How to Create High-Performing Project Management Teams

Top-notch IT product-delivery teams have three traits in common. Find out to build those project management attributes in your team.

What do high-performing IT teams have in common? Why do some teams consistently deliver innovative products on schedule and with high levels of customer satisfaction, while others seem to consistently fall short?

Project Management

"Today's IT market demands products that aren't just functional, but universally accessible, beautifully designed and intuitive and user-friendly," says JAMA Software's CEO Eric Winquist.

[Related: 7 Ways to Advance Your Project Management Career]

Winquist and his company looked at a number of product delivery (or project management) teams and found that the most successful ones see themselves as "victors" rather than "victims" in a difficult, highly competitive industry landscape, and share common goals and characteristics.

Victors vs. Victims

"What we started to see is that organizations and IT teams that identify themselves as 'victors' see each project as an opportunity to innovate, to provide a new level of business value for their organizations," says Winquist.

"Because of that mindset, they will be empowered, engaged and make good decisions. Their companies will be much more successful than the 'victims,'" he says.

"Improved feedback loops and working on products and projects iteratively also reduces waste, improves productivity and employee engagement in the long run."

-- Kurt Bittner,Forrester

What makes a "victim"? A victim mindset, Winquist says, is one where cost-cutting, micromanagement, excessive control of information and reporting and a "command and control" philosophy is enacted. "Victims are constantly cutting costs, locking down processes, not sharing information or collaborating, micromanaging, and they have a harder time dealing with complexity and change," Winquist says.

Because of this mindset, Winquist adds, many organizations become so focused on controlling the production and delivery process that they miss the mark of what the customer really wanted, too.

[Related: Shortage of Project Managers Sends Businesses Scrambling]

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"The victors recognize that success comes down to informed decision making," Winquist says. "You make decisions based on context, and to do so your employees need empowerment and authority, and to be able to gauge the impact on the business as a whole, too. So, success depends on empowering your people to make good decisions as quickly as possible," he says.

Three Common Threads in Project Management Success

IT victors are committed to three things, according to Winquist:

  • Bringing their people in: They keep everyone connected along the journey of a product by providing more context around the entire process so each player has the same common vision and goal.
  • Empowering their teams: They understand people make better decisions when they understand the 'Big Picture' and when they're empowered; these people also want to give more discretionary effort.
  • Focusing on outcomes: They measure product launches through their ability to meet customer need and drive adoption (not just meeting deadlines); it's about creating a positive outcome and experience that moves the needle, Winquist says.

"One of the main challenges CIOs face is how to get project teams more engaged so they can spend their time innovating and creating rather than focusing on the minutia of their specific tasks and on putting out fires," Winquist says.

[Related: Why Are So Many IT Projects Failing?]

Winquist says teams that are brought fully into the entire product delivery process and are given a broad context into which their work will fit view themselves as a key business driver within the organization, and will actually deliver better, more innovative products.

"The movement of businesses is toward thinking about how each project fits into the greater goal of delivering value to customers? How can you think about project management differently -- and move to delivering value instead of just things," Winquist says.

By focusing on employee engagement and helping employees understand what they're building, how their work impacts customers, and how it fits into the larger picture of the business, teams will be much more successful, he says.

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"One challenge with all projects is that the people who provide the requirements often don't have a picture of what the customer actually needs," says Kurt Bittner, principal analyst for application development and delivery professionals for Forrester. "The more feedback you can get while the project is ongoing, the better you can do at delivering what the customer wants and needs," he says.

However, this doesn't happen today in many complex IT organizations where product teams may be siloed in different knowledge centers, business units or even separated by geography.

That's why it's important to enable organizations to share information in a collaborative way, and in the larger business context, JAMA Software's Winquist says, and focus on the overall outcome and business value those products will deliver.

"The third thing 'victors' had in common was a focus on overall outcomes versus a focus on individual features," says Winquist. "What will this project allow the business to do better? What benefits will it provide to customers, and how can we improve the business and deliver that value quickly?" he says.

Follow Agile Methodology for Project Management

This way of thinking is similar to the minimum viable product concept of an agile development methodology, says Winquist, in which projects are begun and delivered in iterations, with constant feedback and improvements along the way.

"You start, get up to speed quickly, and then you deliver the minimum amount of functionality you can to deliver business value," Winquist says.

"Organizations always have been concerned with building a product only to find that it's wrong, or that it doesn't meet customer needs," says Forrester's Bittner.

"But this way, they're eliminating that concern. And improved feedback loops and working on products and projects iteratively also reduces waste, improves productivity and employee engagement in the long run," Bittner says.

Making Employees More Involved, More Engaged

With increased collaboration and feedback, employees tend to be more productive because the chance of wasting their time on pointless work is greatly reduced, says Bittner. But another benefit is that employees are more engaged and loyal if they feel empowered to make decisions and feel they're making a difference to the company.

"People would rather work for a company where they feel they're making a difference and there's a better sense of purpose, even if they're earning a lower salary," Bittner says. By focusing on developing and sustaining teams of victors rather than victims, organizations can help their businesses thrive.

"We've seen that when there's a greater sense of purpose, workers are more motivated, more engaged, and have higher rates of retention, longevity and loyalty," Bittner says. "Especially in tight labor markets, when people are choosing where to go work, these intangibles are extremely valuable," he says.

Sharon Florentine covers IT careers and data center topics for CIO.com. Follow Sharon on Twitter @MyShar0na. Email her at sflorentine@cio.com Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook.

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