Building a rock-star project team

Posted by Jeff Schnurr on September 16, 2013 · 4 min read

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In professional hockey, teams have a General Manager (GM) and a Coach charged with one mission - put a team on the ice that is both capable and driven to deliver a truly exceptional outcome - the Stanley Cup.  Every factor must be considered individually and then again as a whole, to arrive at a perfect mix of talent that can produce under a variety of possible future scenarios.  Strategies are selected, trade-offs are made, deals are cut - and when it comes time to deliver, the outcome is broadcast live on national TV.

In contrast, we often take a vanilla “resource management” approach to putting our project teams together.  Too often the project manager is dealing with seemingly interchangeable “resource types”, drawn from a pool, putting names in boxes on a project plan to reach a resourcing milestone and keep things on track.  The whole process is sterile and misses the key point that every GM and coach knows intuitively - the way the team works together is more important than their individual capabilities.  Exceptional outcomes require exceptional teamwork - a product of good team selection and great coaching that aligns everyone to the goal.

So how can we improve the approach and get the rock-star team and the exceptional results we all want?  In my experience putting together dozens of teams with hundreds of people over the years, there are 4 key ingredients.

  1. Appoint a GM.  One person, accountable to the project sponsor, needs to take accountability for putting the right team together.  This usually has to be done informally, as most organizations decentralize control of resource selection for project assignment.  With due respect to the highly talented project managers out there, this isn’t a PM’s expertise, and there is too much conflict with other project needs.  Formally or informally, this needs to be a savvy leader that can gain the trust and respect of the team, sniff out egos, agendas and conflicts, and draw in top talent that fits together as a team.  Bonus if the project sponsor can play this role.
  2. Ask HR for help.  If the resources are internal, ask your HR department for “scouting reports” and feedback that will help determine how an individual will contribute to the overall dynamic.  This is the kind of work done routinely as hiring decisions for permanent positions are made, and you might find that the ability to determine “team fit” is transferable to temporary project teams.
  3. Make mid-season trades.  Often, as projects evolve and shift into a new phase, the dynamics of the team change.  There may have also been errors in the original selection that need to be corrected.  In any case, make player selection an iterative process, constantly revisiting the actual performance vs the expectation, and making necessary trades.
  4. Coach the team as one.  Large projects have many functions, often across organizations, offices and functions.  To truly get the alignment, the team must come together regularly to understand the strategy and status; not just for project deliverables, but for the dynamics and expectations amongst different team members.  Everyone needs clarity on what their position is, how it relates to the other positions, and how it contributes to the higher level objective.

For some of you, this topic may seem a little “squishy”, like an luxury when we’ve got projects to execute.  If you’re feeling that way, I ask you to think about the best project team you’ve ever been part of - the one that was the most energized, committed, and capable, and delivered results beyond expectations.  Ask yourself, how did that particular group come together?  What was it about the dynamics that made it so special?   Was it just random luck that put that group of people together for that project?  Or was there a GM and a coach at work helping create the conditions for success?

Go build a rock-star team.  Exceptional results are so much more fun.