Launching a new IT project is always challenging. Add in a pandemic, business uncertainty, economic instability and a scattered, distracted workforce and the task becomes even more daunting.
Despite the multiple obstacles facing project leaders in today’s troubled times, it remains possible to build a world-class team that will meet, or even beat, projected performance, budget and time benchmarks. The secret lies in persistence, strong management and keeping a razor-sharp focus on the final goal. Here are seven tips that will help you get started.
1. Start planning
Before assembling a new project team, the leader needs to establish the venture’s raison d’être — its justification for existence — based on the plan’s anticipated time frame, goals and planned enterprise value. “Defining the scope of work, internal and external stakeholders, skillsets needed and the workload necessary is critical for meeting your project goals and determining your team needs,” says Rob Dreussi, CIO at hospital IT consulting firm HCTec.
Project planning must be completed before moving forward with anything else or the venture will be crippled before leaving the starting gate. “It’s critical for leaders to do this at the beginning of a project in order to ensure everyone involved is aligned on the project’s purpose and the expected outcomes,” explains Tammy Alairys, technology transformation leader at EY Americas’ advisory consulting unit.
2. Identify and select team participants
Once a project’s mission and goals are set and understood, it’s time to begin assembling a capable team that will guide the venture through to its successful conclusion. One of the biggest challenges facing project leaders is selecting team members possessing the right combination of product, technical and collaboration skills.
“Look for a few individuals strong in all three [areas] to start, then fill out the remainder of the team with people who are strong in one or two areas and can complement each other,” advises Chris VanHoeck, director of program and project management for technology research and advisory firm ISG. “Don’t discount the technically strong but quiet, introverted individual, who can be a strong team player.”
While it’s always good to recruit team members possessing a variety of skills, try to zero in on candidates who have the software or system expertise that will be needed to get the project done, suggests Brad Willman, IT director at Entrust Solutions, an IT managed services and staff augmentation provider. “Also look for members who have demonstrated efficiency and communicative teamwork in their work experiences,” he says.
Nicole Athanassiadis, vice president of IT business technology at Mitel, says she focuses on matching team members to project objectives. “I concentrate on the technical skillsets that I need in my team.” Athanassiadis believes that every team should include a business analyst. This individual can work with the project leader to gain an understanding of the business processes that are relevant to the project’s goals, and interact with business stakeholders and subject matter experts to understand their concerns and needs. “The business analyst may come from within the IT organization, from a business unit team or a third-party vendor who’s helping with solution implementation,” she adds.
3. Designate tasks
There are multiple ways of assigning tasks to team members. The most appropriate approach to use will depend on the project’s complexity, size and whether or not a third party, such as a vendor or business partner, is also participating. Waterfall and agile models are the most widely used methodologies. “Traditionally, in a waterfall approach, tasks are allocated based on dependencies and work effort,” Alairys says. “More recently, agile methodology enables Scrum teams and members to have more autonomy to prioritize their own tasks.”
Regardless of the model used, all tasks should be open and completely visible. “Tasks should be assigned electronically to create visibility and accountability across the full team,” Dreussi advises. “A good project management tool can show all tasks across the project portfolio, including expected hours, actual hours and near-real-time milestone updates.”
It’s also important for participants to be notified of their exact duties and responsibilities at the project’s outset. “Each team member should understand what role they’re serving and what’s expected of them in their role,” Athanassiadis says. Task and role awareness is particularly important when managing a large team, which may include members with overlapping duties.
4. Encourage collaboration
Open, transparent communication is essential for successful collaboration. “Regular team meetings, including daily standups, should be focused on the work at hand and any issues that are blocking the team’s progress,” VanHoeck advises. “When the team lead encourages members to identify [pending] issues and then supports their resolution, either through assistance from teammates or by reaching outside the team as necessary, collaboration is encouraged and feeds upon itself,” he explains.
While nothing surpasses the value of face-to-face interactions, in-person exchanges often aren’t possible in today’s pandemic-challenged workplace. Videoconferencing provides a next-best alternative and is frequently the only option when team members are scattered across various locations. “Whether it’s in-person or over video chat, a regular cadence of team meetings and check points is vital for collaboration and team morale,” Dreussi says.
When planning collaboration sessions, it’s important to respect participants’ individual needs and work schedules. Timing issues can usually be resolved by being thoughtful and flexible. “With today’s collaboration technology, it has become so much easier to find the right balance of [virtual] in-person meetings and quick check-ins,” Dreussi notes.
5. Provide motivation
When properly applied, motivation is a powerful project management tool. It’s the leader’s responsibility to inspire the team by placing small, seemingly insignificant tasks into a larger vision. “When the end goal is far off, leadership should find ways to celebrate the interim milestones and small successes and give teammates the recognition they deserve to keep them motivated,” Alairys says.
“There is no magic sauce,” Dreussi declares. “If you want your project to be successful, you must be engaged [with] positive reinforcement,” he advises. Leaders can’t just roll out a project, step back, and wait for weekly status updates. “They must think of ways they can help their team and create value-add beyond the initial scope of work when possible.”
People often believe that only a great orator can inspire teams, VanHoeck says. “While that skill certainly helps, inspiring the team is best done when [members] clearly see where their effort contributes to the team’s and organization’s success,” he notes. Begin by setting the work in context and communicating what the end goal will be. “After that, make sure each individual recognizes how their effort fits into the team’s and organization’s goal.”
No project exists in a vacuum, observes Miles Ward, CTO at business and technology consulting services provider SADA. “Leaders lead by leading, not by pointing their finger and hanging out at the back.”
6. Manage dissention
Only rarely do project teams achieve their goals without experiencing periodic bouts of internal discord. That’s not always a bad thing, however. In fact, constructive arguments can often be used as a tool to successfully resolve difficult issues. The trick lies in not allowing dissention to fall into personal arguments or extend into areas that aren’t relevant to the issue at hand.
Try to get to the root of the dispute, Willman advises. “Determining whether the problem is arising from the project itself or from personal disagreements can help you find a path forward,” he explains. “As the team’s leader, determine what advice or clarity on the project’s goals you can offer to solve your IT project team’s struggles.” If interpersonal issues are the culprit, Willman suggests turning to HR for assistance.
Calming disagreements also requires listening to team members and respecting all opinions, Athanassiadis says. “All team members have different perspectives to contribute, so listen, work to understand, then bring team members back to the shared vision and objectives of the project.”
7. Reward the team
Celebrating success is a low-cost, high-impact way to reward a team for a job well done. Both tangible and intangible rewards can help members ease back into their usual job roles and encourage participation in future projects. Athanassiadis rewards her teams by giving participants an opportunity to decompress. “A little bit of downtime is always appreciated,” she notes.
Monetary rewards are always appreciated yet should to be handled through HR in a timely manner, VanHoeck advises. “Waiting six months after the project ends for the reward does not provide the positive reinforcement that results in continuation of the desired behavior,” he explains.
Athanassiadis also likes to give her teams some internal and public recognition. “I typically push out materials to promote what the team has done,” she says. Mitel also has a formal recognition program, Bravo Rewards, which shines a spotlight on important team achievements. “It’s a nice way to call out the team’s work as a whole, but also how everyone contributed individually,” she notes.
Any project is a journey, Athanassiadis observes. “There can be storms in the beginning, but there’s nothing better than coming out of a project with that sense of accomplishment.”