Too often, especially in international matrix environments, a key contributing factor to poor project performance is a misalignment between what the project has to achieve, and the collective mindset of the team who are working to achieve the project goals. This article will look at the importance of going beyond the standard project charter and provide ideas on how to really set a project team up for success. We will consider culture, operating principles and the importance of creating alignment between the stated objectives of the project and the way the team delivers on the objectives.
The problems that come with a matrix-structured organisation are well documented; ambiguity, silo’s, poor communication, cross-functional competitive behaviour and the list goes on. There is hardly a matrix organisation in the world today that isn’t dealing with these issues, and so it’s probably little wonder that when a project team is formed, despite the best intentions of the project leadership, these problems start to hinder the running of the team and in turn impact negatively on project performance. Sitting alongside these more widely understood issues is another that both feeds on these issues and magnifies them; the level of alignment between knowing what the project has to achieve, and how the project team needs to perform in getting there.
The good news is that this gap can be bridged if you clearly understand these three factors:
1. The objective and outcomes of the project.
2. What skills and experience are required to achieve the project outcomes?
3. How does this team need to function to achieve the project outcomes?
Simple right? The first point is straightforward; you won’t be commencing the project without knowing this. The second point is also relatively simple; you work with human resources to identify the right skills and experience, and in some cases seek to match personalities and values. It’s usually at this point that a project team charter is created that summarises things like who is responsible for what, the skills that exist in the team, and how often the team should meet and why.
At this point of team creation the team is still focused to a large extent on ‘what’ we need to be doing to achieve the project outcomes, and in a small project team, in a domestic setting where the team is co-located, or spread around a single country, this may be all you need to get by.
The reality is that in a complex setting, such as a matrix organisation that relies strongly on cross-functional and intercultural collaboration, the first two points are not enough and it is a failure to focus on the third point that can bring a project to its knees.
How your team needs to function requires a clear direction in the same way that ‘what’ you are doing needs to be aligned to a clear objective. For example; we know that the objectives and outcomes of the project provide a clear direction for what processes, technology, skills and experience you require to complete the job. But what, or rather, who, sets the direction for how the team needs to function in achieving the objectives?
The answer is simpler than you think and requires two steps:
1. Ensure that the project leadership group are aligned around what key behaviours and ways of thinking will set the project up for success, and
2. Go beyond the standard project team charter and engage the project team in creating the ways of working that will reflect the alignment, behaviours and ways of thinking established by the leadership group.
Why is this important? If we strip it right back, there are two things to keep top of mind. Firstly the obvious, people follow leaders. If the leadership of the project are not leading by example and demonstrating a collaborative mindset, then the people in their respective functions or teams will follow their lead (eg; silo’s). Secondly, when we consider this statement in the context of a matrix, which brings with it it’s own challenges, then it becomes more interesting. Take the example of time and resources. In a project matrix structure there are always incredible demands for both of these elements, and if the leadership of the project are not agreed on how they should be managed constructively then the reality is that it won’t be managed constructively or consistently throughout the project. Instead we will see the fall back position of silo’s, defensive behaviour and protecting time and resources rather than sharing. It makes sense then that the leadership group have a level of alignment on how they need to work and in turn, what behaviours and thinking they should be reinforcing on a daily basis in the project.
To create this alignment requires the leadership group to come together and ask a simple question:
“what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
A simple question, but one that starts a different conversation from the outset that filters down through the project.
When working with project teams who are stalling, my opening question is designed to gauge the level of alignment that exists in the leadership group, firstly about the level of shared understanding of the project objective and secondly about the behaviours and thinking required to achieve the project outcome. In most cases there is a mixed response to both questions. One recent case involved the leadership team of a major construction project that, amongst many issues, was dealing with a high rate of workplace injuries, one of which had led to a death. In this case they were clear and unambiguous when stating the objectives of the project. On the other hand, their response to my question about behaviors and ways of thinking was diverse; out of the six leaders there were five different responses ranging from “we need to achieve zero harm no matter what” through to “we just need to get the job done no matter what”! This diversity of views was directly reflected in how the different collaborators in the project went about their work with most accidents coming from the “just get it done” influence; and little to no sharing of best practices across the site despite the project charter dictating what meetings and communication points would exist across the site.
A second and more common example involves projects that have team members from more than one country involved. Given the complexities of different languages and cultural frames of reference regarding how work is to be achieved, it is easy to see how this can increase the levels of defensive behaviours in the team if there is no effort made to address the issue of behaviours and mindset in the team at the level of leadership.
This issue was highlighted in a recent intervention; the project involved three countries and each country had very negative views of the others, with feedback which included the other countries not sharing proactively or at all, no respect for time zones for meetings, people not returning emails or phone calls and many more comments similar to this. My involvement came when the relationships and tensions in the project were at breaking point and impacting negatively on performance. In this situation when I met with the leadership group, which had representatives from each country, we quickly established that when completing the project team charter most effort was placed on being clear about expected milestones and outputs, and ensuring that everyone was clear on the contributions expected of each team and country. The focus was on “what” and not “how”. Missing from the initial teaming process was the question, “what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
The leadership group worked on this question and realised that they had taken for granted the idea of collaboration and assumed the team would just work with the additional complexities of culture and collaboration across borders. Some of the leadership group also added that they hadn’t even considered this level of complexity. By not being aware of the constructive ways of working that would set the project up for success, the leadership group were reinforcing a non-collaborative mindset on a daily basis without even realizing it.
Taking care of this first step is as simple as bringing the project leadership together and spending an hour or two exploring the question of what behaviours and mindset are required for the project to be successful, considering factors such as culture, communication, collaboration and conflict resolution, remembering to start the conversation by ensuring everyone is clearly aligned on the project objectives.
Align the Project Team
The second step in building a successful project team for matrix environments is engaging the rest of the project team on the output of what the leadership group agreed in the above step. If there is a project team charter workshop or a kick off meeting taking place that involves the wider project team, this is the ideal place to create this alignment. This process is about presenting the key behaviours and mindset that the leadership group identified and asking the wider team to define what this means in ‘real world’ terms. Below is an extract from a recent project team charter that had a session focusing on behaviours and mindset:
The best thing about this step is that the team is not only creating it’s own rules for engagement, there is also a level of alignment between leadership and the team that is often missing, especially in large multi-country projects.
A matrix environment is one that easily makes room for complacency and ambiguity, and so there is one final step; and that is to revisit the team charter for relevance, and to ask the question on a regular basis around whether the project team is keeping to it’s agreed operating principles.
A successful team in any setting is one that communicates, collaborates and builds a level of engagement that leads to trust. In a matrix or international setting this becomes even more critical. A project team is never a long-term proposition; it needs to come together, get on task quickly and efficiently, deliver and then disband. The reality is that if we dissect a traditional teaming process, in most cases the focus will be mostly on ‘what’ we need to do, and perhaps ’who’ we are (personality, skills and experience) as a team member. Rarely do we look at how we should deploy our skills for optimum impact, how we can share and optimise our experiences, or how we need to modify or adapt our behaviours to quickly and effectively get on task with each other.
The project team charter process is just the vehicle to use for having one of the first and most critical conversations that will impact how your project will unfold:
“what do we believe are the key behaviours and ways of thinking required to meet our project objectives?”
First published on Gower’s GpmFirst, July 2015 at:
The problem with team building is that it usually doesn’t result in sustainable levels of teaming, nor does it position the team for success. There’s a really good reason for this too, because what usually passes for a teaming event is more often a social engagement rather than an authentic connection of hearts and minds around achieving a task. The other common mistake is using an activity that requires teams for the event to occur, but doesn’t actually build teams - like paintball or ten pin bowling.
So what does help to create sustainable teams? At its core, good teaming is about creating the space for a bunch of different people to build rapport – to get to know each other; their likes, dislikes, where they’ve worked before, what excites them, their personality. All of these factors, if explored will provide your team with a level of connection that will build rapport and contribute to more effective team work. After all, building rapport is about establishing sameness, and reducing differences. If you can achieve this, then you will go some way to having a connected team; but you won’t have a team that has achieved a level of closeness required to perform above and beyond expectations – both for themselves (individually) and for each other.
Effective teaming goes beyond this and allows the group to connect on a values level around their reason for being. If you can create the opportunity for this to occur then you are setting both the team, and the team members up for long-term success.
So how do you do this? Well, there a number of factors, and in this article I’ll explore three that contribute to a more effective team building process and support a more sustainable outcomes.
1. Be clear on the team's reason for being
2. Create a common language
3. The teaming process never ends
Be Clear on the Team’s Reason for Being
I’ve worked with many struggling matrix structures, joint ventures, leadership groups and business teams across many countries, and this first factor was missing on nearly all occasions.
When I ask these groups the primary purpose of their team, responses are usually lacking of clarity and many times the mission of the organisation is used in place of the purpose of their team.
What they hadn’t done was that very critical piece of work that ultimately sets the team up for success. They hadn’t taken the time to ask themselves the questions that help define purpose… "why are we here – what is the specific purpose of our team?" When asking these questions, of course it will be relative to, and in context of the overall mission of the project, the joint venture or the company. That’s what helps to ensure added relevance and meaning for the team from the outset. However the question is also an opportunity for the leadership of the team/s to be fully aligned around what this group has been brought together to achieve, and to be clear on the expectations that may exist of their team from other groups, such as the leadership levels above or other stakeholder groups.
It is this step that also provides the focus and direction for the way in which you choose to construct your teaming event including who needs to be involved and the type and experience of facilitator.
Create a Common Language
Language is symbolic, and it helps to define who we are. When different people come together to a team, they bring with them their own language defined by who they are. This can be defined by factors such as their race, their life experiences, their knowledge and their skills. When you bring two groups together, like a joint venture, or multiple groups in a project consortium then the variables are increased and the issue of common language extends far beyond their mother tongue or the use of technical or organisational jargon – that is merely the tip of the iceberg.
One of the greatest inhibitors to sustainable teaming are the beliefs held by individuals that they have to hold on to who they are and what defines them. We see this more often in matrix structures, joint ventures and consortiums where more energy is invested in defending their patch rather than relaxing the boundaries and collaborating. Creating a common language is about defining how the group can work, and exist, together without having to give up who they are. It is in effect an unconditional approach that allows for conditional behaviour and results. This can be done through the creation of team charters, like the On TRACC process, that acknowledge not only the reason for being, but also creates a shared and agreed way of operating on a values level.
The Teaming Process Never Ends
A team is made up of people, and people are constantly changing as is the environment in which the team exists. This means that when you are planning your teaming approach you aren’t just thinking about the traditional ‘main event’ that occurs at the beginning. What’s the plan for continuing to bring the group together and check in on the commitments made during the teaming activity? Think medium to long term when you pull your teaming activity together and look for ways to integrate the outcomes of the teaming process into your everyday operations. Importantly, if there is a seismic shift in the environment, such as a restructure, or a major change to the make up of a team or its purpose, then it makes sense that you revisit the teaming process, even if it’s an abridged version, to ensure you are still on track, and capable of delivering as a team.
These are three core tenets of effective team building. It doesn’t mean you can’t relax socially throughout the process or have some fun and games; but these become complimentary or a more intentional means to an end. The point I will leave you with is simple, but far-reaching. Good business results require really good teams who are engaged not only with each other, but also with the reason their team exists. It therefore makes a whole lot of sense that investing a little more in your team at the beginning will yield longer-term success.