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Tips for Building a High Performance Team

As project managers we are charged with the effective management of project resources for the purpose of meeting the project’s goals and objectives. For most projects, particularly in the software development field, the project team is a key component of the resources we are charged with managing. We rely on that team to do the work we assign to them by the deadlines we set in order to meet project goals and objectives; our team’s ability to meet those commitments is essential to the success of the project. In addition to these responsibilities, we must deliver the project on the smallest budget possible. That objective is particularly important in these economic times.

To meet these objectives we must assemble the best team possible for the smallest budget possible and then develop it into a "high performance” team. By "high performance” I simply mean that the team performance exceeds the sum of its parts. You’ll see the same phenomena occasionally in the world of sports where a team of athletes defeats a team of super stars. This happens when a team who are outclassed when one on one comparisons are made, outplays the other team. Sports writers sometimes refer to this as "playing above their heads” and it happens when a coach or general manager has assembled a team whose individual skills compliment one another and coaches them to peak performance. Project managers should use the same principals to assemble and develop their teams. Here are a few tips to help you accomplish that.

  1. Choose team members who have experience delivering results as a member of a team. When interviewing candidate team members ask questions about their experience as members of a high performance team (a team that achieved an outstanding accomplishment or who exceeded expectations). Look for the candidate’s ability to describe an actual experience and their contribution. People who have contributed to a team effort will describe the team’s accomplishments using the pronoun "we” and only use "I” when speaking to their individual contributions to the team.
  2. Plan your team’s composition in advance of assembling the team. How will individual roles compliment one another? What roles must be filled by someone with senior skills and experience? What roles can be filled by someone with intermediate skills and experience? Where are there opportunities to offer coaching and mentoring without compromising project deliverables?
  3. You expect a lot from your team but you should be able to offer team members something beyond their salary in return. Examine project deliverables and tasks for development opportunities. Can you offer a senior developer an opportunity to gain experience with a new tool? Can your project afford to offer coaching or mentoring opportunities? You can’t expect your project to consume all the senior resources in your organization, or afford senior contractors, so identify roles or tasks which can be filled by less experienced resources.
  4. Ask for the help of other project managers in your organization when assessing candidates. You should be looking for candidates with a track record of delivering as a project team member and the manager of a past project is an ideal source for a performance evaluation. They have first hand experience of the candidate’s performance and have no vested interest in placing the candidate with your project. Look for written project evaluations if the project manager is no longer available. Ask for corroboration of a functional manager’s assessment of a candidate who reports to them in addition to the manager’s evaluation. Peers or other managers are possible sources of corroborative information.
  5. Beware of the technical super star, the one who single handedly solves problems no-one else is able to solve and can out-perform anyone in the organization. This person usually has an ego that matches their tall tales. This person will be a detriment to the team even if the tall tales are true. Look for a role which is insulated from the rest of the team if you must accept this person on your team.
  6. Schedule your first team building exercise as early in the project as possible. Appropriate team building exercises are those which require team members to interact with the other members of their team. Team sports are ideal, especially when you can pit your team against an external one. Human Resources exercises are also good candidates. Team building should be a Human Resources core competency so don’t fail to take advantage of any help they can offer.
  7. Schedule team exercises at strategic milestones throughout the project. The pressure of meeting deadlines and producing quality product frequently puts stress on the team that can lead to conflict. Address this by scheduling a team building exercise that will diffuse conflict by having team members interact in a social setting.
  8. Award the team for collective accomplishments. This does not mean that individual efforts are not recognized but the big awards should be reserved for goals the team has accomplished. This works the same way that team sports do. There are important individual awards but the one every player covets the most is the team trophy: the Vince Lombardi trophy in football or the Stanley Cup in hockey.
  9. Develop your team. You must plan to deliver training in the use of new tools, or systems but your development plan should look beyond this. If you can turn an intermediate programmer into a senior programmer mid-way through your project, you reap the rewards of that programmer’s increased productivity for 50% of the project, so look for opportunities to provide your resources with the coaching, mentoring, or even formal training that will improve their performance and make your future projects attractive to prospective team members.
  10. Create an orientation program for new team members. Project teams acquire and shed team members throughout the life of the project. It is important to inculcate new team members into the team’s culture. You can make this a part of an orientation program for new team members. In addition to introductions to the tools, systems, etc. the new member will use, include an introduction to the awards programs, team events, etc. Assimilation of new members into the team is a key competency of high performance teams. Develop this skill in your team.

Assembling all the right resources for your project team and then developing them into a high performing team will require a lot of effort on your part. You may not see rewards right away but there will come a time during your project when your team demonstrates capabilities that exceed your expectations; your reward comes when those capabilities enable the project to meet stretch objectives.