Tips for Superior Project Performance

I got so many great comments on my last post about effective project management. I thought I’d provide some additional perspective you might find helpful. The overarching message is that using teams to accomplish an objective needs to be a conscious choice. Too often, managers default to using teams and then do not invest the time and energy to effectively manage them. As a direct consequence, projects falter, deadlines are missed and budgets are over spent. When you decide a team is the right organizational approach to use, then it is your responsibility to support the team and the team leader.

10 tips to help you better manage complex projects.

  1. Surround yourself with the best people. Most teams are assembled by chance instead of hand selected to achieve an objective. Often this leaves capability gaps that need to be addressed for success. As a team leader, you need to be objective in determining if you have the human, financial and organizational resources necessary to have a realistic chance of winning. If you do not, then your job is to fight for them. If somebody is completely wrong for team dynamics, do not hesitate to work with the person and have them reassigned. If you don’t, not only do you put the project at risk, you also put the individual’s performance review at risk by leaving him/her in a role where personal failure is virtually guaranteed.
  2. Problem solve effectively. Teams need to take advantage of appropriate problem solving processes in order to ensure everybody has an opportunity to get their point of view out and to increase the probability of a breakthrough solution. Not every problem can be solved with a brainstorming session. Familiarity with Total Quality analytical tools and how to lead groups through their use is a plus. The ability to select and use the right tool for the problem can make a big difference in the team’s ability to effectively deal with roadblocks to success. If the collective Team toolkit is limited, consider bringing in an expert facilitator when particularly difficult problems arise.
  3. Establish clear goals. Many times Teams don’t fully understand what they were created to accomplish. The use of Teams is a Management organizational choice to problem solving. It is not a mandated way to get work done. Consequently, when a Team approach is elected, the definition of success should be relatively easy to write down and share with the Team. If Management has not articulated what the goals are, then the Team Leader has a responsibility to work with Management to obtain the required clarity. A Team without clear goals is like a flash mob. They will dance well together, make everybody feel good, and accomplish nothing of substance. Just for giggles here ere are two of my favorite flash mob videos – 1) 2)
  4. Manage Your Team time. We have all participated on teams that had standing meetings and accomplished very little. Every two weeks you’d attend and be asked to provide an update on your tasks knowing you waited until yesterday to even pay any attention to the work. And then, the same 2 – 3 team members decide to prattle on about things that are only vaguely related to the goals. Every meeting is like the movie Groundhog Day. It is easy to waste time in teams. That translates to missed gates or hasty solutions to keep a project on track. If you are leading a team and the conversation is non-productive, refocus it. If you a team member and you feel time is wasting in a meeting, speak up and redirect it. If you feel like you are hopelessly wasting time meeting after meeting, resign from the team. Life is too short and your time too important.
  5. Manage Your Team costs. Even when projects are adequately resourced at the beginning, scope creep inevitably results in a tight budget. Run away costs can kill productivity and wasted money makes it difficult to invest in productive solutions when needed. Smart money management can be the difference between success and failure. If you do not have a Finance person on your team assign the cost tracking to somebody who enjoys the work and is good at it. This will save you untold hours of being idled while seeking supplemental funding from Management to complete a project. To avoid scope creep, recognize that every additional deliverable costs money and takes time to accomplish. Formally revise the project scope when appropriate or reject the extra work as not mission critical.
  6. Manage Your Team quality. Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Shoddy thinking leads to weak decisions that in turn lead to failure. It is important you ensure your team has a clear understanding of what good looks like and you never accept less than the acceptable standard. Being on a team should provide a learning opportunity, so you want to make certain all team members learn how to do things well. In addition, everybody on a team should be proud of the output and willing to have their name associated with it. Poor quality leads to members being disenfranchised and not contributing their best thinking or performance. Establish and communicate appropriate standards, and then hold every member accountable for meeting those performance standards.
  7. Manage suppliers and supporters. Just like the choice to use a team to accomplish a goal, the use of suppliers and supporters is a strategic choice. You cannot and should not try to delegate responsibility to your suppliers and supporters. If they miss deadlines, that is not their fault. As the team leader it is your fault for inadequate planning, management or supplier selection. There should be a reason for working with a supplier or supporter and that reason should be clearly articulated. What is the unique value-add they bring to the table, and are you managing them in a way so that value can be realized? Involve suppliers and supporters when necessary and invest the time to make certain they are set up for success. Don’t use them as an excuse for project lateness or failure. As team leader, you own the outcome if it is bad. Your team (including suppliers and supporters own the outcome if it is good). Welcome to the seemingly unfair world of being a leader.
  8. Communicate with stakeholders. Stakeholders are people who desperately want you to be successful. When there is an information void, they fill it with anxiety and attempts to help (even though not asked). You cannot over communicate with stakeholders and keeping them informed of progress helps sustain their enthusiasm and advocacy for your work. When communicating with stakeholders, be clear in what you are asking for from them. If you simply want them to listen, say so. If you want their perspective on a topic rather than approval, state so clearly. It is easy to have the team and the team leadership usurped by well meaning stakeholders. I have always loved the phrase “Lead, follow or get out of the way”. If you are the team leader, lead and keep your stakeholders informed. Leverage their expertise or influence purposefully when it will help your team achieve the goal. But be clear in doing so.
  9. Know when to sunset. In my opinion, the phrase “standing team meeting” should be abolished. It suggests permanence. Remember, teams are an organizational choice to address a challenge or opportunity. For the most part, when the goal is achieved the need for a team is gone and it should disappear. Every team should be obsessed with making itself unnecessary by completing its goals as quickly and efficiently as possible. Beware of being a member of any team that seems more focused on meetings than on achieving. If you are a manager, periodically review the teams currently operating in your Organization and purposefully challenge whether they are being successful or are sucking precious resources and should be shut down.
  10. Document your learning. It is amazing to me that Organizations invest a significant amount of time, energy and funds to accomplish a goal, but fail to invest any time to document what was learned. Experiential learning is hard earned and an excellent opportunity for creating a competitive advantage in execution. Unfortunately, Organizations seem to fall into the trap of having to learn the same lessons over and over because there is a lack of discipline in capturing key learning. Take time for a team to debrief, document what was learned, present findings, and celebrate success before sun setting.

Great achievements are often the result of effective teamwork. As a consequence, managing teams is a key skill for leaders to develop. A lot of the advice above can be described as common sense. But, in my experience, it is the exceptional leader that follows the advice. More often than not, teams fail to deliver results and one or two team members simply shoulder the responsibility to meet the objectives set for the team. As a manager, you’d have been better off assigning the task to those few motivated people and kept the rest of the team members focused on their regular jobs. I can’t emphasize strongly enough – teams are an organizational choice to achieve specific objectives. Teams are not mandatory, and often are simply the wrong choice for problem solving.


Use teams sparingly and wisely. If you decide a team approach is the best way to address a problem, then invest the time to manage it properly. Get the right people on the team. Make the goals clear and measureable. Establish criteria for sun setting the team before it even gets started. Monitor progress and be coldly objective in periodically assessing if the choice of a team approach is right. Hold your performance standards high for team members, and reward them for achieving the goals you established.


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5 Comments so far

  1. Michael Perry

    April 13, 2011

    Great stuff, Ed — I especially like #1. It provides the foundation for the othe r9. . . .

  2. Andrei Bujaki

    April 14, 2011

    10 excellent tips that should be considered like a Business Decalogue .

    This are my comments :

    1.Surround yourself with the best people.
    Probable the hardest part and the most challenging for every manager .

    2.Problem solve effectively.
    Finding the proper solution it is “charisma ” of a business manager

    3..Establish clear goals
    Maybe the first task and the most challenging

    4.Manage Your Team time.

    Prioritizing the tasks for each member of you team its difference between success and failure to meet the dead lines.

    5.Manage Your Team costs. The sequential result of team time management

    6.Manage Your Team quality

    Team quality Its the direct result of the above points.

    7. Manage suppliers and supporters

    Establishing the dead lines for suppliers and supporters, task and schedules has the same importance as Team Time management.
    An well optimized “supply chain” can compensates the lost time during initial phase of the project.

    8.Communicate with stakeholders

    Stakeholder’s rules and questions

    1.Why i should invest ?
    2.Profit ? Losses ?
    3.When i get my profit back ?
    4.What are the perspective beyond the project dead line ?

    10 . As in software programing commenting- documenting
    are base for a successful second project .

  3. Robert Mizen

    April 15, 2011

    Interestingly enough, many of these ideas can be applied to the meetings high school teachers have. I’m also going to pass this on to my students for their future ventures.

  4. Lori Ali

    April 19, 2011

    Great tips – Ed! I especially like #9 – Know when to Sunset! The “team” is established for a purpose but the evolution should be for the team to become a natural work group that continues to systemically deliver the business needs with fluidity and very little need for formal meetings.

  5. Subhankar Bhattacharya

    April 20, 2011

    Hi Ed. Your blog post is quite informative , precise & covers important aspects in today’s challenging business environment. One critical success factor I have learned while managing complex projects is to anticipate risks well in advance. Proactively planning for such risks surely increases the probability of completing the project within the defined timelines & budget. Also, stakeholders are far more comfortable when team is well prepared for managing un-planned activities. I believe planning for un-certainty do ask for sixth sense , good knowledge & flexibility to re-align operational value chain for absorbing the “shocks”.

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