The Critical First Conversations with a New Project Team
As a Project Manager or Business Analyst, you have been assigned a new project or team.
Like with any change, this can be a time of trepidation, as you and your teammates will wrestle with the new business goals being asked of you to achieve. You will also size up your potentially new colleagues, determining how you will fit in to this new team paradigm. This is a critical point in time, at the beginning of any new project. This is a time at which you can take steps to set you and your team up for success. This article will elaborate on those first important, time-sensitive conversations using a framework of Listen, Trust, Set. Spoiler alert: The crux of the matter is expectation setting.
In 1965, the psychologist Bruce Tuckman published his famous 5 stages of team development. For those of you unfamiliar with Tuckman’s seminal work, the summary is this:
- Forming: In the beginning, team members meet their peers and learn about the new project. Most members are on their best professional behaviour.
- Storming: As members become more comfortable with one another, and their place in the team, opinions are more outspoken and members may competitively vie for authority. Conflict resolution becomes an important role of the project lead to keep members aligned to common goals.
- Norming: Good project leads will successfully align the team to the project objectives and establish a climate of tolerance amongst peers.
- Performing: Great project leads will successively move the team from tolerance of one another to active champions of established policies and processes, driving the whole team full steam ahead towards successful project delivery.
According to this model, while the team only reaches its peak performance in the last stage, actively listening, building trust, and setting expectations right from the beginning will set the stage for a quick storming stage, and the emergence of a solid and lasting performance stage.
While listening doesn’t seem like a very active exercise, it is critical in the beginning for you to learn what not to do, what can be done, and when or how soon. Before you meet as a project team, setup 1:1 meetings with each team member and listen to where they’re at currently, what their concerns are regarding the upcoming project, and what their personal strengths and weaknesses may be. Listen to not only their words, but their body language and the vocabulary they use and don’t use. This will position you to be able to speak the language of the team once you will be standing in front of them and motivating them to join you in pursuing the project’s goals. You may also gain some important risks to add to your log.
On the softer side of things, develop rapport with each team member, engage them in conversation, and build a foundation for the emergence of trust.
Trust in business means different things to different people, and in different cultures around the world. To quote David de Cremer from a Harvard Business Review article February 11, 2015,
“In China you build trust first, once that is achieved, only then you do business. In the West, on the other hand, people are used to doing business almost immediately when they work in the same industry.”
However, no matter where you are, while there are cultural differences in business practices around the world, some concepts in trust are universal. And building trust isn’t an arduous, lengthy, unattainable thing. It is when you set the first meeting with your team and show up on time. It is following up with that one team member who missed a deadline so that they and the others see that you will hold people to account. Most importantly, it is admitting you had forgotten something, or asking for clarification on something that might seem obvious. These actions signal to other team members that this is a psychologically safe space where project quality and deliverables take precedence over individual egos.
Every little interaction you have with your team members, individually or as a group, is important, especially in the beginning, to set a foundation of what will be tolerated. Show them that you can be trusted by repeated consistency, and that they can count on you to hold everyone, including yourself, to the same standards.
Ultimately, the most important foundations to set at the beginning are the team member’s expectations, of you, and of the bar you will hold them to. These expectations are the hardest to reset or reestablish later on so you want to establish your expectations with the team right from the beginning, and both implicitly in your trust-building actions, but also explicitly so that there is no plausible deniability. Some members will be so motivated by a project that they will not need external motivation. Some, however, will need to know that you expect honesty, integrity and hard work from each person, and whatever more specific expectations you may have. Predictability is key.
Following this easy to remember framework of actively listening, building trust, and setting expectations, will put you on a path towards a strong performing team that will come together to deliver on the project objectives clearly articulated at the beginning of the project.