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Team Building: Creating High-Performance Teams

Every project manager I have ever met has spoken about “our team.” I consider this to be a communal delusion because I have rarely seen a team; what I mostly see is a bunch of people working on roughly the same thing. There is a difference between a bunch and a team—some authorities have suggested that a team can outperform a bunch by a factor of two or three. Think what this means. Even if the “team factor” is only two, this means that the same work can be done by half the number of people. Would this interest your company? Would being able to produce consistently high work with fewer people mark you as a valuable member of the organization? If so, learning how to turn a bunch into a team should become one of your priorities.

In fact, assuming that you are a project manager, I suggest that learning how to build high-performance teams is more difficult and more critical for you than it is for any other managerial role. I have two reasons for this claim.

The first reason is masked by a project management myth: that project success depends upon selecting the right team members—those who will meld together. Not only is selecting the right team a notion that pervades project management literature, it is one that caused an engineering company, which shall remain anonymous, to hire an expensive consultant to administer a personality profile to all of its technical and managerial staff with the goal of ensuring that project teams would be assembled from those whose personalities “meshed.” The problem with all of this, apart from the hugely complex and largely futile psychological exercise of predicting how people will interact, is simply that few project managers ever have the luxury of selecting a project team. Companies do not have idle pools of talent waiting to be picked like players in a sandlot ball game. The problem that I and other project managers face is not in choosing compatible team members, but in getting people who are even remotely qualified for the work. Project managers do not select teams, they must build them from the people they are allotted.

The second reason that team-building is especially difficult for us as project managers is that while department managers have the luxury of time to allow a team to evolve, the transitory nature of projects requires that we build teams fast.

This, then, is our burden: to build high-performance teams from a near-random collection of people and to do it quickly. No other management role carries these constraints, which forces me to conclude that building good teams is far harder for project managers than for anyone else, and every bit as vital.

But what is a team? How does it differ from a bunch? The most concise definition I have found is, “A team is group of people committed to a common goal.” There are two aspects to that definition: a common goal and commitment. In this article, I will deal with the latter. (This is not to devalue setting a common goal. Conflicting views of where the project is going has derailed many a sincere attempt to build a team. After all, if you hitch one horse to the front of the wagon and the other to the rear, both horses can work mightily, but you won’t go far and you’ll probably wreck the wagon. As the project manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that everyone on the team agrees on the goal, even if they prefer another one.)

Which leaves commitment.

Commitment means that the goal of the project is more than just another work assignment, it becomes a psychological imperative. It means that success is personal. Failure hurts. At a gut level, the project matters. Committed people do not need to be exhorted to “give 110%” or “do whatever it takes” or “come to play” or any other sports cliché you choose. Committed people will “do what it takes” to make the project succeed. Uncommitted people will do what it takes to collect a paycheck.

However, one of the more frightening aspects of commitment is that when people commit, they do not commit to a project or to a company, they commit to a leader. That’s you. And when they commit to you, they commit to follow you wherever you (reasonably) need to lead them. (Those who follow a leader wherever he unreasonably leads them belong not to a team, but to a cult.)

So how do you instill commitment? How do you motivate people? The bad news is that you can’t. People, annoyingly, are self-motivated. All you can do is establish the environment in which motivation will grow. As more than one commentator has noted, motivation is not industrial, it is agricultural; you can’t manufacture it, you must nourish it and allow it to evolve.


It is astonishing to me that managers need to be taught how to behave in order to get their people’s commitment. After all, we have all been in situations where we have been uplifted and ennobled, and we have all been in situations where we have been belittled and scorned. Which of these is more likely to produce commitment? (This question is rhetorical. If you have to think about it, please take up a career that doesn’t involve managing people.)

A Couple of Examples

I had pulled an all-nighter. The project had to produce a set of reports by noon the next day and it would take all night. At the end of the day, I went home, changed into my casual clothes, ate, and returned to the office. I worked all night, through the next morning and finally finished at about eleven o'clock, at which point I turned the reports over to production and went home to collapse into bed. The next day, my manager summoned me into his office, but instead of the well-deserved praise and thanks I expected, he said, "We have a dress code here. We don't mind you working all night, but if you are going to work during office hours, we expect you to go home and change. Don't let it happen again."

I had pulled an all-nighter. The project had to produce a set of reports by eight the next morning and it would take all night. At the end of the day, I went home, changed into my casual clothes, ate, and returned to the office. At about eleven p.m., my manager (a different manager) appeared and asked how it was going. When I muttered a non-committal, "fine," he said, "I have some work to do. if you need a hand, I'll be in my office." I dismissed the offer as managerial posturing and went back to the project. I finished the reports about three a.m. and cranked up the machines that would prepare them for delivery when my manager suddenly appeared and said, "This is something I can help with." We finished binding the reports, he took me out for a bite to eat, drove me home, and said, "Don't come in today."

These are true stories and they illustrate some of the principles that can either inhibit or foster commitment. However, before I get to them, there is one other topic that I need to discuss.

Foster Prima-Donnas

We have all heard sentiments such as “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” “We don’t want prima-donnas here.” “The team is bigger than you.” “Check your ego at the door.” Good grief. It seems as if anyone who wants to build a team must be first concerned with squelching any expressions of individuality; the team is all. The problem is that of all the high-performance teams I have had the privilege of knowing, they have succeeded not in suppressing egos, but in harnessing them, and not in the service of some amorphous concept such as “team,” but in the practical, real problem of achieving a concrete result. (A quick definition: A prima-donna is one whose attitude of superiority is deserved. Someone whose attitude is underserved is a poseur or, to be more Anglo-Saxon, a jerk. Get rid of him.)

The prima-donnas on your team will raise the hackles of two groups: the client and your other team members. If the client demands that the team member—any team member, prima-donna or not—be removed, you must refuse, otherwise you are giving notice to the team of whom they must satisfy. And it’s not you. Your bigger problem will be how to pull together all your team members, including the prima-donnas, into a cohesive unit. Here are some principles.

Principles for Building a High-Performance Team
  1. Lead by example. Are you committed to the project? If not, it’s harder for your people to commit to you. Is your work exemplary and of high quality? If not, you can’t complain when your people mirror your sloppy habits.

  2. Develop leaders. You have an issue that needs to be solved. You can solicit “input,” which, you hope, will mitigate your ignorance of the subject enough to allow a defensible decision, or you can delegate it. Find the person who is the most knowledgeable about the issue, then assign that person to resolve it with the condition that you will accept whatever resolution he produces. Will it be the best solution? Perhaps not, but leadership emerges from the cauldron of dubious decisions.

  3. Set specific expectations. People can only commit to what is clear. If you are vague about the scope or details of a work assignment, don’t be surprised when your team member’s interpretation of your fuzziness does not conform to yours.

  4. Walk the halls. The action is not at your desk, it’s out there where people are solving problems, working, and interacting. Join them or prepare yourself to cry, “What happened?” when the project founders.

  5. Involve your team. If you have a problem, such as schedule slippage, you can either hunch down at your desk and produce a revised plan that you will impose on your team, or you can call them together and solicit suggestions about how to handle it. Not only does this approach create a commitment from those who developed it, it honors and respects their abilities as people rather than as resources. (In fact, unless you are talking about something like oil sands or lumber, expunge the word “resource” from your vocabulary.)

  6. Emphasize teamwork. Thank and reward team members for helping others who are struggling. Even better, thank and reward team members who are courageous enough to ask for help.

  7. Serve your team. Who should do the peripheral activities: photocopying, faxing, doing pickups or deliveries, scraping the sludge from the coffee pot? You can demand that one of your minions handle it or you can recognize that every hour that that minion spends on side issues is two hours lost in project work and you can swallow your pride and do it yourself.

  8. Defend your team. Never allow anyone—customers, managers, suppliers, or team members—to attack anyone on your team. Be absolutely ruthless in condemning all destructive or unsolicited criticism as unwelcome and offensive. In particular, be vigilant against humor. It often disguises a vicious barb.

  9. Praise in public. In any meeting, make it a point to embarrass with effusive praise at least one team member.

  10. Discipline in private. If you need to discipline, it’s between you and the team member. It’s nobody else’s business. (With respect to discipline, you may find it hard, but without it, you are not a leader, you are a social worker.)

  11. You are not their friend. You are their leader. This does not mean that you must remain aloof or that you must refrain from the banter that is part of any good workplace, but it does mean that you cannot establish personal relations with any team members that would inhibit your ability to discipline or replace them.

  12. Facilitate communication. Communicating is a pain. You have to formalize it. That means making it harder to avoid than to carry out. For example, set up a workflow system such that whenever anyone changes a document, an automatic notification is sent to everyone who is affected. Call team meetings at least once a week. Make them brief, informative, mandatory, and fun.

  13. Thank people. Believe it or not, this is free. Of course, you could thank them materially with an occasional team lunch or doughnuts at the meetings or an evening outing at a skating rink or ball diamond.

Another Look at Motivation

Years ago, psychologists began to study what people in the workplace want. At the time, this seemed like a pointless research project, akin to the one that found that rats sometimes can’t tell the difference between recordings of Japanese and Dutch played backward. (This is a real study. It won the 2007 Ig Nobel award in linguistics.) After all, everyone knew what people wanted: money. But to the surprise of the initial researchers, money was well down the list. The big three motivators for workers in all industries and of all ranks were the same: recognition for their contributions, a degree of control over their work, and appreciation. Do you notice something interesting about these? They’re free. They take some effort on your part, but they have zero effect on the project budget. Provide them and the people in your company will fight to be part of any project that you manage. What’s holding you back?

© 2008, allPM.com (www.allPM.com) republished with the permission of the International Institute for Learning, Inc. (IIL)


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