28 July 2009

Dealing With a Project Team That is Not Spending Enough Time Together

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the second of these signs, a project team that does not seem to be not spending much time together.

Why is this a problem? A complex project will (almost by definition) require input from different parts of the organization. It will also almost always require a combination of different experience, knowledge, and abilities in order to successfully meet its goals. While there are certainly project-related activities that need to be done on an individual basis, there is a great deal of work that needs to be done jointly by the team.

In my experience, the first, and maybe most crucial, of these activities is getting real agreement on the goals and deliverables of the project, and the translation of this into activities (Other crucial success factors for starting up a complex project are described in another blog-post). This common and joint starting point can only be achieved by spending time together, and is crucial for ensuring that all team members are doing the right things. Another activity that must be carried out jointly is the interpretation of the outcomes of analytical activities (see blog-post on how to get a team to carry out meaningful analytics). While the initial analysis can be done by one member of the team, real quality is added by using the experience and knowledge of the rest of the team. Spending time together for this type of activities is also crucial for ensuring that the rest of the team understand and agree the outcome of specific activities in order to optimally carry out their own pieces of work.

A complex project typically also requires a high degree of coordination between activities. This can sometimes be done face-to-face between two team-members, but broader coordination is often required to ensure that all activities are optimally linked to each other. A typical example of such coordination comes from a recent project where I helped a team develop a business plan. In this project two crucial activities were developing a spreadsheet model and collecting data and developing assumptions for filling the model. One of the major challenges this team had was ensuring that these two activities were aligned regarding type of data and the format of the data to be collected. An additional complexity was that the requirements of the model were changing over time as additional insights were developed. This alignment was done partly in team meetings, and partly in face-to-face meetings between the modeler and the individual team members.

Finally, the development of the overall conclusions and recommendations from the project will require closely working together, as it will be based on analysis and interpretation coming from all the activities carried out by the team. This is crucial not only for the quality of the results, but also for developing the required consensus view on the conclusions (especially if the project is political in its nature and the team members represent different factions within the organization).

Why do project teams not spend sufficient time together? Sometimes I see that it is because they do not understand the need for working together. Often this is combined with a feeling that they do not have sufficient time to spend together, and need to focus on "doing the work". Other times, the team members do not feel comfortable working together. This is especially the case if the project is political in nature.

What can be done to help the team spend sufficient time together? The first step I typically carry out is to sit down with the team to understand why they do not get together more often. Typical answers I l get are that there is limited need and that they do not have the time to spend together. In this case, I make a strong case for why time together is required (using the arguments given earlier). If "time" truly is a key factor, then I have had to ensure that the team members are able to free up sufficient time from their day-to-day activities to give the required attention to all aspects of the project work. This has usually required the assistance of the project sponsor. Finally, I have forced the team to set appointments for getting together (including agreeing an agenda for what will be discussed). In these cases, it has also helped if the sponsor has taken time to sit in on one or two meetings to help the team to work effectively together.

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