A widespread team seen in the workplace is that set up to run a project or particular activity. These teams come together for a specific purpose and for a finite time. This article, continuing on our series about effective teams in the workplace, looks at the particular characteristics of effective project teams, the problems this structure can pose, and the steps you can take to overcome them.
Like all of our articles, we welcome your feedback and comments.
What is a Project Team?
A project team is for the specific purpose of delivering a project solution. Although very distinct from other team structures, they typically disband after producing the particular goals. However, project teams can also have similar forms in terms of being multi-cultural, cross-functional or virtual. See our other articles covering these specific team structures.
Common Obstacles to Project Team Success
Like all teams, there are many specific problems that the project team structure poses in their goal of delivery. Five common obstacles to project teams include the following issues.
Skills and Knowledge Mix
Failure to determine the essential skills and knowledge needed to take the project from inception to completion often leads to the wrong mix of team members. Team members, therefore, tend to waste time as they struggle to acquire new knowledge or skills to bring them up to speed. This is fine if there are no tight deadlines, but where there are, it can lead to hastily efficient at what it is doing, designed and implemented solutions or to the project coming in late.
Troubleshooting tip: do a skill and knowledge audit for the project and use these to define a job and person specification that reflects the fundamental role rather than the imagined role. Do not sell a team role as something it isn’t, as this can only lead to frustration and resentment. Consider using Belbin Team roles, being action-oriented, people-oriented or cerebral; but remember these are only a guide to people’s preferences and capable of taking on more than one role type. Where a team is already in place, determine the gap between existing and required knowledge and skill and spend time upfront closing the gap.
An excellent book covering these different roles and project management more widely is Roger Jones and Neil Murray’s Change, Strategy and Projects at Work.
Planning and Organisation
Failing to plan a project properly without paying particular attention to critical dependencies, which affect the completion of deliverables, can lead to a series of project and team problems. Poor planning is often a key reason for team friction and conflict as members become frustrated and stressed by such things as slow progress, missed deadlines and poor processes.
Troubleshooting tip: for sizeable projects, teams should agree on a project plan with tasks and dependencies, showing the critical path through the project. Roles and responsibilities should be assigned, which should include inter-team communication. Consider using Microsoft Project, though this should be used as a working document, which is regularly updated rather than something done at the beginning of a project and then ignored. If you can ignore it, it is probably not worth spending the time doing it in the first place. It’s an application I’ve used before and does an excellent job. However, it does take some time to learn, like all software, and can be pretty complicated if you are only dealing with a small project.
Not the Day Job
Project teams often suffer from the fact that their members have principal roles in other teams that take precedence. Their commitment and thoughts are often tied up in activities in these prominent roles rather than those of the project teams, and attendance, contribution, timescales, deliverables etc., can suffer inadvertently.
Troubleshooting tip: members commitment and contribution will often be determined both by the importance they attach to the purpose of the cross-functional team and the behaviours and attitudes of fellow members. It is essential, therefore, that:
- the purpose is understood and agreed together with the project plan, milestones and key deliverables;
- inappropriate behaviours are challenged before they become an acceptable part of the team dynamics;
- the project forms part of an individual’s objectives/KPIs; and
- common purpose – failure to agree a common purpose for a project team often means that members are working towards different priorities or towards ends that have more to do with individual rather than the task or team.
Failure to set up and agree on decision-making processes, sharing information, running meetings etc., is common to project/temporary teams as they are not permanent arrangements. Thus standard procedures are ignored or only sketchily agreed upon. Particularly important is having a robust communication process, which keeps all the team informed. This is setting the team up to fail no matter how willing its team members are.
Troubleshooting tip: agree at the outset what key processes need to be set up and agreed upon. Having a process type person on a team can often help drive this forward, particularly if some team members would rather not spend time on processes. However, putting in time upfront can help eliminate later problems.
10 Steps for Creating Successful Project Teams
Although many common problems can arise with project teams, there are some steps that you can take to overcome these. These articles attempt to discuss what problems can occur and proactive steps you can take to avoid or at least minimise their effects.
In regards to project teams, these ten steps include ensuring:
- clearly agreed purpose statements;
- clearly agreed project plan with deliverables, responsibilities and dependencies agreed and continually reviewed and updated;
- an audit of skills and knowledge required and team members are recruited/developed to deliver these;
- agreed commitment levels to the project team to prevent the day job creating intolerable interference;
- time is spent at front end setting up team processes;
- there are multi-skill team members to perform a range of functions playing both to their strengths and development areas;
- tasks are built in that allow members to work together rather than on individual parts of a project;
- regular reviews are held to assess team effectiveness;
- an even balance is established between team, task and individual it is too easy in a project team to focus purely on task, and;
- successes are celebrated.