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Leadership & Improving Team Performance

Dick Billows, PMP

Improving Team Performance

Improving a team’s performance starts with a review of the project manager’s leadership.  Project managers are often unaware of how their own performance and behavior affects the team’s performance and their attitudes. We’ll look at six ways project managers try to improve team performance that do NOT work. And we’ll analyze why they negatively impact the team. Then we’ll discuss four proven, positive techniques for improving team performance. Leading Teams Main Page

Bad Techniques for Improving Performance

Improving Team Performance: “Variances Are a Personal Betrayal”

A few weeks into a project, a project team member, Jill Vanguard, reports that her task completion date is going to slip four days past the due date. All the managers who need to sign off on the design are out-of-town at an offsite meeting and she has no way to contact them until they return. The project manager slumps down, head in hands, just inches above the desk and moans, “How can you do this to me? I thought we were friends.  You’re gonna get me in big trouble with the VP.  You were the one team member I thought would never do this kind of thing to me.”

Assessment: This ineffective technique makes the team member feel bad and doesn’t solve the problem.

Improving Team Performance: “You’re The Problem, Not The Assignment”

Bill Gear, a subject matter guru, sends an email to the PM and the team. He writes, “Unexpected technical difficulties may cause the completion date of his task to slide a week or more.” The PM spots Bill in the hall, calls to him and says, “What the heck’s the matter with you?  Do you think you can set the completion date without talking to me! We’ll see about these “unexpected technical difficulties?”

Assessment: You should never give negative feedback in public.  And never suggest “something is WRONG with a team member.  You should criticize specific behavior, not the individual.

Improving Team Performance: “Every Slippage is a Catastrophe”

One of the trainees, Billie Wright, comes to the PM’s cubicle and says, “I’m going to finish later than I planned by one day, but just one day. My boss gave me a high priority assignment that will interrupt my project work.” The PM glares at the trainee and says, “Don’t give me this ‘just one day late’ stuff.  You have to fix it so you don’t have this kind of disaster.  This is what makes projects fail!”

Assessment: You should not blame a team member for being pulled off your project by their department manager superior. That is not their fault. It is your job to solve the work priority issue with their boss. Also, one day late is not a catastrophe.

Improving Team Performance: “You Have to Fix This Today!”

Mary Hazlett calls to report an 8-day slippage on her task due to new technical requirements she just received.  The PM says, “Well that means your overtime starts tonight. And I’ll need your entire team in here all weekend.”

Assessment: This slippage was probably beyond the team member’s control.  Trying to recapture the lost time, starting today, is often the least effective solution.  There are times when you have to ask for extra hours but “all hands on overtime” is foolish and it punishes the whole team for something that is not their fault. This does more harm than good.

Improving Team Performance: “I’ll Have to Watch You Closely From Now On”

Jack Recosey reports that he has figured out a way to cut the five-day variance he reported last week, to only two days.  The PM says, “Just make up your mind. You shouldn’t have any variances. I’m going to have to watch you a lot more closely from now on.”

Assessment: This is a great technique for discouraging team members from problem solving.

Improving Team Performance: “Guilt, The Great Motivator”

Wanda Jean reports a two-week variance. The PM reacts by saying, “You’ve let every member of this team down. We were all counting on you to come through and you didn’t. I have no idea how badly this will affect the whole project and many people’s careers.”

Assessment:  An experienced team member will shrug off this foolishness, as they should.  But a new employee may think you are speaking the truth and become very upset and feel guilty.

Your “Bad News” Behavior is Always Onstage for the Whole Team

Handling performance problems with even one team member puts you, the project manager, on stage in front of the entire team. You shouldn’t assume that the team member who’s going to finish late won’t talk to the others or that they’ll become an outcast in the eyes of their peers. That’s incorrect. The rest of the team usually assumes the person just had some bad luck on their assignment. They judge your reaction when they hear about it (and they always do) based on your bad news behavior. They don’t share or support your perspective of the team member doing “bad work” or being a “bad person.” When you treat a variance like the team member has spread the plague, you will get an adverse reaction from the entire team. Count on the fact that your project team members regularly talk to each other about your behavior. And they tell everyone how you react when they have a negative situation.

Improving Team Performance: The Right Way

Your first guideline is to handle each performance problem as if your words and actions will be broadcast on Twitter, Facebook and CNN. You can also be sure that this broadcast of your behavior will focus on the juiciest aspects of the story, not a balance of good and bad. Because team members will broadcast your handling of performance problems, you should have a script for each situation and a role called “Bad News Project Manager.” Each “appearance” always has four acts.

You’re probably asking, “Why must I play a role?” “Why can’t I just be myself?”

The answer is that your natural tendency is to express your emotions. These include disappointment, worry and even the anger you may feel when a slippage or overrun occurs. Remember that dealing with a project team member’s overrun is not an opportunity for you to get your frustration “off your chest.” You must focus on engaging that team member in finding and implementing the best solution to the problem. All the negative responses we saw above came from project managers without a script for an effective “Bad News Project Manager” role. They were disastrous attempts to improve team performance. Here are the fours acts that define your role.

1. Use Data to Judge the Severity of the Problem

The first act for the “Bad News Project Manager” role is to determine the severity of the problem. To do this, you must have a proper project plan, a dynamic model of all the assignments, predecessor relationships (the sequence and dependency of tasks) and work/duration estimates. With this information, you can quickly assess the severity of the problem. The actions you take should be based on sound analysis and judgment. If you react to every problem as if it was a catastrophe, you will quickly lose your ability to engage your team in problem-solving when a serious matter arises.

The data in your plan and schedule will tell you if you are dealing with a task that is not on the critical path and if it has enough slack to cover the variance without affecting the project completion date. You’ll handle that problem very differently from a variance on a critical path task. That’s where every day of delay affects the project completion date. The data lets you live with some variances and focus your attention on the significant problems. This assessment makes your “Bad News Project Manager” reaction appropriate for the problem.

2. Determine the Extent of its “Ripple Effect”

You will also use the project schedule to analyze the “ripple effect” of a variance on the successor tasks that follow the task with the variance. The severity of a variance may increase or decrease based on whether resources are available on its successor tasks. You may be able to assign some of those available resources to work on the task with the variance. This “ripple effect” analysis also sets up your next step.

3. Pick the Best “Action Point” for Recovery

There is a natural tendency to think that you need to solve any variance on the task where it occurred. Certainly, recovery and completing that problem task on time and within budget is nice. But often adding resources or taking other corrective action on the problem task is not the best way to recover. It’s not easy to get additional people to work on the problem task. And when you do, you must quickly bring them up to speed. The net result may be that the problem task is further behind than if you left the existing people alone to work on it. Sometimes it’s easier and more effective to take action on a later task. That will give you more time to organize the recovery and find resources to regain the lost time.

4. Use the Work Package in Your Discussion with the Team Member

Now you’re almost ready to talk about improving team performance. (Hopefully this research and analysis has let you calm down). Your response to improving team performance should be finding the solution, not assigning blame to the team member. So you start the discussion with the team member by talking about the solution and getting their thoughts on the solution you two will jointly implement. Next, you need to review the work package that was the basis for the team member’s original work estimate and approach to the task. Take a look at the availability commitment you had for the team member and the risk factors included in the estimate. By using the original work package data as the basis for discussing the problem, you focus attention on your previous discussions. The flaws are in that document, not the team member. The big advantage of this last step is that it focuses attention on the work, not the personal characteristics of the team member.

Now you are ready to talk about solutions for the problem and improving team performance.

Improving Team Performance Summary

Using this four-step process for improving team performance let’s you avoid a “shoot from the hip” emotional reaction that leads to ineffective problem-solving behavior.

To learn more about building dynamic project plans, using effective estimating techniques with your team, and improving team performance, consider taking one of our private, online courses. We offer courses in Leadership and advanced project management techniques. For implementing these processes at the organizational level, visit our company project training web page.

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