Beware the paradox of forming project teams

The CEO assembled the team together in a large room and warmly welcomed them to the project. Preparation for this event had been building over several months, but now all was in readiness for the project to finally commence and for the organization to rapidly crank-up this long-awaited initiative. The room was filled with excitement and great anticipation. In launching this initiative, the CEO placed great emphasis on the importance of teamwork, and highlighted that the project would only succeed with a strong team.

One aspect of the modern corporation has been the explosion of teams in various forms – project teams, virtual teams, rapid deployment teams, functional teams and many more.  Many of these teams are formed for a fixed duration to deliver an outcome, and then disbanded or moved to another part of the business.

But how successful are teams in the business context, especially those focused on projects or major initiatives? Indeed for the CEO above, will future meetings with the team be positive and uplifting or will they be full of anguish and lament?

A project team is a complex being and has the capacity to deliver powerful outcomes. But fully successful projects are sadly a rarity. Various studies over the years have dissected the issues of project management and related aspects of project success. Numbers vary of course, but it is commonly understood that as little as 30% of change programmes fully deliver their expected benefits. For IT specific projects, it is often stated that perhaps only 40% of these fully deliver the expected benefits. The real point here is that the delivery of projects or initiatives in organizations falls well short of where it should be. This causes major cost blowouts, loss of momentum in the market place plus huge distraction of management time and attention.

In any discussion on project teams, there is frequent reference to governance and project management processes, tools and expectations. All this is appropriate, but not sufficient. Indeed, too much focus on the “mechanics” can blinker the team and management from seeing some of the bigger issues regarding the team’s performance.

People represent the core of the team and its success. In one sense, this is stating the obvious, but unfortunately this aspect is often not afforded the prominence it deserves.

The most critical part of the project team is its formation, and ensuring the right team members are selected and committed to the team’s success. It is a bit like building a house. If the right foundations are not in place very early, the house will be far from robust and may be at risk of collapse. In many projects, there is an apparent strong focus on the formation of the team, but lets not confuse the flurry of activity to get the project started with real emphasis on getting the right team established.

There are four driving principles in forming a team to run a major project. But each of these is a paradox in that each principle contains an apparent contradiction. It is the management of these paradoxes that is the key to success.

1. Like-minded people are needed, but diversity is important

Generally, teams will be formed around like-minded people who have similar knowledge sets or functional skills to bring to the project. They may also have experience in projects of similar size or complexity. For example, a major technology project will typically include business analysts, programmers and other technical experts that gravitate around a common area such core financials or CRM systems.

But the team needs to ensure it does not generate a “Yes Minister” type culture. It needs a diverse set of members of different backgrounds and skills. Teams need people to ask the challenging or unorthodox questions. Including team members of different functional skills or from totally different parts of the business can help in this regard.

2. Balance of skills is essential, but one capability stands out

Every team needs to have the right skills to do the task required or to at least be able to access those skills when needed. This is often challenging if many of the required skills are in strong demand. For instance, a project for new core financials in a business will need to have the full suite of skills to not only ensure that requirements are met, but also to bring into the project the appropriate best practices across the broader business spectrum.

But the capability to integrate across the team is a key requirement. Projects comprise many moving parts and can be highly complex, and the ability to integrate across the team is a key capability. Teams comprise very specific areas of activity, but success at the end of the day is to pull these together to make the project deliver. Capability in integration is an important selection criteria for team members.

3. Team leaders are important, but leadership is needed from everyone

There is always a strong emphasis on the selection of the team leader, and rightly so. Indeed, team leaders are often put through a rigorous selection process before they are confirmed in their roles.

But leadership on a project is actually for everyone. Leadership is not just about the visible aspects of the team leader chairing team meetings for example. It is about everyone looking out for colleagues and helping where needed. It is about providing mentoring to newer or younger members of the team. Leadership is also about team members calling out particular problems that might be emerging, and even better if they offer suggestions on how to solve those problems. Selecting people for projects must include consideration of their capability and track record in this regard.

4. Clear focus of effort is needed, but agility is crucial

Every project needs a very clear focus of where it is heading. This is important for the team members and the organization as a whole.

But all projects need to have some inbuilt agility to respond to changing needs or requirements. People need to have the ability to change and respond to the new circumstances. For example, a competitor may make an announcement in the market that influences the timing or expected deliverables of a project. People in teams must be selected with agility in mind, and their ability to personally accommodate such changes.

The effectiveness of teams was articulated well by Henry Ford when he said, “Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, but working together is success”.

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