When you think about what makes a project team effective, your mind will inevitably go to your own past experiences. Maybe you have a sports or military background, so you think about the factors that contributed to the strength of those teams. Perhaps you’ve worked on an intact team that really gelled and performed at high levels. Or it’s possible that you’ve never experienced a strong team but have a vision of what one looks like.
All of us bring these contexts and perspectives to the teams we’re on. But the nature of teaming in the workplace is changing, and that’s changing the game for everyone. In particular, it’s putting new expectations on those of us who are responsible for project planning and managing a project team.
In the past, the workplace was dominated by intact teams. These teams stayed together for the duration of a project or a long period of time, were typically co-located in the same building and office area, and were comprised of members with multiple skill sets.
But a growing majority of today’s project teams form and disband as the project requires it. Team members—who may not even work in the same country much less the same building—join and exit based on the project’s needs and their skills.
Both efficiency requirements and technology advances have played a part in this change. Rather than generalists, today’s project team members have niche, discrete capabilities they bring to the table, and these skills are only needed at certain stages of the projects. So, a great business analyst or talented graphic designer can come in when those elements are needed and leave once the task is done.
Technology is also making it easier for people to be part of the team without being in the same physical location as other members. Team members might be across town or across time zones. They may never even meet one another in person.
Clearly, this is not your dad’s project team any more. And managing this new breed of project teams is a whole new ball game.
When it comes to project planning, the old joke is that project managers don’t actually do anything. Well, there’s some truth to that. The project work gets done by team members, not project managers, and team members produce the overwhelming majority of project deliverables.
So what do project managers do?
In fact, they are more important now than ever. Here are three key capabilities every project manager needs to master to ensure this new breed of project teams can be successful.
The project manager’s job is to make sure everyone in a project team can do their job in the best way possible. Project managers must become experts at enabling project teams and their members to do their work. The first question they should ask themselves is, “How do I serve the team members most productively?” Then they can focus on what they need to do on the project.
Gone are the days of the kick-off meeting as a one-time event. Particularly if the majority of the team members are virtual and/or are only involved in one piece of the project, it doesn’t make sense to have a big, overarching kick-off. Instead, project team onboarding needs to be ongoing and individual. This means, when it comes to project planning, project managers have to be efficient and available on demand for new team members to accelerate their ramp-up.
Offboarding also takes on new importance. When project team members leave, it’s critical to get a synopsis of what they did and the key things the team needs to be aware of. This doesn’t have to be a time-consuming process, but it needs to be done. When people were on the project all the time, group knowledge stayed with the team. That’s not the case any more, and exiting team members could take with them proprietary information that may not be available later when needed.
It’s not uncommon for team members to be working for several companies or projects at once. That means project managers have to be great at leading and holding team members accountable regardless of reporting relationships or the amount of face time they have together.
Project managers who are used to a more directive style may struggle with this, because it requires being able to lead without authority. This is not about barking out orders or manipulating through power; it’s about influence and persuasion. When you have no power or authority, and when project team members are located both locally and around the world, relationships are the currency of getting things done. After all, people do things for people they like.
The new breed of project teams requires a new breed of project planning, and a better, smarter project manager. Are you ready to step up to the plate?