Team On-Boarding — First Priority for New Projects

The success of a project strongly correlates with the dynamics at play within the team. How the new project team comes together is critical because there are several forces that can naturally lead to ineffective practices taking hold right away and setting up the stage for possible project problems. Some relate to the leaders’ tendency to rush into action, others relate to the hurdles for a team to bond effectively around a common purpose. Both need to be addressed to avoid breakdowns.

Project Teams Opportunities and Challenges

Organizations put together project teams when they need to solve a problem or create a new strategic initiative. Because such objectives are usually important to their organizations’ future, projects tend to receive high scrutiny from senior management.

Yet, in spite of how critical the outcomes may be, little attention is given to the particular challenge of bringing a project team to full effectiveness. As a result it is not uncommon to witness mediocre performance soon after the launch with slow ramp-up, missed deadlines, and high levels of overwhelm, all of which eventually working their ways to produce a lower ROI than expected or outright failures.

Beware the “Leader Knows Best” Syndrome

It is generally up to the project manager to set things in motion even before others have completely joined the team. By the time project teams are assembled, leaders know vastly more than others about the project specifics.  They have developed their own thinking; they can now lay out for others how things will unfold, or so it seems. When the project team finally meets, the leader invariably already feels the pressure to get things going; the very first team conversation will typically only focus on the mechanics of what the team is supposed to work on.

Little time, if any, is spent on what the desired outcomes are,  what approach the team will employ to deliver them, why this particular team is together, how the team will benchmark its progress, and how team members will interact with each other. At best, the leader addresses these points in a brief introduction. The leader’s mistake is often to think “If it is clear to me, it must be clear to others”.

In the rush to action, one can ignore the basic fact that people need time to assimilate new ideas presented to them, understand how ideas were arrived at and figure out what the implications are for them personally. They need the time for their own questions to emerge as they mentally assemble the pieces of the puzzle to their own satisfaction.

Part of the process of absorbing information is to ask questions, and voice concerns. On a new team, members do not easily do so. They typically feel unsure about where they stand and want to hear more before contributing to the discussion. This cautious reserve is exacerbated when they are unfamiliar with the leader and/or not feeling safe to speak up because of the way the leader reacts.

Unfortunately it is easy, and sometimes convenient for leaders to take the absence of questions as a sign that everything is clear. Lack of clarity at the team level is a key source of ongoing dysfunction. Without the opportunity to gain a full understanding of the situation, individuals begin to fill in the blanks by making their own unvoiced assumptions.

Making a Team out of a Group of Individuals

Whatever bit of confusion and uncertainty persists among individuals is amplified by the fact that, at the beginning of a project, team members do not “yet” form a true team where members can support each other. Because they come from different parts of the organization, or even organizations, project participants will naturally see their work assignments from divergent perspectives. Without having the time to explore their differences and establish some mutual understanding, they will not align around a common purpose and a common approach. Poor communication and work coordination will necessarily ensue.

The more project members struggle with each other’s different ways of thinking about priorities and work flow, the greater the likelihood tensions will develop into patterns of resentment, avoidance and distrust that become engrained. Repeated hundreds of times each day seemingly small misunderstandings and frictions rapidly build to large consequences in delays and unresponsiveness.

Avoiding Dangerous Assumptions

When team members are not clear about the purpose of the group and they do not have open exchanges with their leader and each other, making assumptions and second-guessing become common fare as people try to backfill missing information with what they experienced in other situations. Unchecked assumptions are fatal to teamwork.

For example there is not a more dangerous assumption than to believe that the project is just like the prior ones and that therefore there is no need to “waste” time on an exhaustive review. This type of mistake is often made by IT project teams that do not take the time to understand the full context of a particular implementation with their client.

Finding the Common Ground

When we work with a team struggling to get their project on track, our very first hours working with them invariably uncover numerous unfounded assumptions and misunderstandings that have hampered team communications. In the matter of a few hours, areas of confusion and distrust disappear and a clear common reality arises for the team. At that point team dynamics transform and tangible change can be observed in the quality of ideas, interactions, and willingness to cooperate vs. argue.

Proper Team “On-Boarding”

The process of “on-boarding” a project team which we practice is essential to getting project teams on track. It works rapidly even with teams that have experienced complete performance breakdowns.  It obviously makes sense to apply the process at the beginning of a new project rather than waiting for a crisis to develop. The “on-boarding ” solution is easy to implement, takes little time, and delivers rich dividends for the project’s success.

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