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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #3 - Project Teams that Defy the Odds

By Al Amador - September 2010

Project Teams that Defy the Odds

Early in my career in the technology field, I was given a statistic that 90% of IT projects fail. Missed deadlines and general disarray seemed to be accepted as the norm. Driven to make my project one of the few success stories, I wanted to try a new approach. I decided to integrate the Five Dysfunctions of Team and Death by Meeting concepts into the project team development process. As the leader, I experienced first-hand the powerful impact of focusing on the project team’s alignment, candor and meetings. Now, as a Table Group Consultant, I am able to share what I’ve learned with others.

The Three D’s

Most large projects (technology, construction, manufacturing, etc.) have three main phases: Definition, Development and Deployment. Definition is the time spent on planning between groups and determining all of the requirements and success criteria before the very first trench is dug or web interface developed. Development is the actual building and testing, and deployment is the launch of the system or grand opening.

Having lead numerous team through the three phases, I now advise clients to frontload their time spent on the definition phase, because that is where trust and ideological conflict need to take place for project success. It is also a time for teams to get their meetings productive and functioning. If this phase is done correctly, the rest of the project should hum.

Getting Started

Every project kick-off meeting covers a myriad of information, such as: the project charter, the project plan, the requirements document, the meeting matrix, the project budget, etc. Understanding these elements is critical, but not at the expense of working on the project team itself. As a leader, you must view the team dynamics as a critical part of your overall plan – a track of work that needs to be managed throughout the entire project. Creating a healthy project team and using meetings effectively should be the first two milestones on your project plan. There are some critical steps to take to building a cohesive team.

Build Trust and Engage in Meaningful Conflict

A project leader must create a level of vulnerability-based trust to achieve the best possible outcomes with the team. If there is ever a time to say “I don’t know” or “Let me check into that” or “This doesn’t sound right,” it’s during the definition phase where these types of comments need to be aired, regardless of the political fallout or perceived incompetence.

Start with Trust — In order to build trust, the team needs to learn more about each other through guided discussions that probe for team member’s backgrounds and unique perspectives. Consider using a tool like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to provide the team with a context for each other’s communication preferences. Team Outcomes: Project teams that initially focus on getting to know one another and establishing a basis of trust spend far less time, if any, on non-productive project “CYA” activities. Once trust is in place, teams will get more done in less time, because there will be less political posturing and more transparency. Most importantly, the atmosphere of trust frees team members up to do their best thinking during this critical phase of the project.

Encourage Debate — Early on, have the team discuss their various comfort levels with conflict and establish some ground rules for dealing with issues effectively. Assure team members that healthy conflict (over issues, not people) is good — actually necessary — and participation is expected. Team Outcomes: Team members will start attending meetings regularly and actually look forward to them, because they will find that real issues will be resolved. When high cost Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) are present, team members will be more engaged and have the courage to ask questions and call-out gray areas. Soliciting input from all the players in the room will ultimately yield the best ideas and decisions.

Establish an Effective Meeting Structure

During the definition phase, time and money are spent on staff, contractors and internal clients. Initial meetings focus on a range of topics including: requirements gathering, budget forecasting, business processes, roll-out plans, etc. Yet, most project leaders simply produce an org chart and meeting matrix (who needs to be in what meeting) without considering the type of meeting actually needed. Developing a meeting structure based on context and content will be beneficial to the project team.

Save Time and Money with a Daily Check-in — It may seem counter-intuitive to think that an additional daily meeting will save the project money. In reality, a daily check-in (in person or remote) — one that requires each participant to give a one minute daily activity status report — will save vast resources over time. Team Outcomes: Most peer-to-peer requests for information and time can be handled during this meeting. Furthermore, cross project interdependencies will be immediately identified and follow-up emails and actions will be clear. The biggest win, however, will be the reduction of status reporting during the weekly project meeting as the team will already be up to speed. The weekly project meeting will be more productive, centered on project obstacles, important team decisions and joint action items.

Keeping the Weekly Project Meeting Tactical — The greatest temptation is to go into “solution mode” during a weekly project meeting. Separating the truly tactical topics (the immediate and most pressing issues to the projects) from strategic topics (weighty topics such as long-term solutions, new ideas, competitors, etc.) is one of the greatest contributions a project leader can make. Team Outcomes: Focusing on tactics and issues will help decisions get made rapidly and keep the project moving forward. True strategic thinking will be given the proper time needed through ad hoc meetings — not simply as an agenda item for the weekly meeting. Most importantly, a well articulated, consistent meeting structure will ensure clear, ongoing communication.

Make the Project Team the ‘Number One Team’

This is the most difficult challenge for project teams within large organizations. Individual members often report up to other parts of the organization and have been “simply assigned” to the project. In addition, there are often competing interests among the different groups assigned to a project team. This is where the project team has to come together and publicly declare their collective buy-in, through a formal communication process. Teams will be more willing to make the project team a priority when trust, healthy conflict and productive meetings are in place.

Take a Stand and Make it Public — The communication plan, particularly the milestones and launch date(s), need to be articulated and understood by the entire team and throughout the organization. Once the project plan and target dates are in place, the team leader and members need to share responsibility of publicly communicating those commitments. Team Outcomes: All parts of the project team (Business, IT, Finance, etc.) will be more consistent in their communication to their respective areas, resulting in far less confusion on the project. You will see greater levels of cross-functional collaboration, particularly with the tasks that have no obvious owner. Also, the project leader will spend far less time on project status reporting and more time on execution.

Stack the Odds

The definition phase is the most obvious phase to embark on this new way of tackling projects. Of course, the same principals apply to the development and deployment stages. Projects teams that have high levels of trust, engage in meaningful conflict, run effective meetings, clearly articulate commitments, and hold each other accountable, will find themselves in the 10% project success category. While the temptation to dive right into a project is great, take the time to invest in your team and its inner workings first, and the odds for a project’s success will escalate.