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Common Mistakes of New Project Teams

CommonMistakes1We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately. – Benjamin Franklin

The Benjamin Franklin quotation is a bit melodramatic for an IT article.  Perhaps none of us within IT delivery are at risk of death by hanging when we don’t meet expectations.  However, the concept of ‘hanging together’ is the foundation of unity.  Unity is established or abandoned at the start of a project. In this article, I will describe two key building blocks for team unity that are often overlooked by project teams.

1. Clearly articulated rules of engagement

2. Clearly articulated roles and expectations. 

Have you ever had that experience where you you are so eager to get started on a task, that you don’t take that small bit of time for planning?  Think about mowing a lawn, do you start the mower and just start mowing?  Does this put you at risk of inadvertently mowing into the neighbor’s yard?  Your neighbor wouldn’t mind (if you mowed their entire lawn).  Now think about joining a newly formed team?  What a great opportunity.  What a huge mistake if your team does not start out by establishing rules of engagement and clearly articulated roles and expectations.  Project teams are often eager to get busy and show some results.  This drive is great.  However, if you jump into analysis and meetings, without taking a little bit of time to establish rules of engagement, you are likely to experience a needlessly bumpy road.

Project teams often forget to establish ground rules, such as,

Communication. How do we communicate?  What are our preferred tools for communication: face-to-face, email, instant messaging, conference calls, etc?

Meeting Management.  What are our meeting ground rules?  Are we free to block portions of our calendar for heads down work time?  Can we establish that we will not schedule meetings before 9AM or after 4PM?  Can we ALL agree that we will not read emails during meetings, and that we will put our cell phones on vibrate or do not disturb during meetings?  Can we build in time to review action items?  Can we all agree to arrive on time or send a note/make a call when we know we will be late? How about ‘No meeting Fridays?’

Personality Conflicts.  Have you ever been on a team where you have that very strong-willed, vocal personality?  We know them, we love them, and we can’t live without them (but we can try).  What a great growth opportunity.  You could be the person that engages the conflict and helps Bitter Betty understand how she is being perceived.  If your name is Betty and you are reading this, I was referring to someone else named Betty.  Honestly! Is there a way to establish ground rules whereby we can rein in the strong personality and ensure that all viewpoints are discovered?  

Project teams should establish early, that as iron sharpens iron, we as a team will resolve to address and engage conflict.  Engage conflict?  What did he say?  Conflict is human nature and a consequence of living in an imperfect world.  If you are reading this, and you have witnessed toddler behavior, do you think we have to teach our children to not share, or to say with conviction, “MINE!”  Can we as a team, set up ground rules whereby we agree to discuss the conflict, and resolve to try to find compromise, prior to escalating, because we would rather resolve this within the team than consume our leader’s time. Right?

And the fun continues.  As new people join your team, why not review your rules of engagement with them?  Perhaps, the newest addition to your team has some valuable insight or past experiences, good or bad, which are perfect for your team.

Once you have a clearly articulated set of agreed upon ground rules, you can drill down even farther on the expectations for each role on the team.

Many project teams do not take the time to establish and document roles and expectations for the team members.  It seems that the teams agree to follow some sort of nebulous standard on each role’s responsibility.  However, too often, we don’t take the time to have an open discussion on what expectations and commitment mean to each person. 

For example, as the project manager, I commit that I will establish the project plan; I will use the risk log to bring visibility to issues that are inhibiting our team’s success; I will serve as that neutral third party on the team; I will show no favoritism to the business partners nor the technical partners; and I will pair with the business analyst to drive the project towards completion.  I will bring donuts on Fridays (it doesn’t hurt to ask).

As the business analyst, I will be that neutral liaison between the business and technical partners; I will ask clarifying questions to shape the business idea into clear, concise, correct, complete requirements; I will establish a road map, I will partner with the project manager to synchronize the road map with the project plan; I will ensure that the right persons are at the table while I elicit, define, and communicate the solution requirements; and I will not leave you hanging when we draw near to implementation.

Another suggestion with respect to roles:  why not have an elevator speech handy that not only describes your project, but also describes your specific contribution to the team.

Ground rules and clear roles are the building blocks for a good team.  I have often overlooked the importance of establishing these on newly formed teams.  If your team is struggling, chances are, they did not take the time to establish team ground rules and clear roles.  There is good news.  It’s not too late.  Even if you have delivered a few releases, it is never too late to establish or add onto your team’s ground rules and/or provide some needed clarity to roles.  We all might even have fun in the process.

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Joe Schweitzer is a business analyst at Nationwide Insurance with over 15 years experience eliciting business needs and transferring ideas into concise requirements.  He has experience in various industries, including insurance, library science, publishing, and advertising.  He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from Bowling Green State University and resides in Westerville, Ohio with his wife and three children.  Joe can be reached at [email protected].

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