18 September, 2023

Everything You Need to Know about How to Build a Great Project Team

By Mike Clayton


One thing above all can make project leadership easier: an enthusiastic project team.

What you want is a great project team of people who want to roll up their sleeves, get going, and do their jobs. Then, leadership becomes an exercise in pointing your team in the right direction and providing them with the resources they need, to succeed.

But you will often need to earn this kind of enthusiasm. So let’s look at some of the things you can do to bring it about.

In this article, we’ll keep it simple. We’ll consider three things:

Project Team Attitudes

Having a great project team is largely a matter of building the right attitudes.

Hire for attitude: train for skills

…is an often-cited dictum.

Quite right. But what are you doing as a team leader, to encourage the attitudes you want?

First, you need to know what attitudes you want.

Every project and each project manager is different. So it isn’t for me to tell you what the ‘right’ attitudes are for your project team. But it is a wise idea to think this through first. Here’s a list of some of the possibilities that occur to me as I write, but it is far from complete.

  • Commitment
  • Collaboration
  • Conscientiousness
  • Creative
  • Collegiate
  • Calm
  • Cheerfulness
  • Caring
  • Co-operative
  • Constructive
  • Courageous
  • Confidence
  • Considerate
  • Customer-focused
  • Charismatic
  • Civil
  • Consistent
  • Candid

Do feel free, by the way, to create your own list/ And they don’t all have to start with the letter ‘c’ when written in English!

Once you have a short list of the attitudes you most want to cultivate, what next? How do you build and manage the spirit and culture you want for your project team? I believe the answer lies in simplicity: stick to the essentials and do them well. So, let’s look at what I think of as the four essentials…

The Four Essentials of a Project Team

Everything You Need to Know about How to Build a Great Project Team

The first thing to say is that there are four essentials to creating a solid project team.

Of all the things a team leader can do, these four will have the biggest impact on the effective working of your project team. I’d even go as far as to say that without these four, your team is set to fail. With these four, however, you will have the basis for a strong and vibrant team.

This is the model you will find in our project management courses. In particular, it is part of our Project Manager’s Skills Mastery Program. And we develop this theme in depth, in the Project Manager’s Immersion Program.

My four essentials of team leadership are:

  1. Pay attention to each member of your project team as an Individual
  2. Create a Plan that your project team will be confident with
  3. Build a coherent project Team Spirit
  4. Instill a culture of open and effective project team Communication
Do you know the 4 Essentials of #Project Team Leadership? #PMOT Click To Tweet

We’ll take a look at these one at a time.

#1: Pay Attention to each Member of Your Project Team as an Individual

That old saw, ‘There’s no I in team’, is rubbish.

It’s harnessing our individuality that builds a strong team. All of the research I have seen shows that a diverse team has a greater capacity for creative problem-solving and wise decision-making. But, as Samad Aidane told us in his article:

‘Ample research [also] shows that multicultural teams and diverse teams tend to perform less effectively than homogenous teams, when not managed effectively.’

Samad answered the question, ‘What does Cross-Cultural Leadership Mean for Project Managers?

So what can we learn from this?

The secret has to be to get to know each member of your team as an individual. Find out who they are, and come to value them for what they can contribute.

Do this, rather than what we too often do: deprecate people for what they can’t do.

Learn their personal style and their cultural preferences, and harness those to motivate and encourage them. Find what they like to do and what they are good at, and allocate work accordingly. Use simple tools, like recognition, praise, and personal attention to get the best from each person.

Stretching your Project Team Members

Give people an opportunity to grow and develop when they work on your project team. There are two dimensions you can stretch people in, skills and responsibilities:

  • The chance to learn new things and to strengthen existing skills towards mastery is intrinsically motivating as well as good for careers and therefore for employers.
  • And opportunities to take and discharge more responsibility grow character and judgment.

Trusting Your Project Team Members

If you are going to stretch someone; if you are going to delegate good quality, demanding work: do so whole-heartedly. When you give people responsibility, you must trust them fully and let them stand or fall on their own performance.

By all means, put in scheduled reports. And certainly, be available for consultation. But the time to get nervous about the risk is before you decide what to delegate, and to whom. Once you have made your decision, trust is essential if you want to maintain enthusiasm.

Your job is NOT to stop people from failing. In fact, I’d argue that failing is how we learn best, so your job is to allow people to fail, without recrimination. However, it is also your job to prevent them from failing at the wrong things, or at the wrong time. Consider the implications of failure, so people can fail and learn in safety.

#2: Create a Plan that Your Project Team will be Confident with

Your team members need confidence that what you are asking of them is reasonable. No one likes a futile challenge. That’s where a plan comes in. For your project team, your plan provides certainty. And for each team member, it gives them clarity about what you (and their colleagues) expect of them. These build trust in you as a leader, and self-confidence for your team.

But don’t go it alone with your planning

It is easy to believe that you have a monopoly on wisdom and foresight when it comes to planning. But you don’t. There are three compelling reasons to involve team embers in planning:

  1. Together, you have greater collective wisdom than any one of you alone.
  2. Involving people in the planning process is a recognition of their experience, knowledge, and judgment – which is highly motivating. Excluding them, of course, does the opposite!
  3. When team members get involved in planning, they become more committed to the plan. They have a reputational stake in making the plan work.

For more information: Project Planning Process: Navigate the Many Steps You Need

Scheduling

Far too often, #project scheduling takes place on the basis of an assumed 100 percent availability. Click To Tweet

Far too often, project scheduling takes place on the basis of an assumed 100 percent availability. We forget that people have other responsibilities – both within and outside of their work.

Not only does this store up a whole series of awkward negotiations for the future, but it is demoralizing for team members to see their other commitments implicitly devalued to zero at the stroke of a pen or cursor.

A better approach is to consult team members on their availability at the outset. Then, you can schedule their work allocations from real availability. That way, people will feel comfortable committing wholly to their scheduled commitments.

For more information: Project Scheduling: Your Essential Guide

Review

No plan will remain valid, once events start to chip away at your expectations. So, from time to time, get your team together to discuss the challenges and issues they are aware of. Engage them in revising the plan. You may feel the need or desire to overrule them on changes to the plan. That’s okay – as Project manager, you have that prerogative. However, what you must always do is demonstrate that you are listening to their opinions and understand their concerns, priorities, or ideas. People need to feel heard.

#3: Build a Coherent Project Team Spirit

There is so much you can do to build a sense of ‘teamness’ among your project team. And little of it needs a big investment of time, nor especially money. What matters most is a sense of common purpose and collaboration.

Common Purpose

This could sit equally as an item under the need for a plan. What is the ‘why’ of your project? When your team members understand why you are asking them to do it, as well as what you are asking them to do, they will be far more motivated, individually. And when that reason is a good one and links into a shared set of values, then it develops a sense of a common purpose. Now, your project team members each see their own role as contributing to something worthwhile.

Team Culture

Another key part of Team Spirit is the culture you instill in your team. This starts from the example you set when you first meet each team member and at the first team meeting you host.

Learn more about team culture:

Collaboration

People are most likely to collaborate with other people they know and trust. So create a few simple routine events that allow people to get to know one another. Choose social events that everyone can equally participate in, and add social slots into the formal team events that get work done. Encourage as much informal conversation as possible, and mix up sub-teams to boost communication and creativity.

Learn more about collaboration:

#4: Instil a Culture of Open and Effective Project Team Communication

This goes hand in glove with team spirit, but there is more to say. Well-meaning but inexperienced project managers see good communication as a key part of their role (and it is). So they make it their mission to communicate as much as they can (which is good).

After all: nothing stifles enthusiasm more than the feeling of not knowing what is going on, what is expected of me, and what the future holds.

So where’s the problem?

The problem comes when the new project manager starts to become a great PM, and needs to spend some of their time away from their project. As the hub of project team communication, their absence can cause a breakdown.

The right solution is to set the expectation of open and effective communication from Day 1. Do it by example, but lead your team into a culture where everyone takes responsibility for communicating. Done well, this leads to spontaneous collaboration, seamless conflict resolution and real caring between colleagues.

Progress

Progress is motivating; it is as simple as that.

So make progress visible and present in people’s lives. Put plenty of milestones in your plan, publish progress reports frequently (or better: give people direct access to real-time progress data) and celebrate successful achievements at any opportunity.

Communicate how you are doing and, if you start to fall behind, your project team will know immediately what their priority is.

Learn more about team communication:

What Else Can Help You Create the Project Team Culture You Want?

Simple is not the same as easy. The 4 essentials of #project team leadership are simple. #PMOT Click To Tweet

The four essentials are all pretty simple when you think about it.

But ‘simple’ is not the same as ‘easy’.
So if you are starting out, they may well be enough for you to cope with.

The good news is, if you do them consistently, and you constantly improve, little by little, you get a great project team.

But what if you want more?
Here are a few further tips for how to build a great project team.

Environment

Keep your team motivated by becoming a human environment control mechanism. Like any environmental controller, use feedback to constantly adjust the levels of support and challenge, and to feed in resources when they are needed. And don’t forget to remove unwanted heat and contaminants from your team before they stifle enthusiasm and productivity.

Servant Leadership

What I described above is a model of project leadership I really like. It’s called ‘Servant Leadership’. It starts from the idea that your team does not serve you: you serve your team.

When you think about it, how will you deliver your project?

That’s right, through your team. So, if your project is to succeed (that’s jour job), your team must thrive). This means a thriving project team is your job. So your job is to serve your team, to make sure it has everything it needs to thrive.

Learn more about servant leadership: How Servant Leadership can Deliver Better Results from Your Project Team.

Fizzing Bombs

Problems build up. And, just like the fizzing bombs in Tom and Jerry, if you don’t tackle them quickly, they will explode in your face.

Don't pass on fizzing bombs. And don't just stare at them. Tackling them quickly will inspire confidence in your Project Team. Tom and Jerry and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Turner Entertainment Co.
Don’t pass on fizzing bombs. And don’t just stare at them. Tackling them quickly will inspire confidence in your Project Team. Tom and Jerry and all related characters and elements are trademarks of and © Turner Entertainment Co.

Not only does this hurt you and anyone around you, but not dealing with issues looks weak to your team. And it also creates a climate of ‘what next?’ fear. A positive willingness to take on issues rapidly and make confident decisions will create the confidence in your leadership that motivates your team.

Endorsement

Your enthusiastic team will work hard for you. What will you give them in return?

There is no need for elaborate gifts and bonuses: their role in motivation is exaggerated by the people who have become accustomed to them. Fundamentally, people need to feel endorsed for their efforts. A three-step process works well:

  1. Recognize their contribution – and help them to learn valuable lessons from their experience. Consider using employee recognition software to recognize their efforts. This is a great way to keep a team motivated
  2. Reward their efforts – with something as simple as your praise and thanks
  3. Celebrate their successes – by recognizing them in front of their peers

Here is the most important thing, though. Do not save all of your feedback, praise, and opportunities to learn from experience to the end of your project. Build it into the regular cycle of progress meetings and one-to-one support. This way, you can harvest its benefits throughout the life of your project.

I recommend you read Project Team Motivation [Everything You Need to Know].

Brilliance

People want to follow leaders.

So be the project leader whom people want to follow.

Be the #project leader whom people want to follow. #PMOT Click To Tweet

Define your leadership template to build the style that feels right to you and create the culture that you want.

Integrity is not negotiable, but I would also want enthusiasm and confidence, optimism and flexibility, openness and compassion, challenge, and excitement.

This is an important topic to me, and I recommend you review my article, What’s the Secret Sauce to Make Yours a Brilliant Project?

What will your leadership watchwords be?

And how hard are you prepared to work to make them a day-to-day reality; even on the toughest of days?

Add your thoughts to the comments below.

Learn More about How to Build and Manage a Great Project Team

I recommend the following articles:

And also, the following videos:

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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