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Team Leads

Large software development projects often require multiple teams of developers with differing skill sets. This usually increases the project team head count to levels that make it difficult for the project manager to manage effectively. I believe that effective management requires a certain amount of one-on-one time for each individual team member. Some members will need more of your time than others; senior team members typically do not require as much time as junior members but all require some of your time. When team size reaches a point where sufficient one-on-one time is not available to each team member, the project manager should organize, or re-organize the team so that sufficient one-on-one time becomes available and team leads can be the solution to this problem.

The role of team lead was created to provide mentorship, coaching, and leadership to relatively small groups of people without the formal structure required for a functional manager. These are people who are members of the team but whose seniority and leadership abilities make them suited to the team lead role. Team leads often report to functional managers, along with other members of their team, although in rare cases they are functional managers themselves. Team leads will usually be responsible for ensuring team targets are met and will conduct performance reviews for team members. They may also be responsible for hiring team members, promoting team members, and terminating team members. The extent of their authority will depend on the manager they report to.

The team lead’s leadership abilities will make them ideal candidates for managing the sub-projects that their teams are responsible for. Their focus on meeting team objectives also suits them to this purpose. Project managers who are responsible for project teams that are too large to manage effectively should first look to the organization’s team leads to contribute as leaders of the project’s sub-teams. Recognizing this need is better done up front as you plan the project’s work. Any project that has over 20 developers and where development can be divided into sub-projects is an ideal candidate for engaging one or more team leads. Let’s look at the example of a project that develops a software system comprised of a web site, a database, and a C++ application for managing information. The skill sets for each of these areas will be different so will be supplied by different teams within the organization. The database work may be done by one DBA, in which case a team lead would not be practical, but the web site and C++ teams might be 10 to 15 people apiece which would make this project the ideal candidate for help from team leads.

One way to highlight the need for the team leads is to identify them as a critical resource in your project charter. Keep in mind that your need for these people is less compelling than your need for other roles such as the data architect, or the software architect, so do not overstate your case for fear of losing credibility with your sponsor. It is fair to state that effective management of anything over 20 people at one time is less than optimal and that an attempt to manage that many people may well result in a degradation of team performance. State this as a risk should you fail to acquire the team lead, and assess the likelihood according to the number of sub-teams and team members you must manage.

The chance to work on your project should be viewed as a learning opportunity for the team lead and make the work attractive for the team lead and their manager. Motivating team leads and their managers to work on your project may succeed in finding ways for the team lead to work on your project which elude you. Team leads should be encouraged to identify a set of goals for the project and review these with you. Once you have determined that the goals are reasonable and you agree to them, they constitute one half of your contract with the team lead. The other half is their delivery of their team’s work on schedule and within the quality criteria established for them.

For organizations that are expanding or replacing an existing system with your project’s system the challenge will be to maintain operational activity while staffing the project. This may mean that the team lead may have to support a project team and an operational team. If that is the case, you will have to plan their work at something less than a 40 hour work week to accommodate their operational responsibilities.

Now that you have successfully acquired your team lead, or team leads, it’s time to organize the project work accordingly. If you failed in your attempts to acquire the team lead(s) then you can stop reading this article and focus on managing the project risk. I have found that the best way to utilize team leads is to make sub-project managers of them. This is not only within your means to do; it is in everyone’s best interests. You gain valuable help in administering the project and the team lead gains valuable experience in managing a project. One way for your team lead to put this experience to good use would be the opportunity to accumulate the 4500 hours of project management experience required to write the PMP certification exam. The cost to you of this arrangement is the time and effort you must devote to mentoring the team leads in project management. Your primary responsibility is to the project stakeholders for the success of the project, but you should be able to find time for mentoring activities. The time you devote to mentoring team leads should match their demand for it, if possible.

Break the project down into its sub-projects and ensure that you define a sub-project for each of the team leads. Encourage the team leads to manage their own MS Project files (if that is the tool you choose to use to capture the project WBS and schedule). Again, familiarity with MS Project or any other project management software tool you choose will benefit the team leads. Coordination of the sub-project files with your master file will be benefited by the use of enterprise MS Project. If your organization doesn’t have that software, you must synchronize your master file from their sub-projects. Synchronization should happen once a day ideally, or once a week at minimum. You should always synchronize your master file before using it to generate any reports on performance to schedule or budget.

Status Review meetings are another opportunity for the team leads to lighten your load and at the same time gain valuable project management experience. Encourage the team leads to facilitate weekly meetings with their teams then work with them to formulate an agenda which they are comfortable moderating and meets the project’s needs. The agenda should mimic the agenda for your weekly meetings and cover an overview of project status (provided by the team lead), status updates from individual team members, issues, risks, and a question and answer period. You may want to attend these meetings; at least until the team lead is comfortable running them on his or her own. Your presence suggests you feel their sub-project is important, that you support the team lead, and it allows you to gauge the mood of the sub-project team. Issues that require your management can be resolved on the spot, or assigned to you on the spot.

Your project status review meetings will become more manageable because of the meetings undertaken by the team leads. Those meetings will require the participation of the team leads and the individual contributors that make up the rest of the project team. Your meetings will cover the communication of the overall project progress to the team, status updates from individual contributors and team leads, issues, risks, and a Q&A session. Your meetings should be informal enough to facilitate problem solving on the spot. The meeting is the ideal opportunity for team members to articulate a problem and have the rest of the team brainstorm a solution. You must strike a balance between the spontaneous resolution of problems in your meeting and sticking to an agenda. One way to manage this is to use the Q&A portion of the meeting for this brainstorming, or to reserve a portion of the agenda for the resolution of "parking lot” items (after first parking the items so that the agenda schedule is met). Issues that need immediate resolution that cannot be resolved at this meeting will require the principals to arrange a further meeting to reach a resolution. You need not involve yourself in this meeting further than to ensure that it happens. This feature of your status review meetings is not necessarily unique to projects which employ team leads but the issues will tend to be larger and more complex, the resolutions more difficult, and failure to correct more expensive than for smaller projects which do not employ team leads.

Most projects will have some form of awards program which you administer (if not, you are not doing your job). Team leads will be an integral part of this program because they are familiar with the accomplishments of their team and the individual members of it. Encourage your team leads to notify you when they feel their teams accomplish something which merits an award. Examples of this are beating a deadline or exceeding quality targets. You should also encourage them to participate in any "spot awards” portion of the program. Your team leads should identify potential recipients for these awards. Before implementing your awards program you should communicate to the team leads the awards available, the criteria for each award, how awards are bestowed, and communications around the awards. Make sure that the team lead is part of the party that presents a team or "spot” award. This may be another opportunity for them to develop leadership skills by being a spokesperson for the presentation.

Proper selection and management of team leads will facilitate project success, but your responsibilities will not end here. Once the project is over it’s time to review the team lead’s goals and objectives. Any goal or objective not met should be analyzed and met where possible. Goals or objectives which cannot be met due to limitations on opportunities or time should produce a plan for completion at an agreed on date. Finally, you owe the team leads’ functional managers an evaluation of their performance on your project. Be prepared to discuss evaluations of their project management skills, leadership skills, recommendations for training, and next steps.

Team leads can mean the difference between maximizing team performance and achieving the project’s goals and objectives and project failure but the project manager must be prepared to put additional effort into the management of the team leads. The amount of guidance each team lead requires will depend on their previous experience but the project should be an opportunity for the team lead to lend further their organization’s goals and objectives through the project and grow professionally in return.