Project management courses focus on PM software and techniques to run projects, but they don't always address the process of project team building and chemistry. They should do so, because poor communication is one of the main reasons projects fail, and communication isn't going to be strong when project team members are incompatible.
So, how do you build a cohesive project team?
Those of us who have run IT projects know that we don't have absolute free choice when it comes to staffing projects. There are only certain individuals in IT who can do specific things, such as configuring a network, or building an e-commerce site. There are resource constraints as well, meaning that you have to work with the people you have available.
You consider all of this when you staff a project, hopefully, with the most compatible group of team members and skillsets that you can find.
I often compare this to baseball. There are any number of players you could trade for or sign, but not everyone is a natural fit for the chemistry that your team already has. The last thing you want is dissension in the clubhouse because it can work at cross-purposes against your desire to win.
IT projects are no different. One toxic team member can spoil the team, even if that team member is unsurpassed at what they do on a technical basis.
Here’s an example:
I once was leading a large software development project that was hosted on an IBM mainframe. We needed a senior person who knew the ins and outs of the transaction-handling software that online applications would be using. We had an expert in-house, but she also was hard to work with. Aware of the demand for her superior tech skills, she made it a practice to keep her door closed and to only attend meetings when she wanted to. Team members were afraid to approach her when they had questions about the work they were doing,
I began to see our project getting away from us. Timelines in the online application group were being missed. Our online software transaction specialist often was unavailable. Worse, when she was available, her answers to questions were curt, and not helpful.
We were not going to make our project goals with this personnel dynamic going on, so I replaced her with a junior person who lacked her skills but who was willing to learn what he didn't know. He was eager to help the team, and we achieved our goals.
This taught me the value of putting together a cohesive team with the right chemistry, even if you have a little less talent or experience.
Project managers need to pay attention to this issue because it is the people who make the projects go.
Here are six useful tactics I have discovered in my time as a project manager that may help you assure the build of a cohesive project team:
1. Pay attention to the personal dynamics of your IT staff
There are certain individuals who naturally work well with others, while others do their best work if left alone. Project tasks should be orchestrated to take advantage of this dynamic. Let the solo performers work on a relatively solo basis while the collaborative team members work collectively. As long as all tasks can be brought together in a final project, this strategy works. A note here: Typically, your more highly technical team members (e.g., database analysts, network specialists, systems programmers) are those who do their best work alone.
2. Get the best possible set of skills for your project
However, if it becomes a choice between an uncooperative but highly skilled person and someone who has a lesser skillset but is a more cooperative person, choose the latter if the role requires frequent interaction with others.
3. Continuously manage by walking around
The project task chart might look good, but that doesn't mean your people feel confident about it. Touch base regularly with project team members. If they are working remotely, make it a point to bring them in for an in-person staff meeting at least once a month.
4. Select a person who already has a strong rapport with major end user stakeholders to be the project interface with users
Ideally, this person will be the project manager or a project lead, but it might also be a business analyst. This person can serve as a liaison between users and IT project members. His or her goal should be to ensure that there is a healthy and cooperative spirit among project participants, and to flag any disruptive issue that surfaces so it can be resolved quickly.
5. Calibrate your project’s culture to your company’s culture
I've run projects in very task-oriented environments where team members (and the company) only lived to see tasks checked off the project schedule. In other cases, it was important for the company and the project team to see tasks checked off, but also to know that everyone was working together in a harmonious and supportive environment. There are individuals who work well in a task orientation, and individuals who prefer a collaborative project atmosphere. Once you understand the cultural context of your company and your project, you can recruit “best fit” personalities as well as skills for your project.
6. Maintain project chemistry
All projects experience setbacks, and staff members can get frustrated. When those occur, it's a good time for a pizza lunch or a little levity to relieve the pressure so team members can decompress and reconnect.
It boils down to understanding the personalities and skillsets on your IT team, and then finding the right mix-and-match combinations.
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