It’s all about Engagement and Alignment
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The process of forming a team, bringing individuals together who will partner on accomplishing a shared goal, often results in a situation where initial progress by the team towards the goal is slower than expected.  The project manager who seeks rapid progress towards the team goal can benefit by recognizing and properly reacting to frequently encountered impediments to initial team performance.  You best results in mobilizing a team can be achieved by focusing on the effective engagement of team members and the alignment of their actions in support of the team priorities.


Team formation, Making Progress Right from the Start

Is there a project manager who actually looks forward to presenting a daily executive status report on their progress in creating a new team and making rapid progress towards an assigned goal?  More often than not, the project manager is facing difficulties in getting the individuals functioning as a team and making observable progress – reporting these difficulties to an executive would be an accurate representation of the situation, but it wouldn’t instill confidence in the skills of the project manager.

Success in forming and organizing a team, whether for a long term project or to accomplish a near term goal, is heavily influenced by the degree to which the team members know one another, the ability of each team member to devote effort to the team and contribute, and many other factors.  This article touches on two key success factors (engagement and alignment) in creating a team and suggests a set of techniques to fulfill these key elements.


A Case When the Team Wasn't Engaged

On the very first day of transferring into a new organization an urgent business need surfaced; I needed to create a 30-person team (of individuals reassigned from an existing, larger project) and launch a project that would complete within two months.  I met with my management team a few times to explain the project goal and their responsibilities in immediately assigning staff to the project – the project goal was viable and straightforward, as was the timeline. 

Our discussions never gave an inkling of any problems or disagreement about the new project, but then I discovered that silence on this matter was not an indicator of agreement.  Several days later during a regular staff meeting, I asked each manager to share their progress in getting the new work underway.  Much to my surprise, absolutely nothing was being done on the new project.  Astounding as it seems, this very capable management team didn’t even hint of their stonewalling on the new project until they were asked to report on their progress.  With their perspectives now out on the table, we were able to work through some critical topics and start assigning staff later that same day.

I’ve since learned that this situation was not all that unusual – new teams are formed, but some team members are detached and are not fully participating in achieving the team’s goal; furthermore, they may not be flagging this as a problem.  I’ve seen this lack of engagement create a drag on the team’s initial progress and yield disappointing results.


Starting a New Team Project - Obstacles You'll Need to Recognize

Launching a new project or team effort is almost always fraught with difficulties.  Whether you are initiating an effort by redirecting an existing team (as in my situation above) or by assembling a new team, you’ll find that there are innumerable forces at work that can impede or derail your new undertaking.  These feelings or circumstances can prevent a team member from feeling any bona fide ownership for the project, thus you’ll have fewer contributing members and more who are merely observers.  You’ll always need a means of discovering these perspectives, and you will probably need to take action if any team member can earnestly make any of these statements:

  • "I don’t know what to do."  An inability to translate the stated direction into a well-defined set of actions with a useful result. 
    • You can recognize this if a team member frequently reports that their action is to ‘understand’ some aspect of the project (and they rarely contribute meaningfully).
  • "I’m not really available for the project."  An individual is assigned to a team effort, but they actually have no time to allocate to the effort.
    • One easily detected symptom: an obviously qualified individual who rarely takes on work responsibility (perhaps excusing themselves from the team's work due to an excessive work load).
  • "I’m not qualified."  The project is outside of their skill set or regular job responsibilities.
    • Consistently late, incomplete, or not fit-for-purpose results are a common indicator.
  • "I don’t see this as a legitimate project."  The team project is not recognized as being sensible – perhaps it is a manager’s pet project, an effort not supported by the broader organization or a fool’s errand with little chance of success.
    • One sign of this is an uncharacteristic lack of enthusiasm and active participation by multiple team members.
  • "I’ve not been offered a chance to contribute significantly."  An assigned team member is given specific, narrow tasks to perform – expected only to do what they are told, no more.
    • This symptom is detected mostly by looking how tasks are identified and work assigned – if you constantly find that one person or a small clique within the team (perhaps managers or senior staff) are the only source of newly identified work items then you likely have this situation.

If you encounter these symptoms on your newly assembled project team, you’ll probably experience several disappointing results early in the life of this team:  little observable progress, team members spending little time on project activities, individuals working on activities that don’t directly contribute to the shared goal, and a growing mismatch between expectations of team performance vs. actual results.  You might even find that when the project meetings conclude your team members will return to their desks and focus on other (non-project) activities that are comfortable, familiar and well-defined activities; they’ll have no deep sense of ownership for the new project and how they can contribute.


Two Key Elements: Engagement & Alignment

Your success in team creation is largely dependent upon:

  • Active engagement of each team member – each person is fully involved and committed to the team and achieving the goal.  The team develops a shared understanding of their goal and actively contributes in translating that goal into action.  Each individual is helping to identify the necessary work tasks; you’ll need the brainpower and experience of the entire team for this to be thorough.  As well, each team member willingly takes on responsibilities for completion of those tasks.
  • Alignment of each team member’s actions – each person’s task completions and work results contribute to achieving the goal, with very good coordination of work across the team.  It is not enough to just be working on tasks; superfluous tasks are eliminated and each team member is working on only those tasks that are most beneficial towards achieving the team goal. 


How's the Engagement and Alignment on Your Team?  Some Diagnostic Questions

I occasionally encounter a team with brilliant, highly talented, skilled team members that have been unable to apply their collective abilities effectively in achieving a timely result.  Take a look at your recent experiences in creating a team; did that team come together with all team members actively engaged and good alignment of activities across the team?   Ask these diagnostics questions and see how your team fares:

  1. If you approached each team member separately, would they have the same description of the team goal?
  2. Do you have a list of team tasks, and does this list represent the collective thinking of all team members?
  3. Are all team members actively working on tasks that support the team goal?
  4. Does each member understand how their work relates to that of other team members?
  5. If everyone completes their work tasks, will the team achieve their goal?  (i.e., have all of the necessary tasks been identified)
  6. How often are team members reviewing progress and sharing new information with one another?  Is that frequently enough?
  7. Can every team member quickly locate up-to-date information about the team’s activities and documents?


The Early Days of your Team Effort – Techniques that Work

Whether you are a member of a newly formed self-organizing team or you are the project manager responsible for creating a new team, the collaboration and teamwork practices you adopt will greatly influence the level of each individual’s engagement and alignment across the team.

It certainly isn’t sufficient to tell each person on the team “you know the goal, so go do what needs to be done.”  On the other hand, it wouldn’t be fruitful to present each person with their pre-determined task list and a requirement to provide a daily written status report. 

You’re best positioned for success if you create an environment for teamwork that encourages participation, ownership and accountability.  You can do this by ensuring your team has a clear, viable goal and then using various techniques for bringing a team of people together who understand and agree with the goal, assist by identifying tasks that contribute to the goal, and are willing to take on responsibilities for completing those tasks.

Here are a handful of launching-a-team techniques that, if applied sensibly, can take you a long ways towards achieving full engagement and alignment for your newly created team: 

  1. Publish a team goal statement.  This might be a project definition or a short list of objectives – this is your rally point.  This is why you are together as a team, and you’ll want each team member to understand that goal.  For the first few days, start each meeting by reiterating that statement.  Periodically revisit this statement as a checkpoint – ensure that it is still your team’s goal and that each team member still understands, agrees and supports that goal.
  2. Interact Frequently.  When your project team first organizes you’ll need to meet, interact and communicate frequently.  You’ll be in a period of rapid discovery, with many new activities taking place in parallel.  Circumstances will change daily.  You may be subject to new external influences.  You’ll constantly be identifying new work items/tasks.  The daily stand-up meeting is one of your most powerful techniques for keeping team members synchronized.
  3. Assigned tasks.  Identify and list each team member’s work items, showing everyone the breath of known activities.   Familiarity with this list opens possibilities for synergy, can help in identifying missing tasks, and reduces overlapping/redundant tasks.
  4. Each person presents during the daily stand-up meeting (The Daily Stand-Up Meeting - A Core Practice for Self-OrganizingTeams).  What better way to know what someone is doing than to hear directly from them?  Provide each team member a chance to talk about their tasks from their own perspective.  As well, this is an important accountability mechanism.  Remember that you’re not presenting status, you’re presenting progress.
  5. Organize your information.  During your first days, you’ll probably discover and create a deluge of important information - immediately create a Wiki (Information Overload 2 – Use a Wiki Instead) to save, organize and share information.  Your information may be very dynamic, constantly changing with new discoveries; version control will be a problem if you rely upon email to publish and distribute information.
  6. Build a visual representation of project contacts.  Unless you are that rare team that can operate successfully in a vacuum, you’ll want to identify others with whom you’ll need to be communicating (this could be the start of a “communications plan”).  Consider partnering organizations, team members, the customer for your work, organizations upon which you are dependent and others.  Be clear of responsibilities within the team for communicating with these external organizations.


What’s next?

If you work in a team environment then you’ve surely been involved (as a leader or team member) in establishing a new team.  Find or create an opportunity to ask the seven diagnostic questions (above) in determining your own success in launching a team.  Adopt you own customized version of all six launching-a-team techniques and see how they work in your organization; you might even invent one or two other techniques that prove to be valuable.  I'm keenly interested in hearing about your results - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.