5 Values For Building Dream Teams

Have you ever been in the middle of a high stakes project and felt like everything rests on your shoulders? Maybe you feel like you're the only one who cares. 

Are you constantly following up with your team members because you're afraid something is going to be missed? Maybe you're worried that a missed deadline now is going to have a long term affect later on. 

The stakes are high, the expectations are demanding, and you're ultimately on the hook if your project fails. This is the life of project leadership, or at least it feels that way a lot of the time.

What if I told you that it doesn't necessarily have to be that way, at least not all the time? 

The most powerful asset you have on any project is your team. It may seem impossibly simple, but if you take good care of your team, then they will take care of you.

The struggle typically comes from figuring out how to actually go about building an empowered, self-managing, high performing team. 

There is no silver bullet or one size fits all solution. The nature of your project, company culture, talent, and so on will certainly factor in to how you approach things, but with the right values in place you can definitely put your team on the track to success. 

1. Promote Team Accountability

We've all heard the platitudes about teamwork like the infamous "There's no 'I' in team". If you work with a bunch of sarcastic engineers, like I do, you're going to get everything from eye rolls to the inevitable retort "yeah, but theres a 'me' in team". 

So how do you make people care about success (theirs, the project's, the company's, yours)? The truth is you can't make people do anything and the sooner you realize that, the better.

Project managers are notorious for being control freaks. In some ways this makes us very good at our jobs, but some behaviors can give us a very bad reputation and doesn't do much in terms of motivation.

What you can do, is level the playing field in terms of accountability. 

Flatten the Team Structure

Flatten your team's structure wherever possible. You are likely to have multiple levels of management in a single team. While there may be differences in responsibility, pay grade, and organizational authority, there needs to be equality across the team as far as the project goes.

Each team member needs to be allowed their voice, have a say in how things are done, and be able to coach up or down without having to navigate a hierarchy. 

Become Part of the Team

As a project leader, you must model the behavior and be part of the team.

Too many times I've seen project managers put themselves on a pedestal. They push their "authority" on the team, bark orders, and micromanage deadlines to the point where the team will do anything to keep the project manager off their back (even if that means giving false estimates or updates).

You'll be far more successful if you become a team member whose primary responsibility is to keep the team organized. That means putting in a project infrastructure that works for the team and providing support when they need it. 

Destroy Silos

On a cross-functional team, there will be particular functions suited to individuals that they will be responsible for. It makes sense, because we need our team members to be strong in their area of expertise to perform well. This doesn't mean we can't expand our horizons a bit and learn from each other. 

Something that frequently happens is team members tend to stay in their own lane, only focusing on their contribution. While that can be valuable in terms of focus some of the time, your team needs to be in tune with each other's needs and expectations in order for the whole thing to work. This is a great opportunity to encourage consideration on how one person's actions and outputs affect their peers and the overall success of the project. 

If all I cared about was the budget, scope, and schedule but neglected to be sensitive to my team's interpersonal needs, how effective would I really be as a leader?

All of the work that individuals do add up to a whole, therefore it's important that each team member understands each others needs and functions outside of their own vertical. Branching out in this way keeps the work interesting and builds bonds across lines of work. 

Win Together, Lose Together

Once the team starts crossing lanes more and work hard to support each other, it becomes much easier to take accountability and work together as a unit. This means we are all accountable for the success or failure of a project.

When we do well, we celebrate together. When we have setbacks, we learn, and figure out how our individual contributions can support each other. 

If QA gets blamed for missing a defect, they must take accountability but that might also mean the software engineer takes accountability for not thoroughly testing their code, or that the lead engineer didn't do a thorough enough code review. 

If all of my project metrics are looking awesome and the stakeholders are happy, I can't take all the credit. Everyone worked together to make it happen and the team should be recognized for their efforts.

2. You Must Be the Team's Advocate

Perhaps one of the more neglected areas is advocacy on your team's behalf. Like it or not, you are the PR person for your project and your team. You have a responsibility to protect your team as well as recognize their successes. This is where you really get to flex your leadership muscles. 

Let's say you have a stakeholder who publicly raises a complaint that one of your team members is giving up too easily on an issue they need them to troubleshoot and there doesn't seem to be a sense of urgency surrounding it. Contextually, you understand there were some problems like this in the past that garnered a poor reputation, but in the past few months you've witnessed the team's ability to swarm an issue and fix it fast.

Understanding that perception is reality, you casually ask the team how the request is going. It turns out they they're on the brink of developing a fix, but it's taken them a few days to research. They didn't want to send a long technical explanation that might cause confusion.

Ah ha! So we confirmed that the team was in fact taking action, but that just wasn't being communicated up. You communicate the status back to the stakeholder, expressing your confidence that the team is fixing the issue. The team takes the situation as a learning experience to provide simple progress updates that aren't technical, which in turn builds more confidence with the stakeholder. 

When we are empathetic to a stakeholder's needs while also trusting our team, it builds trust on both sides. Your team will trust you to always have their back and your stakeholders will trust you to deal with issues that they're concerned with.

That's why it's also important to communicate team success. If the team is ahead of schedule or increasing throughput, be sure that message gets out. If something didn't go so well, communicate the learnings and the team's commitment to change. 

3. Empower the Team

How do you naturally view your teams? Do you think that people only do well when they're sufficiently rewarded or punished for performance? Do you believe that people are intrinsically motivated to perform well, regardless of external influences? 

Personally, I think it's  a complex mixture of both. There's definitely a "What in it for me?" motivation for many people but at the same time I don't think anyone is really content with just towing the line.

While there are company culture and individual values to factor in, I believe most people simply want:

  1. Fair and equitable pay

  2. Autonomy

  3. Demonstrate Their Strengths

  4. Opportunity for Growth

  5. Contribute to Something That Makes a Difference

So, in a project context (especially in agile or cross-functional work) it's important to empower the team and influence these wants as much as possible. 

As a project leader, your primary focus is to set up an infrastructure that supports your team, the stakeholders, and all of the communications in between. 

Pay

I know this is a sensitive topic. There's a budget to hit and costs are definitely a factor. Your team mates are presumably satisfied with their pay rate or else why would they be here?

It's important not to make assumptions one way or the other, but at the same time it can't be discounted as a factor in job satisfaction (which impacts performance!).

Not every project leader has direct influence in this area, but if you do, try to ensure that your team is paid equitably and at market rate. 

Autonomy

Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet? See how annoying that is? Don't pester your team with constant requests for status updates. Micromanagement doesn't yield any results, unless you want your team to duck when they see you coming. Find a time and a place for that, like a daily stand up meeting. If you're using task management software, let team members update tickets on their own.

Obviously you're going to have to ask for updates for some things but trust their ability to manage their own time. Keep in mind that every time you interrupt someone, it's going to take them that much longer to refocus and you may have delayed things further.  If individuals are having challenges communicating status or are going over their time, offer help without taking over. 

Strength

Give your team members opportunities to shine in their strengths. Did the UX designer come up with a cutting edge wire frame? Did the software engineer come up with a solution for a bug that will also knock off several others because of their approach? 

Encourage ideas, give opportunities to speak in front of leadership, and let your team members do what they do best. The more you provide them the opportunity to shine, the more they'll take ownership of the success of the project. 

Growth Opportunity

Do you know what your team mates ultimately want to accomplish? Does the lead engineer want to be a systems architect? Maybe your QA engineer sees this project as an opportunity to be a lead on their next project.

Understanding what your team hopes to get out of the project puts you in prime position to help support them in their goals. This is a huge motivator for a lot of people. 

Be sure to give team members the opportunity to demonstrate leadership, even if that's not their primary goal. When you treat team members like leaders, that's exactly how they'll act. Perhaps they can lead a meeting or a work session in their area of expertise. 

I've found the more growth opportunities you provide the team, the more engaged they become, and they tend to take great pride in their work. 

Contribute

Does your team understand how their work impacts the organization?

It doesn't matter the size of the budget or the overall visibility. What matters is that they're on the project for a reason and the business thinks it's important.

Communicating the importance of their work in terms of contribution to the business can really go a long way in keeping the energy and momentum up. 

4. Recognition & Learning

Are you taking the time to show appreciation for your team's efforts? How do you handle challenging situations when they arise? These are important things to consider when it comes to supporting your team. 

Appreciation

Sometimes all it takes is a kind word of gratitude to make someone's day. The question is how often are you showing appreciation to your team (individually and collectively)?

Did the team exceed their goals in a given iteration? Maybe they solved an extremely difficult problem.

No matter how big or small, I can guarantee the team will appreciate genuine recognition of their hard work. Take the time to reflect and frequently communicate positive feedback. Never underestimate the power of appreciation and focusing on the strengths of team. 

Learning

Problems and difficult situations are going to arise; that's just a reality of complex project work. Sometimes things don't go as well as we'd like them to.

Your team can not be afraid of failure if they're going to be high performers. Failure is part of learning and learning leads to growth. It's better for the team to fail and learn than to not take any risks or bold action at all. 

What matters most here is how we react and how we take advantage of a seemingly unfortunate situation.

How do you react when the team misses a deadline or tries something that doesn't work? Your reaction will influence how they will approach things going forward for better or worse. It's something to pay attention to.

Foster an open environment where team members can give feedback frequently. They should be able to say just about anything to their team mates as long as they're being professional and respectful. 

While we can't have wanton abandon of order and common sense, that doesn't mean we can't entertain new ideas.

The key is to learn from mistakes, avoid repeating them, while still encouraging creativity. 

5. Make the System Work for the Team

Pay close attention to your project infrastructure. How lean and lightweight is it? Does it require a specialist (like yourself) to understand it or could anybody walk in and make sense of what's going on. 

Project work is usually complex and generally requires a specialist, but that doesn't mean that you should need the Rosetta Stone to decode it. 

Make sure that your communication systems and task management software (if you use that) is as simple as it can be given the circumstances. Sure there will be nuance and context, but in general the structure should be well organized and easy to understand.

Another thing to consider is how much time the team spends navigating your processes and systems. If they're spending more than 10% of their time on project administration, consider scaling back.

In general, the team should be able to provide updates with relative ease and you should be doing the legwork of collating that information for project metrics.

Be open to feedback and frequently check in on how the system is working for the team in relationship to you and each other. 

Conclusion

As a project leader, there is no better experience than watching a team grow and gain widespread recognition for their excellence. With these values kept at the heart of your project, you can expect great working relationships and amazing results:

  1. Promote Team Accountability (you're part of the team!)

  2. Be the Team's Advocate

  3. Empower the Team

  4. Show Appreciation, Learn from Mistakes

  5. Make the System Work for the Team

Bret Piontek