Build Load-Bearing Project Teams

[5 October 2009 Update: Added two external reference blog posts with a similar slant to this topic. Andrew] 

We get the project staff that we get. Period.

We can always hope that we have “the best and the brightest” consultants and high-potential internal folks who know the most about what we are trying to improve with the project. But…

The ability of this group of individuals to form a team and successfully bear the load of successfully delivering a project does not rest on their individual qualities.

It sure as hell is not contingent on them doing an offsite survival weekend or cooking course together so they can get to know each other’s individual qualities.

So what is the recipe for building project teams that can take anything on?

life image gym team

Think of it like this. How do you build up physical fitness? Start with a light training load and build from there. Add kilograms or kilometers in a planned build-up. Alternate training with recovery.

The same principles apply to building strong teams. The project team has to learn how cope as a team with the unexpected. They have to learn how to debate issues in a forthright way.

Don’t waste the honeymoon period at the start of the project pretending it is all going to be sweetness and light. It’s going to be tough so the team needs to get used to it in a controlled way. In addition to the project milestones and deliverables, use early conflict or debate to help the team learn how to work through it all together.

Some suggest that it may even be worth artificially creating a conflict or mini-crisis if necessary.

So, create the load yourself– don’t just wait for it to hit you (and it will sooner or later).

The second part of the equation is of course, creating the safe environment for the project team to build up their load capacity:

  • Enforce robust project processes to formalize issue management
  • Demonstrate leadership to help people work through conflicts in a safe, respectful way (what is said in the in the project meeting room, stays in the meeting room)
  • Demonstrate the value of balancing workload with recovery (folks need to go home every once in a while…)

The key to thing remember here is: no free lunch (or back to the sports idea – no pain no gain) 

You have to start this from scratch with every project team, regardless of how many project veterans you have managed to scrounge.

It is the team capacity to carry the load that counts in the end, not that of individuals.

Every team is unique and they need to build their load capacity anew.


[October 2009] Via the Metacool blog (tagline: thoughts on the art & science of bringing cool stuff to life, by Diego Rodriguez)  I discovered a couple of posts that bring additional context and flavour to ideas on building load-bearing teams.

Metacool - Grok the Gestalt of Teams.html

John Foster's Blog - Another Kind of Team

Read. Think. Discuss.


Sound advice :-)

Patrick Lencioni (ex Oracle) did a classic analysis of the dysfunctions of a team
-Lack of trust. Team members are uncomfortable being vulnerable with one another, unwilling to admit their weaknesses, mistakes or needs for help.
-Fear of conflict. Team members are unwilling to engage in passionate, unfiltered debate around important issues.
-Inability to commit. Team members fail to achieve buy-in around clear decisions and courses of action.
-Unwillingness to hold one another accountable. Team members fail to confront one another around behaviors and deliverables that do not conform to agreed decisions.
-Inattention to results. Team members put their individual needs for career development and recognition before the collective goals of the team.

Surfacing and addressing these early on can avoid much hardship later on

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a best selling book that explores the fundamental causes of organizational politics and team failure.

Posted by Ruan Malan on February 11, 2009 at 08:25 AM CET #

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Projects have become a lifestyle in business. Lets get good at them.


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