How do you put your project team in the zone?

What do high performing project teams do to thrive together? There are five very unique behavioural characteristics that set them apart from others. Some of them you see in the sports world as well. Clarity of purpose is on of them. What are the other four?

teamwork puzzle organized pieces together
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"Individual commitment to a group effort — that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work." – Vince Lombardi

When you hear about flow and being in the zone, you almost always associate that with sports. The performance improvement of an individual athlete or sports team is increasingly based on science and technology, along with the deep practice and motivational triggers. For a project team it shouldn't be much different you would say. Have you ever wondered how you put a project team in the zone?

Before we go into more detail, let's define first what the concept of in the zone or flow actually means. According to Wikipedia it is "the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does."

My personal experience in leading project teams is that flow is very much about exceeding expectations by being aware of what's happening in the present moment, having a monomaniacal focus on a single goal or key tasks, being driven by an abundance of energy and inspiration, and by being intrinsically motivated by a higher level purpose in work or life.

To put your project team in the zone, five conditions need to be met.

Clarify the purpose

This is much more than a communication from the executive sponsor of what the project is about in terms of objectives and scope, and why it is so important to the organization. Purpose starts to live when team members are able to relate it to their own world. Many of them think about "what's in it for me?" Once they are able to connect project to personal goals, the purpose of the project becomes meaningful for the individual. At that point you have got their commitment, and it is up to the project leadership team to keep it. Give this step as much time as it needs

Focus the team

Long term and short term focus need to be addressed. At the start of the project you must focus the entire project team on the future state. "Keep your eyes on the prize." As you move closer to the end-state, you need to refresh the outlook continuously, not only when it changes. This is all part of the long term focus. Equally important is to focus the team on interim goals and key tasks, or the short term priorities.

Although many of us will say that they are great at multi-tasking, in reality they are not. There are two dynamics that you need to be cognizant of at all times that trigger you to multi-task: distraction and procrastination. Both of them force you to demonstrate behavior that looks like multi-tasking. When people are distracted it is often because there is a foreign task appearing on their to work list. Oftentimes it is outside their control. Remove distractors at all times as soon as you see them. Procrastination is harder to deal with, because it is a personality trait. The most effective way to remove this barrier is to go back to the purpose of the project and the value it has for the individual. Procrastination goes away when you entice the intrinsic motivation of the person involved.

Establish one communication matrix 

When you form teams, you are in a situation where the members can come from many origins with different knowledge, experience, skills, personalities, interests and cultures. It takes awhile to get the team to a performance level. A critical step in that process is to level-set or calibrate to a single operating model and communication matrix. "Team members must start to sing from the same song sheet shortly after they onboard the project." 

As an example, an organization launches a project to implement an enterprise wide business solution. They have selected an external consulting firm to implement the solution. The organization has identified top talent to join the project as key resources. The set expectations are very high. The team members are highly motivated and know their business very well, but not the new technology. In this situation, it must be imperative that these team members are being educated on the new technology before the project starts. In reality this is oftentimes not happening for a number of reasons, available budget being one if them. Education is crucial. Not only to bring them up to speed on the features of the solution, but more from a communication perspective. Once the team members have been trained, they are able to speak the same language as the consultants. That has an immense impact on the quality of the solution design, but also all subsequent steps in the project.

Give immediate feedback 

High-performing teams know their plays. They know when to start, how to work together, finish, and pick up the next task to do the same thing over and over again. "Their brains wire and fire together." During the execution of the work it is critical to give immediate performance feedback for two reasons. At first, you want to team to grow and further improve, and second, the work needs to continue and hit the right level of quality on time and on budget. You cannot afford to hold back on giving feedback. Create a project culture where team members feel that it is okay to fail. The best project teams have a reversed balloon effect in failures. Or, in other words, they get less and less over time. That can only happen when people can speak freely about mistakes and where leadership fosters progressive learning. One of the things that I frequently do in projects is to hold daily stand-up meetings (even when it is a waterfall project) where team members speak about what has transpired, what is up next and what is holding them up. This can become an effective communication platform over-time when there is the right level of interaction. If there is a lack of interaction, most likely the organizational culture is much different as the project culture that you want to establish. In that case, one of the better options to provide immediate feedback is to have frequent meetings with the key resources on the team.

Clear the way 

Any project team, high-performing or not, will run into obstacles that they cannot remove without assistance. Regardless of their autonomy, creativity and collaborative willpower. How do you keep your team in the zone when they hit a wall? Take a time-out as many as you think the team needs. Of course, effective leaders, try to minimize this by being a few steps ahead of the team by exploring the path that the team will eventually follow. Nevertheless, their will be situations where the stop light flips on red and you need to call a time-out. In that case, you pull the team together and analyze the situation. You always must consult the team and seek their input. Keep them involved and close to the fire. Missing out on that steps increases the risk of derailment further down the road. Work with the team on options and drive towards consensus on the decision and next play. This approach also applies to situations where an issue gets escalated to the executive level or when a third-party gets involved. Always keep the team closely involved and make them part of the process.

Flow or being in the zone is a concept that can very well be used in project management. When I kick off projects, I frequently draw a comparison between a project team and a NBA basketball team. If you really think about it, there is not much difference in the mechanics. High-performing project teams consists of members that really want to play together and know how to play as one team. When they go on the court, the have a purpose, they are focused on closing a deliverable, they speak the same language to properly execute the play, they give immediate feedback to progress and learn, and finally they switch to different plays each time the opponent blocks them. Ultimately they make the basket and finish the project successfully.

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