The Secret To Improving Team Performance

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The project team was flailing and in danger of failing. After 60 days of a planned 12-month duration, the team was collectively spinning its wheels. Critical design issues were subjects of endless debate with no decisions in sight. Factions had developed in the team along functional lines, and the firm’s only project manager—a solid young professional facing the biggest challenge of his early career—spent most of his time refereeing squabbles. True executive sponsorship was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, the clock was ticking.

This initiative involved leveraging 20 years of intellectual property in a new framework to seize a momentarily wide-open window in what the firm was convinced would be a fast-growing new market segment. To support this initiative, the firm’s leaders agreed to suspend all new development beyond bug fixes on the legacy software products and shift almost one-quarter of the development staff over to this dedicated team. This project represented the future of the firm and failure was not an option.

This is the type of project initiative that gives executives and project managers alike a bad case of the night sweats. The typical reaction when a mission-critical initiative begins to slip and slide is to step harder on the accelerator, exacerbating instead of curing the issues. If the spinning and flailing continues, tempers flare and everyone involved looks around for help or a quick exit.

After a few months of flailing, senior management and the project team members agreed that the issues exceeded their collective capacity to deal with them. They agreed to bring in outside expertise. In the case of the team described in the narrative above, help arrived from the outside in the form of Jim.

Jim was ex-military and looked the part. For the first few days, everyone expected him to seize control and start issuing orders.

His approach surprised everyone. 

Instead of seizing control, he sat with the team members in small groups and on a one-on-one basis and started asking questions. Jim’s questions were less about the technical issues creating so much churn and much more focused on understanding everyone’s views on the overall importance of the initiative. He asked team members about their roles and accountabilities, and he encouraged them to share their constructive ideas on moving forward. He also spent time getting to know the project manager.

three tips to project coaching

After a week of working with team members and not issuing a single order, Jim met with senior management and then again with the project team and proposed the following six actions:

  1. Relaunch the project with a fresh charter and redefined roles and responsibilities.
  2. Appoint a team of two executives to serve as co-sponsors. Both individuals were accountable to the team, to each other and to the management and board of directors. The sponsors were to draft a charter for their role(s) outlining key responsibilities and accountabilities and gain the approval of this charter from the project team and board of directors within one week.
  3. Take the team offsite to focus on defining the core values and discuss how those will be embedding in the teams culture.
  4. Sponsor a training course within 30-days to ensure every team member was operating with the same view of the new agile development process.
  5. Create two sets of inviolable processes: one for how discussions would proceed and the other for how decisions would be made and logged.
  6. Assign a senior project manager mentor from the outside to help the firm’s project manager.

While there ultimately were multiple phases to Jim’s coaching efforts, the front-end of his work and the six suggested actions were a surprise to many. Instead of taking control and dictating steps, he carefully assessed the situation and facilitated the creation of team boundaries, provided access to much-needed education and helped create meaningful support systems and roles. Additionally, he focused on helping the group align around a compelling purpose for the project.

All of the actions above supported changing the atmosphere and resolving some of the critical limitations of this flawed team. Jim recognized the gaps and worked to get the team to fill those gaps. He respected their expertise as technical and functional professionals and avoided telling them what to do. Instead, he helped them create a playing field where they could perform at their best.

Team Coaching: a Powerful and Under-Utilized Performance Tool

Effective coaching has long been identified by team researchers, including late J. Richard Hackman, as one of the fundamental conditions for group success. However, in my experience this important support mechanism is often missing or misapplied. Where it is present, it is often the project manager who attempts to fill the role, resulting in a dangerous loss of focus for the individual navigating his/her already challenging job.

Whether you select a coach from inside your organization or you look outside for an expert such as Jim, it is essential for this individual to understand three critical issues about the team coaching process.

1. Team coaching is never about doing the work.

The project team coach is solely concerned about ensuring the existence of the fundamental conditions for team success, including:

  1. A clear and universally understood compelling purpose
  2. Clear team boundaries with agreed upon membership
  3. Agreed upon roles.
  4. Appropriate support structures and mechanisms that reflect strong organizational support.
  5. Accepted, meaningful and visible values.
  6. Clear, and well understood processes for discussing and deciding key issues.

2. Different coaching techniques and tactics are required at different phases of the project.

Team coaching is divided into three distinct sets of activities: motivation, education or consultation. The effective coach understands where to focus at a particular point in time. For example, the coach of a sports team would not emphasize education during halftime of a tied game in the championship series. Motivation and some consultation are the appropriate tools in this situation. Drawing from the proper set of tools at just the right time is part of the art and science of effective team coaching.

3. The project coach is not there to referee the personalities.

Effective team coaching has very little to do with assessing and resolving interpersonal differences. While this is a controversial and oft-debated point, the root cause of interpersonal differences is often found in the absence of the fundamental conditions described in point number one above. Research shows that focusing on the interpersonal differences at the expense of the core conditions for team success fails to generate the targeted performance gains.

After resetting around the activities suggested by Jim, the team moved quickly beyond the storming phase and began to perform in a series of sprints designed to test hypotheses, gain customer feedback and keep improving. The initial customer tests were positive and the firm dispatched senior product and technical personnel to brief the analysts and journalists that covered the space. The feedback was positive and the product launched and enjoyed rapid adoption and helped vault the firm into the role of market leader from a growth and technology perspective.

Jim continued to support the team, and served as a critical voice in holding the group accountable to navigating difficulties and striving for performance improvements. At a few critical points, he stepped in and provided what turned out to be valuable consulting guidance on the development process. He also met regularly with and helped mentor both the executive sponsor and project manager.

A few years after the project, he created a course drawing upon the examples and lessons of this particular team. It turned out to be a course emphasizing how to get it right!

The Bottom-Line: Move Beyond “Hope”

Coaching is a powerful tool in supporting the development and maturation of high performance project teams. Senior executives and project leaders are encouraged to invest in coaching as a critical supporting tool for their strategic project initiatives. The absence of a team coach is a vote for “hope,” and we all know that “hope” is never a good strategy. 

In the words of the late team researcher, J. Richard Hackman, “I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary…but don’t count on it.” With proper and timely coaching, your odds of producing something magical go up tremendously.

Coaching is crucial, as Art Petty writes above. It’s one more set of skills you want in your management toolbox. Of course, your toolbox must have actual tools, too. You need tools that help you and your team gain visibility into the project through every phase. ProjectManager.com is a robust online software solution that offers a collaborative environment to helps teams work together. See it in action with a free 30-day trial.

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