Building the Right Project Team: A Critical Enabler for Success

How can you consistently replicate the successes of effective project delivery? The answer lies in the teams you build.

No matter what the endeavour, selecting and engaging the right team is a critical enabler for success. This holds particularly true for organisations that may have to build (and subsequently disband) multiple project teams in any given year.

Highly functional project teams do not happen by accident. At their core is a sound selection and engagement process that occurs at the formation stage of the team. Like most things, it’s not an exact science, but there are certainly some guidelines that will increase the chances of getting the team mix right.

Define – then target – the right skills

The first critical activity in building a project team is to drive out the roles and responsibilities for each team member, then document the skill set required for each role.

While it sounds simple enough, this provides clarity of the base capability required for the team to be successful.

Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-often occurrence that teams are pulled together with both a misunderstanding of what the roles are and also whether the people within the team have the right skills for their respective responsibilities.

For example, a common team-building mistake is appointing Subject Matter Experts into the role of Business Analysts. These are different roles with different skill sets. Time should always be set aside to understand fully what skills are needed for each role (the minimum base skills and the “nice to haves”).

During the onboarding process interviews should be conducted – even for internal resources – to thoroughly drill into the potential team members expertise to ensure the person has the required skills base before they are engaged.

Culture is critical

The right skills are only part of the equation, however. The next critical piece is culture. A key question is whether the person will fit into the team and work well with others in the team, customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

This is a difficult thing to ascertain and it does require some gut instinct once you’ve gone through the usual process of interviews, reference checks and other due diligence.

We feel that it is much better to get the right cultural fit with a skills gap than the other way around. A skills gap can be detrimental to the team but can usually be contained and addressed in a systematic way, such as training. A team member with a poor attitude, on the other hand, can significantly undermine a project from within and be almost impossible to remedy. Attitudes, especially poor ones, are very difficult to change.

So our guidance is to pay special attention to the cultural fit of all team members as it could be the difference between a harmonious, high functioning team or a soul-sapping forced march for all involved.

Should you look inside or outside?

Looking for team members from within or outside your organisation depends on a number of factors.

In a perfect world, it should be the best person for the job regardless of whether they are internal or external, however often hiring policies and/or budget constraints dictate where the resources come from. Usually the first option is to look internal.

The challenge with internal resources is that they may not have the right skill set or, if they do, there may be bandwidth issues. Also projects are sometimes so contentious that it’s preferable to bring in external resources, particularly for the more senior roles.

Either way, when establishing a new team, consideration should be given to looking both inside and outside the organisation where permitted and using the same hiring criteria for each person irrespective of the source.

When stuck, work with what you’ve got

There’s a famous scene from a Clint Eastwood film where a recently promoted soldier celebrates his newly bestowed ranking as his just reward, to which his superior says: “You’re not the best man for the job, just the best one that is still alive.”

It can be the same with project teams (even if they are not life and death). The right person for the job may not be available to the team because of commitments to another role, budget constraints that don’t allow for the right money to attract the right person or because of internal/external hiring restrictions.

If you cannot get the exact fit, compromises will need to be made to retain project momentum. If this does occur engaging a person with gaps in their required skill set should also be accompanied with plans to augment the gaps, such as targeted mentoring, mixing and matching deliverables with other team members who do have the right skill set or providing suitable training.

Be prepared for some flex and refinement

The guidelines above are helpful for establishing a successful project team from scratch, however even if you follow them all to the letter, it’s still not a guarantee for success. The way teams form and then work together, particularly when placed under pressure, will not really be known until the time comes.

While there are no guarantees, following some of the basics like the above will give your teams far better opportunity for success than failure when attempting to establish skilled, harmonious and high-functioning teams.

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Quay Consulting is a professional services business specialising in the project landscape, transforming strategy into fit-for-purpose delivery. Meet our team ...

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