Sick and tired of leading lousy teams? Here’s what to do

As we enter a turbulent century, more organisations are looking for new ways to respond to:

  • the growing demand for speed and accessibility of services,
  • the emphasis on delivering an effortless, integrated customer experience
  • radical innovation in technology, technological concepts and platforms,
  • the trend towards a more globalised environment, social responsibility, and
  • uncertain economic pressures.

Challenges at the workplace are so complex, they cannot be solved by a single person, but by a team. Though all teams are groups, not all groups are teams. Groups are made up of two or more people with shared characteristics. Teams, on the other hand, come together to bring about an agreed beneficial change within a fixed duration. In short, teams are formed to accomplish projects.

Teams can either make or break a project. Besides the Project Leader and Sponsor, the real foundation of a good team is people who:

  • dedicate themselves to making the team succeed, are willing to collaborate with others to reach a mutual benefit,
  • possess the requisite knowledge, skills and experience, and
  • become excited at the notion of contributing to a project.

When a project is started, there is often no clear idea about who the specific members are. Organisations frequently make the mistake of picking a member just because he is available, rather than because of his ability. Although effective teams are made up of people with different abilities, it makes sense to pick members with knowledge, skills and experience that are relevant to the project.

Before a team is created, the Project Leader and Sponsor should work out the general direction of the project. For example, is the project process-driven? Does it require changes to an enterprise resource system? Will it modify a long-standing policy? These questions will help the Project Leader and Sponsor pick the correct members for the team. More importantly, though, it will also help the Project Leader and Sponsor assess if existing employees need training, and secure the necessary funds for it. Early planning for teams is essential, and will result in a Team Charter, as well as a Team Profile.

The Team Charter

It is natural for each team member to possess different ideas about the project. Persuading the team- especially cross-functional ones– to travel along the same direction can be challenging. A simple tool like the Goals, Roles and Procedures Pyramid may serve as a useful map. Split into four levels, the Pyramid also doubles up as a powerful troubleshooting tool. If a problem appears at a particular level, for example, the team should look up one level in the Pyramid to discover its root cause 1.

Project Goal

To be effective, teams must maintain contact with the goals of the organisation 2. Therefore, project goals must be firmly linked with the organisation’s mission, vision and strategies. As the project’s goal becomes clearer, so does the team’s purpose. Both are interrelated.
All teams benefit from a shared vision of what the project will achieve, as well as a general idea on what effort is required to deliver outcomes. Project Leaders and Sponsors have a special responsibility to describe how the team’s efforts impact the larger organisation.

When the team works on something they know is important to the organisation, its members become more motivated to give their best. Hence, purpose is the most significant reason for a team’s success. It furnishes the team with focus, as well as direction.

Project Roles

Project Leaders are usually the managers of the day-to-day business functions that will be impacted by the project; while Sponsors often own and control the resources that are required for the project to succeed. Both Project Leader and Sponsor must be in complete agreement about the project, its outcome, and the other key roles that team members will serve in the project. Other key project roles 3 might include:

  • Client: Coordinates or represents the interests and needs of of end-user groups. If there are several end-user groups, each with a differing view, there may be multiple clients.
  • Information Technology Expert: A required resource if the project involves information technology or impacts an enterprise resource system.
  • Technical Specialist: People who possess expert essential skills or high levels of crucial access.
  • Buyer: They procure or commission projects on behalf of end-users and are judged primarily on their ability to source for reliable suppliers and negotiate competitive prices on contracts or services.
  • End User: Often, to streamline and aggregate the concerns of this potentially large group, end-users are represented by clients. However, this does not mean that the project will not benefit from directly communicating with this group at different stages of the project.
  • Quality Assurance: Although popular only in large, protracted projects, the Quality Assurance expert plays a very important role in ensuring that prescribed methodologies are carried out properly.

Experienced Project Leaders sometimes introduce a RACI Matrix to outline the project-related activities that are expected from each Project Role. The RACI Matrix is particularly effective for large, complex teams whose members carry out multiple roles, as it neatly defines the key responsibility areas of members who are:

  • Responsible
  • Accountable
  • Consulted
  • Informed

Procedures

The Pyramid outlines the general procedures that are required to sustain the project’s momentum, such as the form and frequency of official meetings. Because different project frameworks exist, the methodology that the team intends to adopt for its projects should be mentioned, to provide a useful reference point for future projects. Some examples of project frameworks include Lean Six Sigma’s DMAIC, Agile’s SCRUM, or the omnipresent PDCA method.

At an early stage, Project Leaders must work together with the team to establish ground rules. Ground rules determine:

  • How team conflicts are handled,
  • How project decisions are taken, and
  • A code of conduct that emphasises clarity and respect during discussions and team meetings.

When teams possess a strong understanding of how their work will proceed, they become particularly effective in carrying out their duties.

Relations

Team members are individuals who have their own set of motivations and temperaments. When brought together, conflict is likely. Although most people associate conflict with anger and tension, it can be a positive force in projects. Conflict deepens discussions, forcing members to become more creative, and examine new ideas more thoroughly. Besides leading the effort to establish ground rules, Project Leaders must also develop plans to quickly bond the team. In the longer term, Project Leaders should acquire the necessary facilitation skills to manage conflict.

Relations must be managed at a broader level too, as it is vital for teams to know how they interact with other teams, departments and customers. The Project Leader and Sponsor must ensure that the lines of communication between the team and the larger organisation remain open and in working order. Key questions that teams frequently confront are:

  • How to ask for assistance from other teams or departments if it is needed?
  • How to obtain the data that it needs?
  • How to let the organisation know what they are * doing?

Team Profile

When teams form, they are rarely able to unlock the full knowledge of every member. Human capital remains locked because teams always get dominated by the most senior, vocal or confident member, even if they are not the most expert. The genuine experts, sensing that their views would not be appreciated, shut down and take a back seat.

A simple intervention, performed early in the team’s formation, can stop this negative outcome. When teams work together to create a detailed profile of every individual’s knowledge, skills and experience, they are more likely to use their knowledge to devise solutions to problems. In a study on this phenomenon, Professor Bryan L Bonner explains that the simple exercise can radically change the criterion for team power from Social Influence to Information Influence 4.

By listing out a team member’s abilities and how it relates to the project, individuals feel valued and become more engaged. It also helps the Project Leader and Sponsor identify the abilities that are immediately available, as well as any skills deficit that can be addressed either by training and development, or acquiring outside help.

A comprehensive team profile forms the baseline of knowledge, skills and experience at the beginning of every project, and helps the organisation measure the learning outcomes of the project, celebrate the growth of individual team members, and identify potential Leaders for future projects.

Show 4 footnotes

  1. Thus, if teams encounter problems in Relations, the actual cause might be found in unclear or conflicting Procedures. See Mary Federico and Renee Beaty, Rath and Strong’s Six Sigma Team Pocket Guide (McGraw-Hill), pg 63
  2. Peter R Scholtes, Brian L Joiner and Barbara J Streibel, The TEAM Handbook, Second Edition (Oriel Incorporated Publishing), pg 1-3
  3. Peter Hobbs, Essential Managers Project Management (Dorling Kindersey Limited), pg 18
  4. Bryan L. Bonner and Alexander R Bolinger, Bring Out the Best in Your Team (Harvard Business Review, September 2014), pg 26

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