Projects are People Driven

Before we get into building teams, let’s take a moment to talk about the importance of people in projects. Project management can seem full of technical terms and processes. We use techniques like earned value analysis and work breakdown structures but do not get fooled into thinking these are the most important aspects of executing projects.

Projects are people-driven. People think of ideas for products and services, and we create projects to produce them. People execute these projects, and yet more people use the products and services they make. It is not turtles all the way down; it is people all the way down.

Building a Team

Building teams is one of the most critical parts of project management. Teams do the work, teams solve problems, teams deliver results. With the wrong team or a suboptimal team, those results may not be what the sponsor asked for or what our customers wanted.

So building a team is key to success. In theory, we could hire the perfect team (if such a thing exists), but I suspect they are busy elsewhere. We could recruit the right people, use or train those people we already have, or use who we get assigned / can find around the place. In reality, most projects use various strategies. As a project manager, our goal is to do the best with what we have, be creative in finding and recruiting necessary talent, and diligent in training and development.

1.6.1 Appraise Stakeholder Skills

(Catalog the current skills and determine if any others are needed)

The activity “Appraise stakeholder skills” aims to assess the skills we have and the skills we need to deliver the project outcomes. This can be done through a variety of approaches, including: 

  • Structured interviews – skills assessments and matrices
  • Attitudinal surveys – skills and mindset data collected by a survey
  • Ability tests – more common when recruiting new team members
  • Focus groups – collective reviews of what we can do and where we need help

Balance Fill-Skill-Gaps with Resiliency

After identifying the skillsets needed for the team, we should look at capacity and potential skill-shortage risks.  Having a critical skillset provided by just one person could represent a single source of failure if they left or could not work. So some overlap in skills can be beneficial.  

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Agile approaches encourage “generalizing specialists” and promote the concept of “T” shaped people. “I” shaped people have skills in one only domain. They are like the letter “I”, deep and narrow. “T” shaped people augment their deep skills in one area with some broader (shallower) skills in others so they can help out in these areas too, if need be.

T Shaped People

1.6.2 Deduce Project Resource Requirements

(Identify where the team needs support and growth)

Part of planning a project is analyzing what will be required to complete it. This will include material, tools, capabilities and people. (I am not a fan of calling people “resources” since it implies they are interchangeable units to be used or consumed, but some terms are slow to change.) We need to list all skills and roles required for successful project completion.

Tools commonly used to do this include:

  • Skills lists – recording what is required and maybe also when and in what quantity
  • Resource schedules – a breakdown of when people are needed
  • Rate tables – financial information about the cost of engaging people
  • RACI Matrix – a table showing who is Responsible, who is Accountable, Consulted and Informed
  • Virtual teams’ requirements – technology needed, additional engagement forms and documentation

Team Formation

The Tuckman model of team formation is a useful tool for discussing how teams often develop. The Tuckman model describes five stages of team evolution.

1 Forming is when team members first meet each other. Team members are trying to identify where they fit in. They may seem polite, quiet and can be reluctant to share their thoughts. 

2 Storming, now conflict and competition arise as people try to establish how best to work together and who calls the shots.

3 Norming, the team settles down after determining people’s roles and ways of working.

4 Performing, some, but not all, teams enter the performing phase of being comfortable with each other and able to collaborate effectively.

5 Adjourning is when the work ends, and the team begins to disband.

As indicated by the dotted arrows, performing teams can go back to the storming stage if a disruption occurs. The most common cause for this is the addition or subtraction of a team member. Now the team has to go through storming and norming again with the changed dynamic.

Also, groups may go from norming direct to adjourning without ever reaching a performing stage if some element of their development was not addressed.

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In traditional approach environments, it is normal for project managers to create a Project Management Plan that includes team information, such as:

  • Team members assigned to the project
  • Their roles and responsibilities
  • Stakeholder directory
  • Project organization charts

For large projects, there may be a separate Resource Management Plan that outlines talent management attributes such as:

  • Competences – What skills and capacities are required
  • Identification of resources – which people are being requested
  • Acquisition of resources – How they will be found and assigned to the project
  • Roles and Responsibilities – what they will be doing
  • Project Organization Chart – who reports to who
  • Resource management – Schedules and direction on how people will be engaged, managed, and eventually released.

Team Operation

Once teams are formed, how they behave and operate can vary based on the project approach used.

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When using an agile approach, work is typically not parceled out to team members by the project manager. Instead, team members self-organize and collaboratively determine who will undertake each of the work items. The work items (tasks or user stories) are typically stored in a backlog

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When using traditional project management approaches, the project manager typically assigns work items to team members for them to undertake. Tasks or work items are stored in a work breakdown structure.

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Hybrid approaches can use some variation of these approaches. For instance, teams may operate in short iterations, working from a backlog, but have tasks assigned to them by a team lead or project manager, rather than self-organize. This is not how agile approaches recommend teams operate, but is one possible blend of traditional and adaptive approaches. 

Building High Performing Teams

There is a big difference between a high performing team and a bunch of people assigned to a project. Building high performing teams takes effort and an appreciation of what makes teams effective. This quote from “The Wisdom of Teams” by Katzenbach & Smith describes some core attributes of high performing teams:

A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

So as project managers, our job is to help assemble teams with the necessary complementary skills required for the project. Then unite them behind a common purpose using a vision, charter, and definitions of done, etc. Then help establish measurement and performance goals along with building an environment that fosters mutual accountability. This is no easy feat, but topics that we will explore as we tackle related tasks such as 1.4 Empower team members and stakeholders, 1.10 Build shared understanding, and 1.12 Define team ground rules.

Diversity and Inclusion

Not only is building diverse and inclusive teams the morally correct thing to do, but it also strengthens teams and brings additional insights. Having a broad spectrum of experiences, ages, cultures, outlooks, ethnicities, socioeconomic status, and genders make for a more robust team.

Diverse teams are less likely to be blindsided by the needs of a missed demographic or sucked into groupthink. Diversity leads to better creativity and innovation. Two minds are better than one only when they are different. Do not pay twice (or ten times) for the same opinion.

1.6.3 Continuously Assess and Refresh Team Skills to Meet Project Needs

(Learning is a journey, skill requirements will evolve, keep them fresh)

The skills required to execute a project may evolve over time. As new stakeholders or technologies are encountered, it may be necessary or just beneficial to update team skills with extra training or mentoring. Project managers must continuously assess and refresh team skills to meet the project needs.

Training is also a powerful intrinsic motivator, meaning people like to feel that they are progressing in their careers and gaining new skills. Providing ongoing opportunities for training and growth is an essential tool in employee development and retention.

Training goals should be part of an employee’s evaluation and recognition plan. It forms one element of describing how team members are reviewed, rewarded and recognized.

1.6.4 Maintain Team and Knowledge Transfer

(Keep the team functioning and share information)

We do not just build a team once and assume our work is done. Effective teams need continuous support to help them function and should be encouraged to share information. On traditional projects, weekly check-in meetings, monthly review meetings, phase gate reviews, annual 360 degree review sessions, and lessons learned workshops all provide opportunities to monitor and improve performance.

Agile teams discuss blockers or impediments during the daily standup meeting if any have arisen. They also hold frequent retrospectives to review the people, process and technology aspects of the project to see what can and should be improved.

Knowledge Sharing

Sharing information is critical for projects to succeed and occurs in many forms. Inside projects, team members share information about what they are working on via status reports and providing visibility into plans, designs and specifications. Knowledge and learnings are captured in lessons learned reviews and made available to relevant stakeholders.

Agile teams go out of their way to make a lot of information visible. Information radiators (big visible graphs displayed publicly) share important metrics. Kanban boards and frequent demonstrations show what people are working on. Daily standup meetings discuss what people are working on and any issues encountered. Retrospectives share feedback, observations and ideas for improvements.

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Sharing good news and what went well is easy. The best organizations freely share (internally) all the things that went wrong, caused problems or still confuse them. That way, other teams can avoid the same issues or be better prepared for the challenges. It takes courage to share failures, and junior project managers often feel pressured to perform and prove themselves.

However, wherever appropriate, share the problems encountered too. It is one way the best performing organizations improve faster than their competitors.

Virtual Teams

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Virtual teams (also called remote teams) often miss out on overhearing each other’s conversations, water cooler talk and the ease of face-to-face chats. To make up for this, they often rely on more video conferencing, instant messaging, email and documentation. These formats have some advantages and can typically be recorded or consumed at any time (asynchronously). However, virtual teams know this in advance and so can plan to use technology such as wiki’s and online information tools like Slack, Trello, Jira, and ADO to share information.

Deliverables and Tools

  • Pre-assignment tools
  • Skills lists
  • Resource schedule
  • Resource assignment
  • RACI matrix

Related Topics

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