Projects are increasingly at the heart of what an organization does today. Whether it is new product development, marketing campaigns, technology implementations, process improvement or a myriad of other possibilities, projects are what get things done.
Almost all of us can point to examples of project success and project failure. Many well-known examples of project success include such famed stories as the Apollo space program, and the Chrysler Automotive turn-around. A more recent success story is the rescue of the miners in Chile. But for every success story, there are multiple failures. Time and / or cost overruns occur in many of our projects today while only a small percentage of the desired objectives is delivered.
At the heart of almost every project is a team that is tasked with completing the project and delivering value to the organization. Effective teams deliver high-quality, value-added projects. Ineffective teams deliver mediocre projects at best and no project at worst.
How can you improve the performance of the project teams in your organization? How can you get your project teams to do more, faster, and maintain or increase the quality of their deliverables so that your project is listed as a success and not as one of the statistics? The purpose of this article is to discuss 10 ways that will yield both short and long-term results and that should trigger you to think of other methods that will be effective in your own organization.
#1: Get Everyone Involved in the Project Planning Process
When you plan your projects, get the entire team involved to various degrees. Ask them what tasks will need to be completed to meet the project’s objectives. Ask them how long they estimate the tasks to take. Ask them what issues may arise and how you can plan for them. Why? Because when your team has input into the project plan, they will begin to feel ownership and responsibility for the tasks and deliverables for which they are responsible.
David is a team member on a new marketing project responsible for generating ad copy. He is not consulted on the project plan, but is told which tasks he needs to accomplish and how long it is going to take. David feels no ownership for the plan, nor does he feel a responsibility to complete the tasks in the time allotted. In fact, he feels somewhat resentful of the imposition. When push comes to shove and the project is running late and getting down to the wire, David leaves work on time and does not put forth any extra effort.
In contrast, Susan is a team member on a software implementation project. She has been involved from the beginning and has provided input into the various tasks that will need to be accomplished and their associated estimates. Susan is excited about the project, feels a part of the team, and is looking forward to contributing. When the project is getting down to the wire, Susan stays late, works harder and is committed to completing her tasks on time and in a quality fashion. Why? Because they are her tasks. She sat in the meeting and made a commitment to her teammates and she feels obligated to deliver.
A related suggestion is to utilize brainstorming sessions. Many times during project planning or execution phases, questions, problems or challenges arise that must be solved. For example, a product solution must be developed to meet a particular need. Sometimes, a brainstorming session may be an appropriate and effective method of putting forth a solution.
A brainstorming session will get several if not all members of the project team together to brainstorm ideas for a possible solution. Granted, a lot of “crazy” ideas will be thrown out and that is ok. The goal is to identify the best ideas and to evaluate them as a group to determine the best appropriate solution given the team’s current constraints.
#2: Make Status Updating Easy
The primary job of your team members is to complete project deliverables in a quality fashion. However, part of their job is also to communicate the status of their work. This is critical as decisions need to be made based on the project’s current status. Can we add resources to a task that is falling behind? Can we source supplies from another vendor since the original vendor is late? What should we communicate to the organization’s customers? Critical questions such as these cannot be asked, much less acted upon, unless you have good project status. And the project’s current status is only as good as the status that each individual provides.
The quality of a team member’s status update is often related to the ease with which they can provide it and what will be done with it after it is provided. If it takes a team member hours every week to supply status, it will either not get done or it will not get done well. If it is a complicated process, they will simply not want to do it. The result is that you will not know for sure at any point in time where your projects stand. This mushrooms into ineffective or missed decisions, poorly executed projects and ineffective teams.
First, make status updating easy. Determine the information that you need to make decisions on the project. Sacrifice quantity for quality. You can collect a great deal of information from your team members, but most of it will not be used or necessary. Do not collect information that you do not absolutely need. Only collect the information that you need.
After you determine what is needed, determine the appropriate format to collect it. The format should be quick, simple and intuitive. Obtain feedback from your team members on what they think.
Second, as stated above, the quality of the status update is also related to what is done with the information. If a team member feels that they will be “beat up” over any type of “bad” information, they will be reluctant to give it. Ensure that the information is used constructively and that “bad” as well as “good” information can be freely given.
In summary, determine what information you need, a good, simple format for receiving it, and then use it appropriately.
#3: Hold Regular Meetings
Your first reaction may very well be a negative one because of the experience that all of us have had with irrelevant and / or poorly planned meetings. Nevertheless, done correctly, meetings can be a valuable tool in your team’s performance.
Rudolph Giuliani, former mayor of New York City, held daily morning meetings with all of his top staff. He continued this even through the September 11, 2001 disaster. This provided everyone with a forum to discuss what was going on, raise issues, learn what everyone else was doing and most importantly, have direct access to the decision maker.
You may not want to hold meetings every day, but you can still benefit from regular project team meetings if you follow these guidelines:
- Keep your meetings short. Don’t let your meetings drag on past their allotted time or your team members will grow to disdain them and they will quickly lose their effectiveness.
- Ensure that the right decision makers are at the meeting. The knowledge that decisions can and will be made at the meeting will greatly increase their effectiveness. Team members will be sure that they attend and that they have issues and questions ready. When decisions are being made, instead of being delayed in order to get the right decision makers in the room, your team will become that much more effective because they can take the decision and act on it.
- Have a definite agenda. Don’t go into the meeting without at least a basic plan for what you want to cover. Have a specific agenda with specific goals for what you want to accomplish and stick to it. Handle side topics later outside of the meeting if at all possible.
#4: Get your Teams Together Outside of the Office
Good relationships that develop within your project teams will foster efficiencies and productivity that cannot be created otherwise. Team members that communicate well with each other, respect each other and even like each other will work better together and improve their overall performance.
One of the best methods of improving team member relationships is to get your team members together outside of the office environment. Periodically go out and do something fun. Go out for lunch. Take a field trip to another organization that has worked on a similar project. Go to a baseball game. Be creative. You will be surprised – this single, very simple step will go a long way towards improving your team’s performance.
#5: Celebrate Achievements
In today’s hectic pace, achievements often times go unnoticed and unrecognized. We focus on our failures but rarely on our successes. It is important that you find things to celebrate. Celebrate a set of tasks being completed on time or early. Celebrate a project completion. Celebrate the little things as well as the big things. This will provide motivation for your team members to achieve more and make your project environment in general more enjoyable. An individual and team’s performance can often be related to their attitude. Celebrating achievements almost always helps to improve attitude.
How do you celebrate achievements? There are a variety of methods ranging from large gatherings or parties to very small acknowledgments. You do not always need to celebrate in grand fashion. Sometimes the small acknowledgments mean more: a personal recognition in a meeting, a hand-written note, a crafted “award”. If your team members know that you are appreciative of their contributions and are sincerely acknowledging them, they will catch on and continue to improve their performance.
Finally, celebrate individual milestones as well. These do not have to be project-related but could be birthdays, company anniversaries, promotions, etc. This simply creates a fun project environment that team members enjoy.
#6: Deal with Failures Head-On
Equally important with celebrating achievements is to deal with your team’s failures head-on. It goes without saying that this is a difficult task. Every project team will suffer failures as well as successes. What often times separates the highly effective teams from the ineffective ones is not how they deal with success but how they deal with failure.
If failure is not properly dealt with, it will become an “elephant” on the back of your team and will load them down in all future projects. No one will want to talk about it but everyone can feel the “cloud” hanging over the project. It is important that the team sit down and discuss what happened. Simply airing out frustrations can go a long way towards moving forward. Be careful, however. This should never turn into personal accusations or injury. Ensure that everyone understands that this will be conducted professionally and courteously with a focus on how to improve and that any exceptions to this rule are simply not allowed.
It is sometimes helpful to get the project team away from the “project setting” for a brief period of time. Go offsite. Talk through what happened. What did the team do that was good. What could the team have done better? Keep it positive, but don’t be afraid to talk about what should have been done better.
After you have gone through this process, work at making appropriate changes. Learn from the mistakes. The next project will not be perfect, but it can always be better. Implement some of the lessons learned.
In short, deal with the failure directly, work towards making changes and then move forward and stop dealing with the past.
#7: Encourage Team Input
Team members can often times come up with the best ideas on how to improve the team’s productivity and ultimate success. Be creative with methods on how to solicit their input. Leave a few minutes of time in your meetings for ideas and suggestions. Be open to them. Encourage your team members to provide input regularly and in various formats. Be open with the input and act on ones that are appropriate.
Not only will team members offer truly productive ideas (granted they will offer some unproductive ones as well), but they will feel more ownership and responsibility to the project when they have some input into how the project is executed.
#8: Empower Decision Makers
There is often nothing worse than a project team that has no decision makers. The team must then make decisions by committee which is often a cumbersome and time-consuming process. Identify who the decision makers are, make it clear to the team who the decision makers will be and stick by it. Often times, team member input should be solicited, but there must be one person who makes the decision.
Note that there can be more than one decision maker. There can be a decision maker for different areas of expertise such as product development, testing, engineering, marketing, etc. And the project manager can be the ultimate decision maker for the project as a whole outside of business issues that need to be decided upon by management.
This ties in directly with holding regular meetings. Your decision makers need to be involved in the meetings to make your meetings and your team effective, and to provide a forum for team input and for quick decision making.
#9: Give Them the Tools They Need
One of the common frustrations of team members is to not have the right tools to do their job. This covers two areas: tools that are job specific (a testing platform, a good computer, the right software for a graphics designer), and tools to manage the project.
Tools that are job specific are self-explanatory. If your team members need something to do their job, there is nothing more frustrating (or that wastes time more) than not having it. Get it for them. I understand the budget constraints that organizations are under, but find a way to win. Borrow from another department for a while, beg, but find a way to give your team what it needs to be successful. Not only will this help them do their job better, but will also show them that you are going to bat for them.
When we talk about tools that are used to actually manage the project, it gets a little fuzzier. What is frustrating to team members is when they have to spend a lot of time using tools to manage the project itself – i.e. updating status. How many people spend hours because they are still using spreadsheets to track project information? You do not necessarily need to embark on a grand expedition to find and implement a big project management software system. There are simpler tools available and you can even use better process to augment existing in-house tools. Follow these basic principles:
- Provide a tool that will only ask for the information that you will actually use (related to earlier points).
- Make the tool easily accessible.
- Make the information easily accessible (so they do not have to hunt for the right information).
- Ensure that it is not time consuming (don’t have them spending hours each week updating status).
- Ensure the tool is not difficult or overly complicated to use for the task at hand – keep it simple.
The flip side of this is the situation where team members do not want to use a tool, but would rather use nothing and stay in their cocoon. You still need to provide the right tools, and there is nothing wrong with expecting them to use them. Nevertheless, make sure that you follow the principles above.
#10: Put in Place a Method of Managing Issues and Change
Change is a given in almost every project and that can be a good thing. What you need to do is implement a system to manage it. Unmanaged change can very quickly remove any performance and motivational improvements that you have made with your teams. The reason is simple. If your team members have worked hard, planned well and performed well only to be hit by an unexpected change that requires them to work longer hours and that may jeopardize the project’s success, team motivation and performance will drop in a hurry.
That does not mean that we should not allow for change – we should. Resources, environments and business needs all change and we need to be flexible to meet those changing needs and requirements. However, we need to do it in a way that does not jeopardize our team’s performance.
Your system for managing change does not need to be complex. In fact, it can be quite simple. But it should at least follow these simple rules:
- All change should be funneled through the same process.
- Your team members should have input into the change. They may not have the authority to approve or disapprove of a change, but they can indicate the time and effort required and what the consequences of the change may be (i.e. other deliverables will be late, the project will be finished later, etc.).
- Do not allow anyone to work on the change until it is approved.
- Identify clearly who has the authority to approve a change.
- Ensure that there is an organizational value for implementing a change.
Like change, issues will appear in every project. You also need a system in place for managing these. This can be as simple as a spreadsheet listing the issue, when it appeared, who is responsible and what action will be taken to address it. Your periodic meetings can be great places to raise issues and in fact you should allow for time in them to raise issues. Your issue management system does not have to be complex, but it does need to exist and someone (typically a project manager) needs to be responsible to coordinate them. This will ensure that issues are not lost or forgotten (this will invariably come back to haunt you at the most inopportune time), and that they do not affect the overall performance of the project and the project team.
Improving the performance of a project team can be a very lengthy and detailed conversation covering many different areas of knowledge such as psychology, organizational behavior, business, team dynamics, etc. However, there are some simple, fundamental methods that you can easily put in place today which can lead to noticeable, short-term results, improve the performance of your project teams, and increase the success of your projects.
Take a look at your own organization and projects. Come up with other, similar ideas that will also be productive in your organization. Choose a few of the methods listed here that you feel will have the greatest impact and focus on these.
Project management is not easy, but with some persistence, flexibility and the implementation of some fundamental project management practices, you can begin to see more success in your own projects.