Project Team Assignments

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

There are two different techniques you can use when you are making project team assignments. The easiest way to assign work to your project team members is to give them activities to complete, like items on a “To Do” list. That technique doesn’t take much thinking and the assignment is usually a little vague. The more effective technique is to make the team members accountable for producing a specific deliverable. Each deliverable must have a measurable outcome. This technique takes a lot of thinking because you must specify exactly what you want the team member to produce and how you will measure it.  Deliverables are always better assignments than a list of To Do’s. That’s because the team member will understand exactly what you expect of them before they start work. People perform at a higher level when they are accountable for deliverables and that is the key to consistent project success.  Let’s discuss how to define and assign deliverables. Leading Teams Main Page

There are several components when you assign a deliverable to a team member. You need an estimate of the amount of work the deliverable will take. You also need to identify the risks in producing the deliverable. A team member often needs to receive work products from others to be able to produce their deliverable. All that information should be stated in a work package.  The work package is a one-page document that gives clear assignments to team members. It also lets team members participate in defining the approach to the task and estimating the amount of work it will take. But let’s get back to the key element, the performance expectation.

Project Team Assignments: Deliverables versus Activities

There is a clear distinction between project team assignments that are activities and those that are deliverables. Activities are “To Do’s” like “teach the payroll system training class.” Deliverables are end results like, “After the payroll class, 85% of the attendees can enter 30 pay changes per hour.” After receiving each of these assignments, a team member can teach a payroll class. But the content will be different with the deliverable assignment because the trainer is not just conducting a class. They have a measured result they are accountable for delivering.  Project managers who design team member assignments as deliverables have significant advantages over those who use activities. Before listing these advantages, let’s make sure you’re clear about the differences between team assignments with activities and those with deliverables. Effective Feedback

Project Team Assignments Example #1: Assignment to a Teenager

The Activity: “Clean up your room.”

The Deliverable: “Put all the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can.”

With the activity assignment, the parent have only told the teenager to perform an action. They have not defined the expected outcome. The teenager has to guess what the parent wants. There can be many interpretations of what the “Clean up your room” activity involves. So it is likely that the parent won’t get the end result they’re looking for. The key flaw in this (and any) activity assignment is that there is no clear performance expectation. There is no performance standard to measure the teenager’s actions against. There is only a vague idea of what a “clean room” looks like. As a result, the parent can’t gain the teenager’s commitment to the assignment. And they can’t reasonably deliver consequences for the teen’s good or bad performance. Team building

With the deliverable of “All the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can,” the teenager has the potential for better performance and commitment. The expectation is clear and it is possible to get the teen to commit to it. If there are still empty cans and candy wrappers on the floor after the teen says they’re done, they will have to agree that the standard wasn’t met. On the other hand, if they also put their textbooks and computer on the desk, the parent must agree that the teen exceeded the standard. In this example of a deliverable, any rewards and punishments have a better chance of being seen as fair because the standard was clear.

leadership & team assignments

Project Team Assignments Example #2: Assignment to a Team Member

The Activity: “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”

The Deliverable: “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.”

With the activity assignment of “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”, the project manager must continuously check the team member’s work to guide them. That’s because the team member cannot have a clear idea of what the PM wants. (It’s also possible the PM doesn’t know what the assignment should achieve.) The team member doesn’t know whether to develop 200 recommendations to eliminate all turnover or just a few to bring it down a little. This leads to a game of “Did I get the right answer?” each time the team member thinks they are done.  The team member does some work and brings their recommendations to the PM asking, “Is this what you wanted?” The answer to this question is usually “No.” Then the PM blames the team member, saying, “You didn’t understand the assignment.” So the team member goes back to the drawing board, frustrated and irritated.

These problems are solved with the deliverable assignment of “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.” The project team member knows what’s the PM expects them to deliver and doesn’t have to guess. The PM has a better opportunity to gain the team member’s commitment and positive or negative consequences will be clear and fair. Additionally, the team member can get a sense of satisfaction from meeting the expectation.

So why do PMs assign team members activities rather than deliverables? The answer is because it’s much easier and safer than assigning achievements.  There are two reasons for this. First, by assigning activities, the PM doesn’t have to think through the situation and commit to exactly what he/she wants. They have some wiggle room to change their mind on what they want. Second, it is difficult for the PM to make a mistake when assigning activities. Only the person doing the work can be wrong. Weak PMs always use activity assignments because it’s safe for them and always leaves them wiggle room.

Now let’s look at some more good and bad assignment examples. The bad ones are more entertaining so we’ll start with them.

Project Team Assignments Example #3: Counting the Wrong Thing

Here are a few examples of counting the wrong thing on a customer service improvement project. The project scope is defined as “Provide World Class Customer Service that Delights the Customer.”

  • A PM measures the engineers’ performance by the number of lines of code each one writes. The engineer with the highest total gets a lunch with the CEO.
  • A PM measures the trainers’ performance by the ratings that class attendees give each trainer. The trainer with the highest rating receives a certificate of appreciation.
  • A PM measures the performance of customer service reps by counting the number of interviews each person conducts with customer service managers. The team member with the most interviews gets publicly recognized at a status meeting.

What performance will the PM get from project team assignments like these? In the first example, the engineers will write a lot of lines of code. Some of it may benefit the customer service division but a lot will not. In the second example, the training class attendees will have a fun time and give the trainer a high rating. But they won’t learn much. In the third example, the team members will conduct a lot of interviews. But much of the information will be gathered in a hurried manner and may be useless.

The project managers in these examples counted the activities being performed and got the results they deserved. These activities produced high volumes of whatever the PM was counting, even if it contributed little value to the project. The PMs probably didn’t know what business value the project needed to deliver. So they created assignments that were activities they could identify without much thought.

Project Team Assignments Example #4: Counting Only Dates

Another form of counting the wrong thing occurs when the project due date or duration is the only measurable result. The due date usually comes from an executive. It doesn’t consider the amount of work required or the availability of the people to do it. Next the project manager picks the due date of each assignment to support the entire project’s due date. In this situation, the team members have no commitment to their assignments’ dates because they were forced upon them.  They often recognize that the dates are impossible even before work starts.

At each status meeting the PM asks, “Are you on track to hit your due dates? You committed to them.” Most team members give the PM an optimistic thumbs up. Then one day a truthful person says, “No, that date is impossible. There is no way I can hit it.” The PM gets angry and from them on, everyone is afraid to tell the truth about their assignment. So they report they are on target to meet their dates. They don’t mention that they’re counting on miracles to do so. When the due date draws near, the team members slap together whatever they can and turn it in. It’s poor quality work, but at least it’s on time. The organization then spends months and thousands of dollars to fix the failed project.

Project sponsors drive much of this “due date behavior” when all they focus on is the due dates of the entire project and the team assignments. I don’t mean to imply that the dates are not important; they are. But delivering junk by the due date does not make the project a success. Unfortunately, most project sponsors are used to to having only dates for tracking the project’s progress. Too many project managers don’t report anything else that is measurable. Everything else they report is vague, subjective statements. So it’s not surprising that sponsors like dates because they are objectively measurable and unambiguous.

What project managers need to do is to count the right things. They need to count the end result (the business value) the project produces, the date, the cost and the risk. These techniques take a more time but they yield enormous benefits. Let’s see how you do that.

Project Team Assignments: Assignment Deliverable Hierarchy

To be a successful project manager, you must work with the sponsor to define measured deliverables for the project scope. Then you define the major deliverables that lead to it. This includes the acceptance criteria the sponsor will use to measure the project’s success. Let’s use the customer service project example again. This time the scope definition the sponsor sets is “Complete 95% of customer phone calls within 3 minutes team assignmentswith less than 3% calling back about the same problem.” This is a clear measured outcome. Then you break it down into smaller achievements that support the scope.

As you break down the scope into its IT system deliverables, you come to the GUI (screen display) that an engineer has to develop for the customer service reps to use. That measured achievement could be “Customer service reps see 6 months of customer history within 4 seconds of entering the customer’s name or number.” Please note that this achievement is measured in the users’ business point of view. It is not measured in the IT system engineering department’s business point of view. This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than lines of code (like the PM used in the earlier example).

The trainer has a different achievement, too. Their assignment could be “80% of the class attendees can answer the top 20 customer questions in 120 seconds or less using the new GUI.” Again, what you are counting is more relevant to the project’s scope than whether the attendees enjoyed the class and the trainer.

The team members interviewing the customer service managers could have a measured business outcome like, “Managers reach consensus on the ten most important customer service problems.” This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than counting the number of interviews conducted.

That sounds pretty straightforward but it takes time, thought and planning to create this assignment deliverable hierarchy. You must think about what to count and measure. They must be relevant to achieving the project’s scope. Performance expectations must be clear to the team members before they start work. So you must define team members’ assignments in measureable terms. That encourages their commitment and makes estimating and tracking much more precise. It also lets you spot problems early, when you have a chance to fix them. It plays an important role in managing projects that deliver successful results. When you assign a project team member a deliverable, it is easier to clarify your expectations, gain their commitment and give them rewards that are based on performance. All the techniques in this article are part of our private,  training courses and certifications delivered over the Internet or as in-person seminars for organizations.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com