unwilling to give a positive view of the project, that is clear and makes sense, then there is a risk that the project will be perceived as failing or poorly managed because of the perception project team members give.

For some types of projects this is more important than others. I often work on change projects. On any change project it is essential that the whole team is supportive of the change, and can explain why the change is being done, what the change is, and how it will be achieved – in a positive way.

It can take time to prepare a team to be able to do this, but it is usually time well spent. If you cannot get the project team to feel positive about the project how likely is it that you will get anyone else to? The attitude I approach a project team with is – everything starts with the team.

What is your view?

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