The high performance project team - How to create, sustain and disband one

Project teams create deliverables and achieve outcomes, not project managers. As in an orchestra - the project manager may be the essential conductor, but the players make the music. The project manager’s work is forgotten once the project completes. What is left and of value, are the outputs from the project team - the deliverables.

There are huge variations between the effectiveness of different teams. 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 real learning. But... how can you create such teams? In this article I will try to explore this subject and share my view on how such teams work, how they can be developed, sustained and, when the time comes, disbanded.

The Project Manager’s role in high performing teams

The project manager’s role is critical in this 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 not emphasised.

Building a productive project team has specific challenges. Project teams are typically short term structures, but 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.

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High performing project teams

The most productive teams have a certain culture. They are action, outcome, and team orientated. Let’s consider what these teams are like.

Team members think in terms of the goals of the team. Individuals have responsibilities and work to ensure they achieve them, 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. This extends to the project management work. 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

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 a high performing team?

Developing such a team starts with the choice of people in the team. You must have the capabilities and skills to do the work required, or the resources and time to learn how. But 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 them clarity. Every team member should understand the desired outcome, and be absolutely clear about their role and responsibilities. But more than roles is clarity about the behaviour expected 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. But consider what you can give back to every team member. This does not need to be major or difficult: it could be 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 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.

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.

As projects progress pressures change. All those 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, at least a final dinner together.

Conclusion

I hope that I managed to capture at least the essentials every manager should know about high performing teams and working with them. If you would like to add your perspective on the subject, don’t hesitate to do so via the comments form below. I’m looking forward to an interesting conversation.

Richard Newton is a consultant, author and program manager. He has published several books, and is the author of the best selling The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery, a book which can be found both on Amazon UK (for European readers) or Amazon US. His next project management book will be published in May 2013.

Related content:

The high performance project teams - How to prepare the team
How to Align Strategy and Delivery in a Business Organization
Taking Over the Project No One is Running

Comments

There is a challenge that is tricky to solve related to high performing project teams: the fact that they need to be disbanded at some point (since projects are temporary) and how hard it is to create and sustain such teams.

How would you approach this from a management (not project management) perspective? One approach I have encountered was to create high performing teams (generally very small and agile) specialized in a certain type of projects. They were migrated from project to project, to complement existing project teams and solve special challenges. They were used to give a temporary boost to projects that were performing poorly.

Would you consider this a sound management approach? Would you do things differently?

Yes, this is a viable approach, but it does depend what you are trying to achieve. Having some permanent high performing team who act as your super-stars delivering tricky projects can work very well. I also agree that to be effective such teams tend to be relatively small.

I see two challenges with this approach. Neither of these challenges is a show stopper, but I think they should be thought about.

Firstly, I am less sure about this as a technique to use when this high performing team is combined with other teams - the reason being is that the whole dynamic of the team is altered as soon as other people are included. Sometimes a brilliant team can be completely derailed by the addition of one new team member who does not work well with the rest of the team. I am not saying this technique won't work, but it is not certain to work. One way of increasing the probability that it will work, is to ensure that the super-star team is skilled in working and coaching others - i.e. they are not just good, but they are good at improving others and are motivated to do this. High performers are not always the best at bringing out the best in others - sometimes they are impatient. It takes a certain type of high performer to take the care to improve others abilities.

This relates closely to my second concern. If you have such a great team, it is good for that team - but it may mean that the potential for others to learn and develop is reduced. If all the most challenging, exciting projects, which are the ones you learn most from, are given to this team, no one else will develop their skills. This can be avoided with care - but again it needs to be thought about.