Managing Performance in Project Teams

Project teams are individuals brought together for a temporary and unique purpose. As such, they require a specific approach to performance management — so what does that look like?

Think about it: when was the last time you worked on something completely on your own? That is, carrying a task or project from ideation all the way through to finished output?

Chances are (depending on your role) that solo and siloed working is becoming less commonplace in your working life. Indeed, according to Microsoft, collaborative work now accounts for 80% of an employee’s day, and employees are on twice as many teams as they were five years ago.

And with increased team working comes the need for heightened team efficiency. It’s no longer enough to measure and manage the performance of an organization’s individual worker, but to have a meaningful metric for ensuring teams achieve to their highest potential. 

A feedback process which works on both a team and individual level is required, because if managers only speak to each staff member about their role, they risk ignoring the bigger picture.

But there’s teamwork, and then there’s project teamwork

Project teams are different; they have a unique set of needs and idiosyncratic obstacles to overcome.

What’s more: as organizations look to become more agile, they are shifting away from paradigms which focus on ‘departments’ within the company. Instead allowing staff to flow more freely between the projects which suit their skill-set and interests.

The result? Agile firms are more than twice as likely to achieve top-quartile financial performance, versus the average organization.

But for an agile approach to succeed, project teams need to be cohesive. Thus, managing performance in project teams should be made a priority…

Understanding the unique nature of project teams

To understand project teams, we first need to define ‘projects’.

A project is temporary, unique and often relies on the input of cross-functional team members, who don’t usually work together. As the Project Management Institute explains:

“It's a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.”

And therein lies the potential issue: project teams can be strangers to each other when they first meet. They may have been in the same organization for some time, but never actually worked side by side before. Even if the individuals within a project team know each other well, they could be representing different roles and interests within the organization. It’s also possible the project team will be made up of people who are working from different locations, across different time zones.

These barriers, in terms of familiarity, specialization or geographic location can make cohesiveness and harmony difficult to achieve; in turn, limiting the team’s performance. The Association for Project Management finds the most common issues within project teams to be: lack of trust, conflict and tension, low engagement, no long-term thinking, working in silos, not going in the same direction.

So, for a project team to be successful it needs to be strategically thought-through — and every team member has to be aligned with, firstly, what the team needs to achieve and secondly, what their individual role will be. 

We can look to Tuckerman’s 5 Stages theory to help unpack this process, as when it comes to the project team lifecycle, how each of these stages plays out is slightly different to traditional (non-project) teams.

Perhaps the most notable difference, is the need for agility, to quickly troubleshoot any issues that arise. That’s not to say that agility is not a necessary component of traditional teams - however, its importance is exaggerated in the context of a project team because of the time element.

Forming

Initial introductions in project teams are important — it’s here you lay the groundwork for how the project will proceed, the roles each team member will take, and who will lead the direction. 

While this, in theory, is no different to any team coming together, we must remember that in project teams there are often additional barriers to overcome: the members may not know each other, or they may represent different roles within the business and struggle to find a common language. These team members are also coming together for a defined amount of time, whatever that may be. This is in stark contrast to traditional teams, which of course are also impermanent, but don’t tend to have a definite end.

When managing other, non-project teams, this forming stage can often be ‘eased’ into, perhaps starting with quick ‘round the room’ introductions, followed by alignment meetings in the subsequent days and weeks. But for project teams, racing too quickly over the forming stage may result in poor team dynamics further down the line.

Instead, give ample time for team members to get to know one another; to share their individual objectives within the project, as well as talk openly about the project’s wider strategic vision.

Storming

Some conflict is beneficial in teams, but when you bring together a group of individuals into a project team, there’s always a chance of negative conflict. This may arise from team members keeping too much to themselves; working in silos and shutting out the rest of the project team – as a result of not feeling at ease, or ‘formed’, with each other. It may come from a lack of engagement or alignment with the team’s end goal.

Either way: any issues that appear, at any stage of a project team’s lifecycle, need to be addressed — and quickly.

For a project to be successful, it needs to be on time, on budget and on brief. Clashing in project team dynamics will only be a drain on time, increasing the project resource cost, and — potentially — derailing the entire roadmap.

Project teams need to be agile and quick to adapt, should interpersonal issues come to the fore. Open channels of communication are crucial here — especially if your project team is working remotely from a spread of locations.

Norming

As the project team begins to gel together, their effectiveness starts to skyrocket. The trust has been established, roles and goals are crystal clear to all, individuals can have the autonomy they seek whilst working towards a common objective.

Feedback — both positive and constructive — is necessary at this stage, from the team leader to everyone else, and between individuals, too. As we know, feedback and agile learning go hand-in-hand; the quicker feedback is communicated in short-lived project teams, the faster the team can respond.

Performing

It’s possible that some project teams will never reach pinnacle capability — where performance flows smoothly as a result of truly interdependent working. 

Peak productivity in this stage is born from smart problem solving; all team members can communicate freely, troubleshoot quickly and seek alternative routes of action, so that performance doesn’t need to grind to a halt if issues should arise.

True: it’s a managers or project leaders role to keep an eye on all project team members at this stage. But it’s also crucial that each individual is given the tools they need to continuously measure and understand the value of their contribution, as well as give feedback to and request feedback from their fellow team members.

Adjourning

Closure is immensely important for project teams; participation should be recognized, and achievement rewarded. When project teams disband, their members may suffer from sudden disconnection — a shock to the system, especially if the project has been running for several months (or years).

But projects are temporary, by their very definition. So pausing for a moment before closing the project down will ensure all members have had their chance to review, feed back and celebrate successes, before the project ends.

This becomes increasingly important if the project team may come back together at a later date.

So, managing performance in a project team requires a slightly more nuanced approach versus a non-project team. 

But leaders and managers shouldn’t be overwhelmed; to simplify matters, we’ve pulled together 5 fundamental needs for project teams. And — as you’ll see below — these are easy to achieve, once they’ve been identified…

The 5 requirements of a high performing project team

Perhaps you’ve been tasked with leading a project; or maybe you’re often involved in temporary working teams, and feel your efficiency and impact could be greater.

Either way — regardless of your seniority or involvement — if you focus on the following, your project team performance should improve… 

Clear shared goals

We’ve written before about the importance of aligning team and individual goals; this empowers team members and helps them find purpose in the tasks ahead.

But for a project team to reach peak performance, there needs to be absolutely no doubt what the shared objective is. These team members might be bringing their own agendas to the table — representing different departments of the organization or, even in some cases, different companies altogether.

The foundation of project team performance is an understanding of, and respect for, the project’s end goal. This will keep everyone aligned and make success much more achievable.

Roles and responsibilities

This quote really defines the need for clear roles and responsibilities in a project team:

“Ask teams who’s accountable for various parts of a project. Unsuccessful teams have to talk about it. Successful teams can point to the owner.”

Fortunately, providing clarity on roles and responsibilities is a straight-forward process — for example, using Duuoo’s platform, team leaders can set and align individual roles at any time, then make these roles actionable with specific responsibilities and tasks.

Strong leadership

The project leader or project manager is accountable for the success, or failure, of the project. As such, strong leadership greatly increases the chance of strong team performance.

So what does it take to be a great leader? Empathy and emotional intelligence are both key, but as is establishing and nurturing a culture of continuous feedback.

If you’re the project leader, you should be open to feedback on your leadership style and impact. If you have a project leader, don’t be afraid to pass on constructive criticism, if it’ll help bolster team performance — staying quiet won’t do any good.

Open communication

We cannot stress this enough: communication is the cornerstone of all effective collaborations. And, as Mark Sanborn says:

“In teamwork, silence isn’t golden, it’s deadly.”

Without open communication, feedback cannot be shared — issues cannot be identified and overcome, before they have a negative effect on productivity. Duuoo’s ‘smart talking points’ — written to include topics shown to impact engagement — can facilitate more meaningful conversations between team mates.

But don’t just take it from us: in their 'Organizations of The Future' study, Deloitte recommends businesses not only adopt continuous, feedback-based performance management, but embrace the speed of change and invest in new communication tools, too.

Shared processes, templates and platforms

Not everyone is born with the ability to communicate openly.

Indeed, if a project has too short a tenure — and the team races through early stage development, in favor of ‘performing’ as soon as possible — inter-team communication may continue to be a hindrance.

The use of shared processes, templates and platforms — like Duuoo’s — give project teams a clear, shared way of working. Project leaders can track progress via regular 1-to-1s and team huddles, so they never lose sight of what’s being done, when and by who. 

And having a centralized information base brings everything back to the team’s agreed approach; clearing up any potential confusion and paving the way for better performance. 

To conclude: in order to perform, project teams require specific attention... however long or short their time together

Some project teams will work together for months or years.

Others, just a few hours or days.

Regardless of contact time, team working is increasingly a part of every worker’s daily routine. And with its heightened prevalence, comes an even greater need for leaders and managers to create the kind of working environment required for project teams to succeed.

The flexibility and usability Duuoo provides its users makes managing project team performance a seamless experience. From forming the group, right through to real-time updates on progress or agile goal-setting, and lastly adjourning the team, capturing any final feedback.

And with a simple Slack integration, project team members are able to check in with each other, and the team leader, as frequently as they need to — without having to pick up new behaviors.

Using digital support to take the stress out of managing project performance, means the team members can focus on what’s most important: achieving the end goal.

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