How to Develop Project Team Members

Investing in the individuals on the project team leads to a high-functioning project team.So much of our efforts as Project Managers are based on developing the team. It is the team that will deliver the project successfully. But what about the individual? Don’t we have a responsibility to develop the individual as well?

In my previous article, How to Form and Norm Your Way to a High-Performing Project Team,” I focused on developing an effective and productive IT project team – one composed of both IT and end-user team members. I described how attending to the forming and norming stages of building a high-functioning team (from Bruce Tuckman’s model for team building) with intentionality will ultimately result in the development of a successful project team.

This is a good place to remind the reader of my original premise when I began these 52 weeks of blog articles: IT Project Managers must learn to focus as much on the people aspects of project delivery as on the process and technical aspects. This article, therefore, follows from the previous one, and focuses on the development of the members of the team.

After all, there is no team without team members.

An IT project team is comprised of a group of employees, subcontractors, and end-users. It is overseen by one or more stakeholders, each with his or her own objectives. Adding to the dynamic of an IT-focused team are team members from a variety of cultures, languages, and experiences; team members that are co-located, work remotely, or both; and team members that may be juggling work priorities in addition to those for this project.

With the uniqueness of IT project teams in mind, the following points summarize actions that Project Managers can initiate to develop their team members:

Technical and Process Preparation. This first point is a no-brainer. In fact, this is where most organizations concentrate their staff development efforts: on technology, the system development methodology, and the processes that the project will follow from beginning to end. They invest significant project resources in training and equipping project staff in these areas. It is built into the project budgets with full understanding of the value that technical and process preparation bring to the project and to future projects.

But what about our client counterparts? On every project on which I served, the client organization loaned us end-user and technical staff for the duration of the project. Often we introduced new technology to the organization, yet expected the client organization to develop its own staff in the technology. We introduced automated tools to assist us in managing project information such requirements traceability, user acceptance test scripts and test results, and curriculum development software. Yet somehow we expected the end-users on the team to come up to speed with these tools by osmosis. Even though the client’s staff on the project are not IT provider staff, nevertheless the project schedule and budget must include their training as well.

Personal Development. But what about areas that are not directly related to technology or process? It’s been my contention throughout my consulting career, and further elaborated in many of the articles published under this blog, that IT providers owe their team members the opportunity to develop and grow skills outside of just those associated with technology and process.

For years I was told that these other skills were “soft skills” – desirable, yes; but not worth budgeting for. Either the individual had these skills or did not. If they had them, great – they would probably excel in their careers. But if they didn’t have them, not to worry – there was probably a place for them somewhere on the team.

In my opinion, this is extremely shortsighted. I have personally worked with individuals on my teams who “didn’t have them”. However, as they became aware of areas in which they should grow, and were given opportunities to grow, they would excel in these areas. They also became more effective contributors to the project team.

For example, I enrolled staff members into time management courses, writing courses, and public speaking courses (not sure why these are called “soft skills”) when we agreed that they needed to improve in these areas. It was interesting to watch them shine in their careers as they balanced technical and process skills with improvement in these areas.

Relationship Building. Relationship building is more than just friendship and camaraderie among team members. It involves trust, honesty, loyalty, transparency, approachability, appreciation for different cultures, appreciation for diversity, managing conflict and disagreement, and other such aspects of working well together. Establishing guidelines and norms withing the team helps build relationships among the team members.

Project Managers should consider teambuilding exercises that focus on the individual and how they can best support and fit within the team. In fact, on long projects, it is advisable to pause once or twice a year to bring the team together in relationship building / teambuilding exercises. My one caution with teambuilding, however, is to ensure that the activities are tailored to an IT team – to this IT team with all its uniqueness – rather than depending on a cookie-cutter teambuilding approach typically offered by many generic training companies.

Inter-Personal Communication. Many of the project dysfunctions and failures I witnessed over my career stemmed from communication problems – most often interpersonal communication problems.

Interpersonal behavior and interpersonal communication go hand-in-hand. I’ve seen team members being removed from a project simply because of their poor interpersonal communication style. Yet they had never been coached in how to improve in this area. Whether it’s nonverbal communication (body language, facial expression, posture, movement, tone of voice), understanding nuances and tone in emails and text messages, the ability to listen well without interruption, the ability to read a room or another person’s nonverbal communication – any and all of these can be taught.

Again, my caution is to train staff in interpersonal communication techniques by using people who have “been there and done that” rather than generic communications trainers. As an example, I brought the Toastmasters International public speaking program into an office where I worked, and then tailored that program specifically to IT professionals. It was hugely successful as it met a need, but was specific to IT practitioners.

Work Habits. Assembling a team based on their technical and process prowess is just the beginning of team development. The challenge is in developing expectations around team interactions, keeping commitments and meeting deadlines, working well within and across teams, decision-making, managing one’s time and respecting team members’ time commitments, assisting fellow team members as needed, and other such valuable work habits. As each team member accepts and puts into practice the norms for expected work habits, the sum of the individual parts truly becomes greater than the whole.

Often individuals will selfishly take care of their own tasks and activities, and not pay close attention to the entire team’s objectives. Team members must be brought to the understanding that the success of the individual, at the expense of the entire team meeting its goals, is not success at all.

Team Member Empowerment. Too often in my project experience, I have witnessed Project Managers attempting to do too much on their own. I myself, in my younger years, often said, “if it’s going to be done right, I need to do it myself”, thus depriving team members of the ability to build their own capabilities. Individuals within the team should be empowered to have a voice in the collaboration, speaking up when necessary, and knowing when to stay silent.

I believe that Project Managers should involve their team members in tasks that are typically relegated to leadership, tasks such as: project planning, planning risk management, planning quality management, planning communications, and contributing to lessons learned. This serves two purposes: first, it helps give less experienced project team members insight into these areas; and secondly, better results are often achieved using team members that have had recent experience in the trenches of project work.

Few things foster teamwork more than giving team members feeling of empowerment and permission to offer their ideas.

Developing the team by investing in the team members takes leadership – not just leaders who are dedicated to equipping their team to complete the project successfully, but leaders dedicated to building up and developing each individual for career and life. That’s called focusing on the people aspects of project management.

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