Build effective project teams

By Jane Suchan, PMP

A project team is a group that works together to execute the tasks necessary to meet customer requirements. Before a project team meets for the first time, before they start "forming, storming, norming, or performing," or maybe even before they know they will be working together, the project manager begins laying the foundation for effective teamwork.

Create a high-level resource plan

The first step in building an effective project team is to create a resource plan. A resource plan requires you to understand and identify the work to be done and the human resources necessary to complete it. An initial resource plan is often a high-level outline and will be refined as you break down into parts the whole of your work. At the start of a project, the resource plan can merely identify the departments and stakeholder groups that will need to commit resources, and the approximate number of individuals and man-hours that are required.

Get the right people on the team

To develop an effective team, you have to start by choosing the best people for the job. This sounds obvious, but determining the best candidates isn't always straightforward. Many factors concerning potential members have to be considered, including factors such as:

  • The skills required of them to complete project tasks
  • Their level of influence in the organization
  • Their access to a network of other resources
  • Their capacity to participate effectively
  • Their ability to work well in a team environment

Pulling together a group of strong, results-oriented individuals for your project team is part science, part art. It is important to make sound decisions about who will perform well on your project team and who might be better suited to other opportunities. Project managers must rely on their own and their sponsor's networks and organizational knowledge to make sound choices for the project.

Sometimes, project managers don't have the luxury of choosing team members. Resources may be assigned to the project team. If this is your situation, it is vital that you take extra care to establish a relationship with your team members before the team begins to meet as a group. Otherwise, they may not feel connected to the rest of the project team or, worse, may feel put upon and lack any commitment to the project.

Part-time project teams

In most cases, the project team is a part-time work team. Team members have other work responsibilities and dedicate only a portion of their time to your project. They may not directly report to you, but instead to a functional manager in their department. Part-time project team members are constantly juggling the demands of their project managers and functional managers. It is your role as project manager to work with your team members' functional managers to prevent conflicts. This agreement must be established up-front, before the project team begins its work. While it may feel awkward or overly formal, get commitments from your team members' functional managers in writing. This won't guarantee that people won't get pulled away to do other tasks, but at least you'll have a written document to fall back on should it be necessary to hold a manager accountable to the commitment.

Roles and responsibilities

Whether the project team is composed of part-time or full-time members, defining the responsibilities and role of each member type (such as technical lead, business process owner, and subject-matter expert) is critical. As the project manager, you should draft the roles and responsibilities and use these definitions when discussing resource needs with functional managers. You should also discuss and agree to these definitions with your team members.

You can build a foundation for successful performance before the project kickoff meeting by working individually with the team members. Often team members will share different information when talking with you one-on-one than they will in front of a group. You should take advantage of the time before the kickoff meeting to discuss any concerns or assumptions made by individual team members. When work on the project begins, you can continue to build on this foundation by drawing on the relationships you established.

The team operating agreement

Part of the role of a project manager is to manage the expectations and assumptions of the project team. This begins with recording assumptions and expectations from the start with agreement from all project team members. Some team members may push to shortcut this process to save time, thinking that the team can figure it out as they go along. However, discussing the rules of engagement up-front will be time well spent when the project team is in the thick of executing the project plan — a time when conflicts are sure to arise.

An effective way for project teams to discuss and establish how they will work together is to use a team operating agreement (TOA). The TOA serves as the guidelines and ground rules to help the team work productively together over the course of the project. It is a living document and may be updated as the need arises throughout the course of the project. The TOA can be constructed to include anything that the project team would like to have worked out and documented, and it usually includes:

  • Team communications
    • How information will be shared
    • Where documents will be stored
    • Confidentiality
  • Decision-making
    • How the team defines "consensus"
    • How voting is conducted
    • What happens when the team cannot come to an agreement
  • Meetings
    • Who will lead meetings
    • How the time will be used
    • Where they will be held and who should attend
  • Roles and responsibilities
    • What is expected of each team member and each member's role in the project team
  • Personal courtesies
    • Mobile device use during meetings
    • Reminders about "overtalking" and interrupting

Project team members should draft the TOA together, and it should be signed by all members of the team.

Defining project objective and goals

The objective of the project — what the project will deliver — is dictated by the customer. Often, the project sponsor and project manager must work with the customer to define what is expected, to home in on and state in no uncertain terms what the project will produce and what the ultimate end result will be. This will drive the project scope. You should clearly understand the project objective so that you can share it with the team members at the project kickoff meeting.

The goals of the project serve to outline how the project objective will be met. Although at first your goals are high level, they are useful in that they form the backbone of the project plan and drive the activities of the project team.

Assessing whether your team is set up for success

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are the right people on your team? Do you have an agreement from functional managers to dedicate the necessary resources to your project?
  • Have you set the goals and objective of the team? Are they clear to everyone? Is there commitment from all team members to meet them? Are any goals in conflict with one another?
  • Are team roles clearly defined and accepted? Does everyone know what is expected of them? Do roles overlap or conflict?
  • Have you established procedures that team members can follow to work effectively together, such as a team operating agreement?
  • Are there influences outside the team that may affect performance, and if so, have you identified and addressed them?

Here are some final considerations regarding the general characteristics of effective project teams:

  • There is a team identity, or esprit de corps, and a sense of pride. Team members support each other.
  • There is an emphasis on solving problems rather than figuring out where to lay the blame.
  • Team members and the project manager understand their roles and are committed to fulfilling them.
  • Team members are involved in setting expectations.
  • The appropriate skills and levels of authority are represented on the team.
  • Decisions are made by consensus, and there is a defined plan for escalation and decision-making if consensus can't be reached.
  • Team members listen well and participate in discussions.
  • There is tolerance for conflict, and conflicts are openly and honestly discussed.

By having a resource plan, operating agreement, documented objective and goals, and improved team communication strategies, your next project team can be more successful than ever before.

About the author     Jane Suchan is a senior project manager with experience in managing large-scale projects and developing project management methodologies for telecommunications, IT, banking, and nonprofit fundraising. Jane is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and is based in Seattle, Washington.

Applies to:
Project 2003