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Shaping the ragtag project team

Brian Franklin
September 17, 2014

In coaching project managers or aspiring project managers I am often asked: “How do you create a team when most of the immediate team members are allocated and consultants and contractors are usually selected based on price?”

This immediately generates a discussion on conflict, or at the least tension, within project teams. It then emerges that conflict is primarily generated not by technical issues but by differences in the attitudes of the participants and their varying objectives.

In terms of understanding how to manage individuals in such circumstances, I usually reference a simplified Hersey and Blanchard Situational Leadership model (able/unable – willing/unwilling) as a means of identifying attitudes and possible management techniques.

So, in explaining the issues involved in the creation of a team, I use an analogy of creating and developing a junior sporting team against the well-tried Bruce Tuckman team development model (1965).

Building a team

To establish the scene, this is a typical Australian community-based scenario. You have an 11-year-old child and participation in a team sport is a rite of passage in socialisation and developing winning instincts. So you venture to a club registration day. Here, children are assembled in age groups and you are pleased that your child has a group from which a team may be formed.

A club official then appears and announces it is club policy that no team is entered in a competition without a coach and stares at you until, because you want you child to be part of a team, you agree to coach the team. You are now a coach (project manager)! You have a group of individuals from which a variety of stakeholders expect you to create a successful team.

The ‘stakeholder analysis’ phase

So let’s analyse the group: your human resources. In this ‘stakeholder phase’ you have a group of individuals with widely diverse abilities and attitudes including:

  • The child of a former national champion who has taught the child everything they need to know except how to play in a team with others
  • One who has never played but is keen as mustard
  • A number who are there not because they want to be, but because they have been told to be there
  • A group who have been together since early kindergarten, are not really interested in anyone else and are potentially a team within a team
  • Your own child and how the coaching role will alter the dynamics of your relationship

Sound familiar? It’s not altogether very different from your project team experience is it?

The ‘storming’ phase

A good coach (project manager) must manage the key stakeholders, who include the parents, players and club officials, each of whom will have a different objective. So you pass through a ‘storming ‘ phase, where you consider the competing interests and how to blend these attitudes into a team:

  • Winning is all that matters
  • I just want my child to enjoy themselves
  • All I’m after is cost-free child minding
  • I hope they make new friends
  • The Club President’s expectation of a premiership in the division; and
  • Whether you really need the aggravation

You note all these conflicting these objectives and ask yourself, ‘how can I complete this project, ensuring the diverse stakeholders and team members are satisfied with the result, with minimum stress and disruption to my work /life balance?’

The group to team ‘forming’ phase

First, you need to plan the season, also known as the group to team forming phase:

  • Scope the challenge, given your resources and the opposition
  • Set up the schedule – games and training times
  • Establish the costs – participation fees, uniforms, equipment
  • Lay down quality tolerances – performance and attitude
  • Allocate your resources to their team positions, explaining the responsibilities and expectations of each
  • Set up your communications strategy – who is who in the zoo, contact lists, team meetings
  • Negotiate contracts – social agreements with parents for transport
  • Establish and address risks – player availability, reserves, competing commitments, venue location, injury protocols

Team performance, the ‘norming’ phase

Now let’s look at turning the group into a team (norming phase) through training to:

  • Develop individual skills
  • Develop team skills – positions and relationships
  • Learn offensive/defensive task allocation
  • Apply practice options, to establish co-ordination and understanding
  • Modify behaviours to achieve team outcomes – through counselling, where necessary

Game on, the ‘performing’ phase

The team has now reached the point where it’s ready to compete (performing phase). This requires:

  • Game-plan strategies – objective, defend and score more by full-time
  • Application of learning strategies
  • Performance management and on-the-job training
  • Disciplined dealing with adverse circumstances

Post game

Depending on the abilities of the coach and team this is the adjourning or possibly mourning phase. The team needs to commit to:

  • Application of lessons learnt
  • Behaviour modification through practice; and
  • The next round!

Well, it is claimed that you learn in the first season, hone skills in the second and deliver results in the third. So post season we need to ask ourselves, was the experience sufficiently enjoyable that we would want to do it again?

Are you now a project manager? While this approach may be considered somewhat simplistic, in the context of increased awareness of the human factor it provides a starting point for the project management journey.

You are a coach bringing together a diverse group of individuals with varying skills to form a team, managing people and delegating responsibilities. Over the last 20 years, this increased focus on good scope definition, task identification and resource allocation, i.e. people management, is one of the most significant changes in the previous traditional role of project managers as contract managers.

And when I hear an observation that applying thorough project management practices to small projects is unnecessary, my though always turns to the sporting analogy. Success at the highest level depends on training, and minor projects are the training ground for establishing the disciplines to be applied to bigger projects—just like coaching a junior sporting team!

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Brian Franklin
Brian Franklin is a Canberra-based consultant focused on business improvement through management by projects. He draws on national and international construction, infrastructure and event project experiences.
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