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Team Building Techniques

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Let’s talk about Team Building Techniques that determine the team’s level of performance. These techniques are used for three Moments of Truth (MOT). If team leaders handle them properly, these Moments of Truth (MOT) produce team members who actually try to do the following:

  • finish assignments early
  • take responsibility for solving problems and
  • try to find better, faster ways of producing their deliverables.

When these MOTs are handled badly, they produce a team that does these things:

  • lets the work fill the available time
  • wait for someone else to solve their problems and
  • focus their attention on avoiding blame for failure.  Leading Teams Main Page

Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #1 – Team Commitment to Their Assignments

The first Team Building Technique Moment of Truth comes early, during the project planning phase when you’re building the plan and schedule. If you follow the best practices during this phase, you’ll work with your team to define their assignments, make clear the deliverable they will produce and how you will measure its acceptability. You will document all that in a one-page work package so there is no confusion or misunderstanding. Finally, you’ll speak to their boss and pin down the team member’s availability for the assignment.

Working with the team member, you’ll estimate the amount of work (not the duratiteam building techniqueson) the deliverable will require.  Then the two of you will calculate the task’s duration from that data. It is important that the team member is clear on the assignment and has input into the estimate. You create a work package that is like a contract because changes to the assignment also require changes to the estimate. That’s the best way to estimate and it helps build the team member’s commitment to their assignment.Leadership and Team Assignments

Team Building Techniques: What Gets in the Way?

Lots of things can destroy the success of this team building technique. Trust between you and the team member is a key component.  Sponsors and lazy project managers who won’t do the work are one cause of problems.  These people need to take the risk of being wrong rather than hedge their bets with vague expectations.  Here’s an example. Let’s say that during your project initiation meeting with the sponsor, he was quite clear about the required completion date and repeated it frequently.  Savvy project managers always respond with, “I understand when you want the project done.  But I won’t know if that date is possible until I understand exactly what you want, know how much work that will take and how many people I will have to do it.” The sponsor won’t like that answer, but it is the truth.  A foolish project manager commits to the due date without having any of the information necessary to do so. Effective Feedback

As you get deeper and deeper into the project planning, it becomes glaringly obvious that finishing all these tasks by the executive’s due date is impossible. It’s not just tough, it’s mathematically impossible. Even with lots of overtime. So you are waiting for exactly the right moment to tell the executive that the date is impossible. You are also hoping for a miracle breakthrough that will make the date feasible. So you work with the team members on estimating their tasks and start squeezing them on their estimates.  Eventually you abandon their participation and just make the task durations hit the executive’s completion date. Team Types

Bad Team Building Techniques: Due Date Determines the Schedule

This is the dilemma of the first Team Building Technique Moment of Truth. You can confront the sponsor with the truth about the date and take the heat. Or you can yield to the temptation to continue postponing the confrontation and show the sponsor acceptable dates by backing into the schedule from his completion date. You do this silly process by starting from the sponsor’s desired completion date and working backward. You pluck task completion dates from the sky like this, “Jack has to be finished by June 23 so Mary has to be finished by June 5th and Pearl has to be finished by May 19, etc..”

When you are done with this exercise, you will have met the sponsor’s date constraint. Then you tell each team member when their assignment has to be finished. If anyone protests, you blame the sponsor directly or shrug and point up to the executive floor. This process lets the project schedule (on paper) finish precisely on the date the sponsor wants and that makes them happy, at least for awhile.  You may be thinking, “We’re smart and hard working; maybe we CAN finish by then.” Team Building

This technique is widely used. In fact in some organizations, plucking dates backwards is a “Best PM Practice.” Of course these organizations also have 70% project failure rates. More to the point, the imaginary finish dates that were plucked from the sky cause you to fail at Project Team Building Moment of Truth #1. The project team feels they have been plucked themselves. The younger and more innocent members of the team are discouraged, knowing that they will fail to finish on time. The more experienced team members also know they’ll finish late. But their experience tells them they will get to spend months after the project’s “finish” date cleaning up the mess that was frantically slapped together in the vain attempt to finish “on-time.”

Worst of all, what kind of commitment do you get from your team with this kind of process? People who know they have no chance of hitting their “committed to” dates have little dedication or enthusiasm for their tasks. Even if you and the team use every ounce of creativity you have to squeeze the plan and develop shortcuts and innovations that slash the duration, 99.9% of the time these efforts will still fall short of the sponsor’s completion date expectation.

Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #2 – Handling Bad News

Whatever happens during planing, every project next faces the second Team Building Technique Moment of Truth. It starts at an early project team meeting and continues until the project is complete. Here’s how t goes. One of the members says to you, “I’m gonna finish a week, maybe two, later than planned.” Visions of the whole project collapsing flash through your mind. You’ve come to Project Team Building Technique Moment of Truth #2 and there are choices here too.

This bad news may tie your stomach in knots because the slipping task is on the critical path and thus, it delays the entire project completion date. It’s very easy to react emotionally, even treat this bad news as a personal betrayal by the project team member.  In other words, you act as if it’s something for which you can punish them. So you get angry.  That action ends the flow of information about problems.  The team member who spoke up will not tell you next time and the rest of the team won’t either. Even if your anger is delivered to the team member in private, the rest of the team will hear about the incident within hours.

Some project managers (and executives) think refusing to listen to bad news is a sign they are dynamic and aggressive leaders. The truth is just the opposite; they are stupid. When PMs teach team members with slipping tasks not to give them bad news, they deny themselves the opportunity to solve small problems. From then on, the team members will use a lot of wishing and hoping they can finish on time rather than tell the PM about the problem.They won’t lie. They’ll just use a bit of optimism when reporting the status of their assignments. The PM who doesn’t listen to bad news as an opportunity to fix a problem dooms himself to learning about big problems when it’s too late to fix them.

It’s hard to do but you need to handle bad news positively and show appreciation for the opportunity to solve the problem. The team member with a variance often is not to blame. Even if they are the culprit, it shouldn’t be obvious that you’ve reached that conclusion. You should handle the variance as a problem you and the team member have to jointly solve. You want your team members to continue to trust you. Then you get the exceedingly valuable opportunity to solve a problem early, when it’s small. If you discourage your team members from giving you bad news, you doom yourself to discovering problems when it’s too late to recover.  Leadership & Team Performance

Bad Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #3 – Micromanagement

Even if you manage to plan correctly and handle the bad news properly, you will still face Team Building Technique Moment of Truth #3. The temptation for many technically savvy PMs is to react to every problem by diving right in and making all the decisions. For many project managers, this is a very comfortable position. It’s much easier than trusting the team members and giving them room to make mistakes and own their results. These PMs even relish the sight of a line of team members outside their cubicle waiting for decisions. You know the micromanagement disease is raging when these PMs start complaining about how their team members, “lack initiative and the ability to work independently.” Of course, none of the team members feel ownership of any result or have a sense of achievement because the PM is making all the decisions.

You want to “make things happen, now!” So you stick your fingers into everyone’s assignments. You may have built a commitment foundation where the team feels accountable for their achievements. But as soon as you take over by checking their work every few hours and making the decisions, you wash away that foundation. If you make the decisions yourself and treat the team members as your drones, you will continue micromanaging when problems arise.

It is enormously difficult to keep your hands off people’s assignments when the sponsor is putting pressure on you about missed deadlines and budget overruns. But that is exactly the moment at which you need the benefit of a project team that feels accountable for their achievements and has some incentive to meet and, hopefully, exceed their assignments.

Team Building Techniques: Summary

When you succeed in each of these three Team Building Techniques Moments of Truth, you substantially increase the likelihood of project success. Each of the Team Building Techniques Moments of Truth involves both personal leadership techniques and sound project management processes.

You can learn these processes and our proven project management methodology in our online courses with individual coaching and mentoring. You will practice every tool and technique you are learning in role-playing exercises with your instructor. Whenever you have a question or want to discuss a technique, you can telephone or e-mail your instructor and always get a response within 24 hours. You have as many live online meetings with your instructor as you need.

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