A very common team seen in the workplace is one set up to run a project or special activity. These teams come together for a specific purpose and for a finite time. This article, continuing on our series about effective teams in the workplace, looks at what a project team is, the problems this structure can pose and steps that can be taken to overcome them.

Like all of our articles we welcome your feedback and comments.


What is a project team?

A project team is formed for the specific purpose of delivering a project solution. Although very distinct from other team structures in that having delivered the required output the team is then disbanded, project teams can also have similar forms in terms of being multi-cultural, cross-functional or virtual. See our other articles covering these specific team structures.


Common obstacles to project team success

Like all teams there are a number of specific problems that the project team structure pose in their goal of delivery. Four common obstacles to project teams include:

1. skills and knowledge mix: failure to determine the key skills and knowledge needed to take the project from inception to completion often leads to the wrong mix of team members. Time is therefore wasted as members struggle to acquire new knowledge or skills to bring them up to speed.  This is fine if there are no tight deadlines but where there are, it can lead to hastily efficient at what it is doing, designed and implemented solutions or to the project coming in late.

Troubleshooting tip: do a skills and knowledge audit for the project and use these to define a job and person specification that reflects the real role rather that the imagined role. Do not sell a team role as something it isn’t as this can only lead to frustration and resentment. Consider using Belbin Team roles, being action-oriented, people oriented or cerebral; but remember these are only a guide to people’s preferences and that people are capable of taking on more than one role type.  Where a team is already in place determine the gap between existing and required knowledge and skill and spend time up front closing the gap. An excellent book covering these different types of roles and project management more widely is that by Roger Jones and Neil Murray called Change, Strategy and Projects at Work.

2. planning and organisation: failing to plan a project properly without paying particular attention to key dependencies, which affect the completion of deliverables, can lead to a series of project and team problems. Poor planning is often a key reason for team friction and conflict as members become frustrated and stressed by such things as slow progress, missed deadlines and poor processes.

Troubleshooting tip: for sizeable project teams should agree a project plan with tasks and their dependencies, which should show the critical path through the project.  Roles and responsibilities should be assigned, which should include inter-team communication. Consider using Microsoft Project though this should be used as a working document, which is regularly updated rather than something that is done at the beginning of a project and then ignored.  If it can be ignored it is probably not worth spending the time doing in the first place. Its an application Ive used before and does an excellent job. However it does take some time to learn, like all software, and can be quite complicated if you are only dealing with a small project.

3. not the day job: project teams often suffer from the fact that their members have principal roles in other teams that take precedence.  Their commitment and thoughts are often tied up in activities in these principal roles rather than in those of the project teams and attendance, contribution, timescales, deliverables etc. can suffer inadvertently.

Troubleshooting tip: members commitment and contribution will often be determined both by the importance they attach to the purpose of the cross functional team and the behaviours and attitudes of fellow members.  It is essential therefore that:

  • the purpose is understood and agreed together with the project plan, milestones and key deliverables;
  • inappropriate behaviours are challenged before they become an acceptable part of the team dynamics;
  • the project forms part of an individual’s objectives/KPIs; and
  • common purpose - failure to agree a common purpose for a project team often means that members are working towards different priorities or towards ends that have more to do with individual rather than the task or team.

4. process failures: failure to set up and agree processes for decision making, sharing information, running meetings etc. is common to project/temporary teams as they are not seen as permanent arrangements and thus common processes are ignored or only sketchily agreed.  Particularly important is having a robust communication process, which keeps all the team informed.  This is setting the team up to fail no matter how willing its team members are.

Troubleshooting tip: agree at the outset what key processes need to be set up and agreed. Having a process type person on a team can often help to drive this forward particularly if some team members are turned off by the idea of spending time on processes. However putting in time up front can help eliminate later problems.


10 steps for creating successful project teams

Although there are a number of common problems that can arise with project teams, there are a number of steps that can be taken to overcome these. What we attempt to do in these articles is not to only discuss what problems can arise but also proactive steps that may assist in avoiding or at least minimising their affects.

In regards to project teams, these 10 steps include ensuring:

  1. clearly agreed purpose statements;
  2. clearly agreed project plan with deliverables, responsibilities and dependencies agreed and continually reviewed and updated;
  3. an audit of skills and knowledge required and team members are recruited/developed to deliver these;
  4. agreed commitment levels to the project team to prevent the day job creating intolerable interference;
  5. time is spent at front end setting up team processes;
  6. there are multi-skill team members to perform a range of functions playing both to their strengths and development areas;
  7. tasks are built in that allow members to work together rather than on individual parts of a project;
  8. regular reviews are held to assess team effectiveness;
  9. an even balance is established between team, task and individual it is too easy in a project team to focus purely on task; and
  10. successes are celebrated.