UnitedWare, LLC

Strong Cohesive Teams Result In Effective Project Management

Building cohesive project teams comprised of skills, personalities, friendships and respect significantly raises the probability of project achievement.

One of the most unique and effective methods of project management I experienced occurred while working on a consulting project in the supply chain division of a major grocery chain. Our job was to maintain and enhance the software being used to route the company's delivery trucks from the warehouses to grocery stores. The on-site project was fairly long term so I was part of the team - had my own cubicle, nameplate...the whole nine yards.

From my very first day on the job I noticed there was something odd about this team: they seemed like they actually enjoyed their jobs. Frankly, I found it a bit creepy. I could tell immediately the culture was very different. To use the term 'laid back' would be almost cheating its brilliance and cheapening the strategy that I could tell had been carefully crafted.

The environment respected individuals, their intelligence, and ability to get things done on time. Employees were given the space they needed to complete a project and reported to one and only one manager. As far as I could tell, she stayed out of their way for the most part. This was very different from the company I had just left where managers outnumbered employees. When something went wrong, a pack of wild hyenas scratched at cubicle walls.

This new atmosphere took a special group of people and time to cultivate. The team had great rapport and genuine friendship among the members. Even outside of work they got together regularly and seemed to enjoy one another's company. Team outings were scheduled once a month and varied from picnics to parties at someone's house. They strongly emphasized building team unity through informal time spent together.

The average age of the team members hovered between the late-20s and early 30s. The project manager was only 28. I could tell the similar ages went a long way towards creating a sense of community among us. We seemed to have comparable personalities and cut from the same cloth - nice, professional people who were courteous and respectful and knew how to have fun and laugh. We joked often. A sense of humor was a prerequisite. I realized later our team leader had taken great care to select people who fit together this well. The interview process focused more on who you were and what made you tick rather than what you could do for us. Even the consultants were chosen in this manner. I realized later my fit into the team's 'formula'.

Because of our synergy, we functioned liked a well-oiled machine, but we were tough to manage. With twice as many applications to develop than team members, it seemed at times as though everyone was working on something different. In any other group, utter chaos would reign. Strong communication channels bonded this team though. I saw project managers taking walks around the building with other team members and even interns, discussing their progress on work and making small talk about last weekend's big party. Problems with someone's work were handled respectively and resolved cooperatively. People's egos stayed at the door mainly because no one felt they had something to prove. You could simply be yourself.

Although it was a great environment, it wasn't utopia. I experienced stress while working there. We had our deadlines like anyone else and things would hit the fan every now and then. The strong cohesiveness of the group aided us in handling and solving problems efficiently though. I could tell that the company's management strategy was to create strong, interconnected teams first and foremost resulting in effective project management as a byproduct.

By using established project management methodologies, this company created an environment that engendered teamwork, efficient problem solving and a sense of well-being. Such a nurturing environment permitted us to produce the software deliverables as if we were an assembly line. The maturity levels of their methodology provided the framework for such an atmosphere.

We were not a group of Harlem Globetrotter programmers or individual superstars. We were a bunch of regular guys working together exceedingly well. While we were all friends and the atmosphere was relaxed, definite metrics kept us in line. Everyone's progress was tracked through an online system built specifically for the team. The system stored the tasks assigned to each employee to which we made progress updates. The team leader held weekly meetings supplying reports of everyone's task progress. We all gave an accounting of our accomplishments for the past week. Although we already knew the information from the numerous informal discussions, the meeting added some formality and recognition. If anyone struggled to meet the deadlines, others came to their aid, much like anyone would for a friend.

This company's environment might sound like a fantasy, but it was real, unique and effective. Being a part of this group helped me understand why my partner and I work together so well. I first met my business partner in the fourth grade. It's hard to believe we have been friends for that long. He's the only guy I know who can pull off wearing a t-shirt that says 'Keep your cells properly cultured' with a picture of amoebas playing the violin. He's one of my best friends and probably the strongest technically of anyone I have ever met. Our synergy helped us accomplish a lot in our five years of business.

I believe one of the keys to our business success is the friendship and teamwork. The same principle works for projects. The camaraderie overcomes the difficulties experienced while managing the projects and issues that arise. Methodologies are important, but without camaraderie, the methodologies are sterile and ineffective. They become rules that bind rather than paths toward accomplishment.

The lessons learned for selecting team members are:
  1. Technical skills commensurate to the task are important.
  2. Proper personality mixture of team members is imperative.
  3. Genuine friendship between team members is significant for project success.
  4. Team members must respect each other.
  5. Team is a combination of technical skills, personalities, friendship, respect and willingness to work towards a common goal. A balanced team overcomes adversity to reach project success.

Therefore, I look at people's personalities when picking a project team. I want to know what motivates them. What makes them tick? How do they answer a battery of questions? By picking the appropriate people, I build a cohesive team making it easier for me to manage.

Submitted for publication in forthcoming book: Bonsai Your Project Management, David A. Zimmer, 2007