This and the next two articles - about leadership and collaborative problem solving - focus on the topic of team management, and each post is a very detailed guide to a specific dimension of building highly effective project teams. This article will start tackling the 3-steps framework by discussing how to build a positive environment for your project team. If you are here just for the first steps involved in building a highly efficient project team, jump to this section. However, if you want to stay for tea and discuss related topics that might provide highly valuable insights into your project management practices, then start from the beginning :)

Everything we have discussed so far, from managing stakeholders until creating risk response strategies, was based on the assumption that the teams involved in the tasks always work together and never get into a fight. It’s more or less like when we learn mechanics in physics and the teacher says “well, consider frictionless bodies…”. We learn everything just for, in the end, hear the news that all our calculations were wrong (or at least not realistic) because of this thing called friction.

But why did we go down this road? At least in project management, we can separate the more technical problems – such as cost forecasts and schedule estimation techniques – from the more managerial ones – like what we will study now in the team management series. So don’t think everything we studied so far is not valid: it is, and now it is time to go one step further and add another dimension to the world of project management.

Why You Should Focus on Building a Highly Effective, Dynamic Project Team

A highly effective project team can be the best asset you have when executing a project. A very uncooperative team can be your worst headache. A dynamic project team is essential not only for you but also for the other members of the team. Here is a short list of important benefits you will obtain from a highly effective project team:

  • Higher levels of engagement with your project;
  • Higher productivity levels;
  • Higher retention rates and motivation;
  • Higher levels of creativity and better problem-solving skills.

However, it is not always easy to motivate people, keep them interested, and make them work productively. Parallel tasks, unproductive meetings, lack of a holistic perspective; these are all problems that negatively affect the quality of the project team.

Identification, Unity and Collaboration

Before we move on, there is an important stop we have to make. It might be the case that your product or service does not require a cohesive team to be executed. Let me give you an example. Imagine you are organizing a big event or conference. There is the audio and video department, responsible for setting up the infrastructure for the presentations; there is the group of speakers, getting ready to go on stage and give a killer discourse; there is the marketing department, responsible for promoting the event; and so on. A high degree of engagement and interaction between these teams is not actually necessary for the success of the project. As long as each team is engaged in the task it is performing (and here, yes, team management is important) and meets the deadlines, the event should be executed without major issues.

On the other hand, it might be the case your project requires a high degree of communication and interaction between the team members. In the software development example in our Ebook about cost and schedule estimation techniques, interaction between the development, testing and deploying teams is highly recommendable.

When evaluating whether it is necessary to focus on team building activities, you may want to ask yourself these two questions:

  1. Does the execution of the task require cooperation between my team members?
  2. Is my project producing a complete product or service or are we producing a specific component for other projects?

Ranking these two questions from 1 to 5 (1 being “absolutely not true” and 5 being “absolutely true”) is a good practice when determining the importance of cohesion in your team. If cooperation and interaction are not that important (low rates for both questions), you should focus on the technical side of project management – define each task with the work breakdown structure, track the progress, coordinate activities and so on. If, however, team interaction is an absolute requirement, this and the next articles about leadership in project teams and collaborative problem solving are essential to you.

The Most Common Challenges in Building Strong Project Teams

We have to identify the potential problems in team management before we start dealing with them. While there are many things that can go wrong, the central challenges of building project teams can be summarized in two topics:

  • Project teams have the task of solving complex problems and situations together;
  • Project teams are temporary and do not always work together. They have to learn how to work with each other, and previous knowledge is not a guarantee of future success.

When team leaders understand these two points and focus on making the team work together, the connection between the members become stronger and stronger as the project moves forward. Let’s have a look at these two challenges in more details.

Solving Complex Problems. Together.

Projects are nothing more than a series of complex tasks you must accomplish in a determined order and under some given constraints. Everything that we discussed so far in the project planning phase can be characterized as a specific problem which demands a team to be solved. Some examples are:

  • Creating the specifications of your product or service
  • Describing the different stages and tasks of the project
  • Deciding between a tighter schedule or lower costs
  • Planning and dealing with risky situations

These are just a few situations that require a group effort to be successful. But wait… Can’t you solve everything by yourself? Yes, that’s possible, but I said “successful,” not “completed”. You might be able to do everything on your own, but you inevitably run into the one limitation you can never overcome: yourself. Doing everything alone limits the solution to your own perspective of what is good and what is not. We already discussed the issue when we talked about brainstorming in risk management environments. You should incorporate the opinions and suggestions of other members to obtain a complete perception of the problem. Teams of diverse people are essential to this because they bring together different backgrounds, brains, and techniques. Some people will use a lot of math, some will prefer to go with their guts. Some will expose their ideas as they come, some will wait to make them public only when they are fully developed.

While some people might argue this diversity is a negative point for team management, I prefer to focus on the opportunity instead of the chaos. The challenge here is to learn how to deal with each type of member and how to integrate the different perspectives in a cohesive whole, but once this is done you will reach a much higher quality level than if you were just working by yourself.

Making Temporary Team Members Bond with Each Other

Remember your time at university? Each semester some people would arrive and some would go away. The people around you would inevitably change, and once in a while, you would be required to “update” your group of friends and start bonding with different people.

The very nature of projects is to be temporary, so people who work together in one project might not be a part of the next project’s team. Naturally, there are advantages and disadvantages to this:

  • A New Team is Highly Malleable: the absence of previous work relationships creates opportunities for new social bonds. If you manage your team right and focus on building trust among the members, it is very likely that you will benefit from synergies in your team.
  • A New Team Has Many New Ideas: working with different people gives you a lot of food for thought about your own work. You get in touch with different techniques to manage tasks, new tools, trending management practices and so on. It’s a very positive interaction if you keep your mind open to changes.
  • It Takes Time to Develop Trust, Respect, and Positive Relationships: those things I mention don’t happen from night to day. It’s not like you will enter the meeting room, throw some magic glitter on everyone and people will start interacting like they were brothers and sisters. The leader of the project team has to put some active effort to bring everyone together and create strong bonds among team members.

A Complete Framework for Building High-Performance Teams

Now that we are clear on several aspects of the importance of building a strong team, we can move on to a more practical framework to define what we are actually looking for when creating a highly-effective project team. There are three basic structural components for any productive team to work properly:

This article will focus on the first element, and the next articles will deal with the two remaining ones.

Creating a Positive Team Environment

Creating a Positive Team Environment

A team cannot work together if there is no trust nor respect among its members. How you conduct meetings, the interaction between the members, how the goals are created and communicated: all these factors are of paramount importance for creating an encouraging work environment. Let’s explore in more details four fundamental components for a constructing a successful work environment for your team.

Step 01 – Create Ground Rules that Determine Work Patterns and Team Values

Ground rules are created when the team starts and dictate the team’s culture as well as the basic aspects of the interaction between members. They talk about your expectations regarding behavior and values of the participants of the team.

There are several benefits for writing down such rules. First, they explicitly communicate what you are expecting from your team members. Secondly, they give the team the opportunity to create and own its culture. Finally, you give the team some sort of structure to follow, which is very good when the project is starting.

Ground rules are usually of two types (although there can be more): the values of the team – confidentiality, respect, accountability, etc. – and the structure of the project meetings – active listening, punctuality, being prepared for the meeting, avoid distractions, etc.

Step 02 – Create a Strong Team Identity by Sharing Goals and Committing to Them

The success of a project greatly depends on your ability to convince every team member to put the goals of the project above his or her own. Accomplishing this degree of commitment is possible only through building a strong sense of collectivity, a solid team identity.

The first step in building a strong team identity is to clearly communicate the goals and the scope of the project, so everyone works towards the same goal. The article about writing a project charter already dealt with how to create specific, relevant goals for your project. Our discussion about the Work Breakdown Structure and its many components also approached the issue of defining the path to successfully completing the project. If your team is in place before these two documents are created, you have an extra opportunity of bringing them together to work with you in defining such components.

Repetition of the goals, scope, and structure of the project is also fundamental for fixing them in the minds of your project team. Repeat them in every team meeting until everyone is familiar; recall them every time you are talking about tasks and activities of your project. Just… Don’t be boring, please. The boss who is always saying “let’s not forget that we are aiming to…” day and night is actually an annoying boss and gets all the team thinking “yeah dude, I know that…”. It’s all about balance: you don’t need to explicitly refer to the goals and the scope of the project. When deciding about whether to perform a task or not, you can pose the question “ok, how does this help us to get closer to our final goal?” This will make your team members think about the concept and you will not face the risk of being too repetitive.

Another interesting thing to do is to show to your members how your project relates to other projects in the company. This is called project’s organizational alignment and gives your team a clear picture of how your project affects the strategic goals of the company as a whole.

Step 03 – Understand the Strengths of Your Members and Build Strong Relationships Based on Diversity
Understanding the Strengths of Your Team Members

Building strong relationships among team members is not a synonym of creating deep friendships or out-of-work bonds. This might happen, but it shouldn’t be your main focus and you shouldn’t judge yourself if your team members don’t become your best friends. It is important to understand that each person has his or her own private life, and strong relationships here mean strong work relationships. This means building a set of values based on respect to and cooperation with the team.

Each member can contribute with his or her own expertise. They have different work and educational backgrounds, as well as different perspectives on the problem. Being able to integrate all the different views and form a complete approach to the project in hand is one of the most important aspects of highly successful team management.

In order to build such relationships and create trust among your project members, you might want to implement the following techniques.

Interview the Members and Learn Their Background

This is part of all team management 101 courses. You must know your members in order to bring their best to the team. What are their personal goals? What are their interests in the project?

You can either get to learn your members and introduce them to the team yourself, or you can ask them to do it. I’m particularly fond of the second option, as it takes people out of their comfort zone and makes them look more accessible to other colleagues.

Bring Food and Beverages to the Meetings

Companies usually set some budget aside for project leaders to spend on things like food, beverages, restaurants and so on. This is not just for the employees to have fun. Companies would not spend money on this if it didn’t bring a higher benefit than the required investment.

Run Personal Meetings on a Regular Basis

Team members might feel intimidated when among many people. They might simply choose to say nothing with the fear they will be judged by their peers. By running personal meetings, you make your members feel at ease and more relaxed to share their view on different aspects of the project.

Step 04 – Listen to Your Team Members

Listening to your team members is the most important skill to obtain valuable insights into your project’s activities and to help your members integrate with the group. No idea is completely stupid, and choosing to close your ears to specific people will make them feel excluded and much less motivated to work on your project.

Naturally, it is not possible to implement each and every idea from every member, but you must give the necessary attention to it. Your members must feel they are being listened and that their ideas are taken into consideration. The best way to reject an idea is not to ignore it, but to give rational reasons that show why it is not possible to integrate it into the project.

One common mistake made by project leaders is to think that listening skills are a privilege of leadership positions. This could not be further from the truth, and learning how to listen is a requirement for each and every member of the team. The leader has the responsibility to teach people how to listen, not to keep this skill to him or herself.

Actively Listen to the People around You

Lead by example. Many people consider themselves good listeners. But just listening to others doesn’t make you a good listener. You have to temporarily suspend the flood of thoughts and ideas that come to your mind to focus on the situation of the other person. There are many diversions we have to overcome to become good active listeners:

Our past experience and our preconceived ideas about what the person is talking.

Maybe your team member is new to the job and he or she thinks his idea will revolutionize the execution of the project. Truth is, you, a much more experienced person, already tried that and, well, you know it doesn’t work. But should you just go ahead, cut the conversation and say “sorry, nops, bad idea”? Of course not. There is also no point in wasting a lot of time to listen and discuss something you know won’t be implemented, so one of the best courses of action here is to “agree while disagreeing”.

It doesn’t make you a self-centered boss only concerned with your thoughts, and at the same time, it communicated the message that the idea is not moving forward.

Parallel problems and thoughts that require our attention.

When listening to my best friend’s day in the evening, I’ve frequently found myself thinking about my own issues, problems I have to solve at work, demands I have to meet. If you are there just with your body, this doesn’t make you a good listener. Active listeners put the other person temporarily at the center of their attention and give undivided attention to process what the person is saying.

Different styles of talking and problems with transmitting the message clearly.

Not everyone is a great public speaker, and you will have to deal with people that simply cannot organize their thoughts in a logical sequence of ideas. It is your responsibility to put some effort and try to comprehend the message instead of simply getting angry at the poor fellow trying to express himself.

Suspend Your Judgment about the Person and the Ideas Being Shared

If you don’t hate me by now, I don’t know what else I could say – without walking on sensitive grounds – to try to make things worse. What I want to show (while trying to avoid lawsuits) is how ready we are to flood our minds with judgments about other people. You don’t know me in person, but you are probably thinking I’m an idiot. A big one. (Disclaimer: no, I don’t mean what I said above. All was for experimental purposes, and I actually stand on the very opposite side of each of those claims.)

Suspending judgment is not easy. Judgmental thoughts rush into our minds less than a second after we’ve heard something. Suspending judgment doesn’t mean not judging, it means acknowledging the judgment is there is temporarily ignoring it to listen to the other person. It doesn’t mean you immediately agree with the person, it simply means you are open to listening to what he or she has to say.

Step 05 – Manage Meetings Effectively

While meetings are one of the major factors killing productivity in a team, we have to keep up with them. You’ll have to meet with your team from time to time, and it is up to you to bring the most out of the meetings. They can be very positive, but only if managed efficiently.

Here are a few tips to conduct highly effective meetings.

What to Do Before the Meeting Starts
  • Send detailed information about what will be discussed, where you are going to meet, the starting and finishing time, and a list of the participants.
  • Be specific about the topics being discussed and assign each topic to a particular person. Define each subject as specifically as possible to avoid ambiguity.
What to Do During the Meeting
  • Be punctual and reward those being punctual. A way to do that is not to allow late people to come in. Might sound a bit high-school stuff, but being an adult doesn’t automatically allow you to be more irresponsible.
  • Lay the ground rules at the start and agree on how decisions will be made.
  • Choose someone to record the discussions of the meeting and to summarize them in a meeting minutes afterwards.
  • Actively lead the meeting towards finding solutions, not simply discussing the issues. This is a very common mistake in meetings: people end up focusing on discussing the problem from all possible perspectives (and a few more) instead of focusing on finding the solution. There’s a fine line that separates the two approaches, and focusing on finding solutions gives you a structure for discussing the problem more efficiently.
  • Control the involvement of the group. If you want a group decision, then let them talk. If you are just communicating general guidelines from the board of directors, then there’s not much other people can say.
What to Do When the Meeting is Finishing
  • Summarize it and review key decisions and required actions.
  • Set the date for the next meeting and be clear about it.
  • Ask your participants to evaluate the meeting and point out what was good and could change for the next one.
  • Be punctual about the finishing time.
What to Do After the Meeting
  • Send the meeting minutes as soon as possible so everyone (especially those who were late) has a clear idea of what was discussed during the meeting.

Final Words – What’s Coming up Next?

The next article will talk about leadership, and the third article in the series will discuss collaborative problem solving. Each of these topics is extensive enough on its own (there are lots of books about them), so I will try to be brief and discuss only the most relevant aspects of each. For now, thanks for coming this far and see you soon!