The high performance project team

12th November 2012

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 project management teams is vast. Most of us have had the opportunity to work with brilliant project management teams who seem to overcome every problem and quickly develop all the deliverables. High performance teams deliver substantially more than poorly performing or even average project management 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 project 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 management 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 management team - the deliverables.

The project manager’s role is critical in creating a high performance project management 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 project sponsors and project stakeholders. Unfortunately, this aspect of the project manager’s role is often overlooked.

Building a productive project management team has specific challenges. Project teams are typically short term structures yet forming productive project management teams takes time. Many project managers, even good project managers, focus on the technical aspects of project management (e.g. project 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 project teams have never been part of a high performing project 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 project management teams, with increased creativity and output.

High performing project teams

The most productive project 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 project management 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 project management teams are usually fun. If everyone is miserable then the chances are you are not working in a high performing project team. (Although being fun does not, alone, mean it is a high performing team!).

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

What really differentiates the most highly performing project 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 project management 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 project management 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 project management 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 project team give its members clarity. Every project 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 fool proof. 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 project 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 project management 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 project team members the freedom to plan their own work within the framework of the agreed outcomes, priorities, and schedule. Great project management 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 project 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 project 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 project management 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 project team, the job is not over. The project 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 project management 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 project team behaviour, which will lead to productivity.

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

Observe and learn as the team works. A high performing project 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 project management 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.

© Richard Newton, 2012

Richard Newton is a consultant, author and programme manager. He is currently working on his 10th book, due for publication in mid  2013.

We'd love to hear your thoughts - email with any comments or questions for Richard.

Daniel Penry - 13th November 2012

"Emma - thank you for sharing the article. Ironically, I am currently in the staffing phase of a project. Some discussions that I am having with key stakeholders deal with base scope definition, appropriate balance of full-time core team members and part-time contributors, appropriate mix of specialists to generalists and overall governance structure.

I have found that a well defined scope is imperative to drive the correct resourcing decisions and to define team empowerment. Stakeholder driven scope changes during projects can be demoralizing to the team as it can breed a mood of "wasted time", "unable to contribute" or "disconnected from real prioirties." Establishing stakeholder commitment to scope prior to team member selection is critical to building a solid team.

Finally, I am an advocate of a small team of generalists that form a Core Team supported by a network of part-time Specialists who contribute as necessary. Generalists tend to have a healthy level of overlap of knowledge and experiences which promotes common links between team members. Having Specialists on the Core Team can create unique PM challenges." 

Shona Campbell - 26th November 2012

"Richard, This struck a chord with me. I was trying to write an internal lessons learned paper on this topic last night.  I came to two conclusion - that it was leadership not management that took us from an average to a high-performing team.  Secondly, that our project sponsor was the catalyst for making that happen. Hope that is of use to you."

Richard Newton's response...

"Thanks for sharing your experience Shona. I tend to agree with what you say, but I need to check we are using words in the same way!

I think a good sponsor can be the catalyst for a highly performing team, but is not always the catalyst. A good sponsor understands teams, and will both give leadership and some for the team to form and develop into a highly performing unit – i.e. will neither over manage and nor will she or he be too distant. Such sponsors focus on setting parameters and goals, giving coaching and direction. The importance of good sponsorship to project success is accepted in theory, but in practice often gets under-estimated. So, I think you stress an important point.

In terms of the leadership / management split – again I essentially agree, but here I am cautious, because those words do seem to mean different things to different people. From a project management perspective, my view is that this is about the project manager focussing on team formation and development as much as, if not more so, than the everyday project management processes. If that is leadership then I agree.

I also think there is a third angle which I did not touch on in my article, as it was targeted at project managers. That is the team itself. With good sponsorship and leadership, even quite average teams can be converted into highly performing teams. But I also think some teams and team members themselves can be the catalyst for high performance – challenging the project manager and sponsor to give them the leadership that high performing teams thrive under."


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