Why teams are your greatest unmanaged delivery risk

You must detect, and actively manage, your team performance risk otherwise you risk project disaster says Ian Sharpe.



Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…

I had a coffee with the head of projects at a company a few weeks ago and heard a harrowing, if all too familiar, situation. His project was about to fall off the edge of a cliff and he didn’t know how to stop it.

He told me that conditions had deteriorated to breaking point between the internal and external project teams. The CEO at the company took such a dim view of the external team that he was even criticising them for the things they did right!

He explained further:

“The client won’t even talk to us about the big picture. We’ve tried talking to them, but they won’t engage. We’ve asked them to include us in decisions, but we just get told what to do. There’s no conversation – only demands and recriminations.”

The relationship was so pathological that even after an intervention from a third party – who pointed this out – the project was still doomed.

Teams – your most critical delivery risk

People tend to think that putting together a team just requires gathering a group of people in the one place.

We often assume that because humans are naturally social creatures that they will easily work well and effectively together, but obviously this isn’t always the case. You can have the best, most skilled group of individuals on the planet, but if they can’t work together as a team, the consequences for your project can be grim, if not catastrophic.

Creating a team – a cohesive group of people who can work together to share responsibility, purpose and success – requires focused effort, and it tends to be very poorly understood in many organisations.

A tragic lesson about team failure

Teams at NASA learnt this lesson under tragic circumstances with the untimely destruction of the Challenger and Colombia Shuttles that resulted in the death of the astronauts. The Accident Investigation Boards found as part of their research into the root causes of the accident, that beyond technical failures, there were underlying organisational, leadership and communication issues that had led to the catastrophe.

Ultimately this led NASA to bring in Dr. Charlie Pellerin (NASA’s former Director of Astrophysics and leader of the team that saved Hubble) to leverage his system for producing high performance teams. This used plain English to describe behaviours everyone could call out, accurate data points and meaningful analysis to substantively measure improvements.

Prevent project failures before they happen

We all know that things don’t always go the way you want or expect with projects, but how you ultimately weather those issues always comes down to the context that you’ve set up for your team, as a leader.

So my client’s doomed project could have been avoided if they’d created the right context for the team at the start of the project. The key to this process is taking measures to ensure that the team operates as exactly that – a team.

You need to be actively involved and responsibilities need to be shared and owned. Perhaps more importantly, there should be no culture of blame. You need to be able to see the problems clearly (admit that they exist) and ask for help when you need it.

So how do you do it?

In a nutshell:

  1. Get the context right and do it from the start. You have one team, not several (regardless of who pays their wages). If you want these people to work as a team you have to treat them that way. Define the roles and structure of the team and make it clear for everyone involved. Have all members participate in kick-off activities, for example, and make them feel valued and included by asking for their advice and involving them in the decision-making process. Make them feel empowered, involved, consulted and valued.
  2. Define the big picture for the team and align the project goals with the success of the business. Make sure the main game – to satisfy a particular business need – is clearly stated for everyone to see.
  3. Explicitly define what good team behaviour looks like and make sure every member of the team knows about it too.
  4. Use diagnostic tools to set baselines regarding the health of teams’ relationships and measure your progress. One option would be to explore using the same approach as NASA, in the 4-D System.

Not managing the context of your teams is the single biggest risk to delivery failure. Get it wrong and you could end up like my client – or worse. 

About the Author

A Principal Consultant at CSC Consulting, Ian Sharpe is a highly respected professional in the fields of project leadership and capability development. He has worked with a wide range of global organisations including NASA as a senior advisor on portfolio, programme and project excellence. In 2014 he became the first person in the world to achieve ‘4-D System Master’ status.

He has in-depth knowledge of Project and Program Management including a Masters of Project Management, and experience with PMBoK®, PRINCE2® and MSP®.