Rx for Project Managers: Getting from Team/Work to Teamwork

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020


Q: How can I organize my team for maximum creativity, flexibility, and success?Depends on:
—The experience of the team
—The size of the team


Considering team experience
For new teams, especially teams with a number of novice contributors, the first steps to building a high-performing team involve transitioning through the stages of “forming and storming” as quickly as possible. Collaborating as a team in brainstorming, planning, and engaging in team-building activities will help achieve the good relationships and mutual trust required to get you into “norming,” where people begin to see themselves as members of a team.

Provide mentoring and guidance for less-experienced team members to assist them in quickly becoming productive contributors. Also consider development needs for the team as a whole, and focus on any training or skill building that will help you cover your responsibilities and benefit your project.

Engage the more experienced members of your team in this mentoring and training, emphasizing your appreciation for their expertise and value to the team. Set up rewards for creativity and problem solving. When dealing with members of your team who have a long history of project successes, focus discussions on what the project needs to accomplish. Leave the details of how to do the work mostly up to them; they probably know a good deal more about it than you do anyway. Ownership and responsibility for key parts of the project are key motivating factors. Encourage self-management, and trust people with experience to do what they have committed to do—at least until you have reason to believe otherwise. As Hewlett-Packard founder Bill Hewlett was fond of saying, “People do what's expected, not what's inspected.”

Considering team size
On small teams, and even to some extent on large ones, team-building activities and rewards for creativity can be quite effective. When the project team becomes so large that the techniques of program management come into play, however, the primary responsibility for encouraging innovation and maintaining relationships and trust will need to be delegated to the leaders of each project team. Program-level structures and incentives that facilitate how things work may help, but the key success factors that are under your control are finding project leaders who are personable and competent, and working to minimize interproject dependencies within your program. Your program will be able to take best advantage of all the talents and creativity available only if each project team is set up to work independently and can be largely self-managed.

Q: How can I work effectively with other project teams and leaders who have very little project management experience?
There are times where your success depends a great deal on the competency and cooperation of other project leaders. If your peers are sufficiently experienced, things are likely to go well. If they aren't, you will probably need to help them get up to speed.

Leading by example
If you see little evidence that the project leaders you must work with are doing what they need to do, you may be able to get them on track by providing good examples. If planning information you need about their projects is missing or unclear, share your plans and provide templates and other job aids to get them started. If the processes that they are using are not working well, offer to help them by mentoring and provide good process descriptions to them. Make reference and training materials available to help improve how they are working and to build project management skills.

Criticizing other project leaders is never appreciated or effective, but a related tactic that often works is asking a lot of questions. If a dependency that you have on a related project is progressing poorly, meet with the other project leader to discuss it. Focus on specific detailed interactions and drill into the issues. Exploring project status using fact-based questions can provide a face-saving way for others to change. Once they realize what they ought to have been doing, they can shift into it without having to admit that they had no idea what they were doing. Focus questions on timing, resource, deliverable, or other factual issues, and work suggestions into the questions for how things might be improved.

Another idea that may be effective is to recognize where there is a leadership vacuum and leap into it. If overall planning is not sufficiently coherent, offering to lead a collaborative planning exercise can not only be a good way to ensure that the planning will be done well, but also a sneaky way to teach the others involved how it ought to be done.

Using common tools
Another way to encourage adoption of common, effective processes is to promote the use of consistent project management tools. If everyone is using the same tool for functions such as scheduling and managing project information, you can exert a lot of influence by providing guidance on structure, tool training, and mentoring, and also by providing specific examples of good project artifacts produced using the shared applications. Libraries of templates and project documents can be very influential in improving the quality of your peers' project management artifacts.

Using your influence
Although it is often the case that people you work with are not employing adequate project management processes because they don't know how, sometimes this happens for other reasons. Some people are process phobic and prefer not to think about what they need to do much in advance. Others may just not have much aptitude for project management. If you find that you must work with other project leaders who are just not very interested in doing it well, you may be able to change their minds by selling the benefits of good project management. Or, you might be able to escalate to your sponsor or another higher-level manager to enlist his or her help in encouraging better cooperation.

Even in cases where you are successful in persuading (or coercing) your peers into managing their projects better, they may be grumpy about it and remain difficult to work with. Also, people with little project management aptitude or who do not believe that project management principles are useful will almost inevitably revert to their old habits eventually. Whenever your progress depends upon dragging recalcitrant project leaders into line with your current project, you should also look for ways to avoid having to work with them again on some future project.

© 2011 Tom Kendrick. Excerpted by permission of the publisher from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, by Tom Kendrick, PMP. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association.

Check out AMA’s Project Management seminars.