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Don't Just Manage the Plan, Engage Your Team Members!

~ By Jennifer Russell

Business team brainstorming using coloured labels on a table in an office

As project managers, it's tempting to focus entirely on our project plan. But successful execution of your project plan is entirely dependent on your project team. And your project team is dependent on each team member! For example, if your team is all working well together except one person, who is lacking motivation and missing deadlines, than the whole team will start having trouble, and your project success may be in jeopardy.

  • Really get to know each member of your group: figure out their strengths and weaknesses, their needs, and any special skills they can bring to the group.
  • Work out plans with each team member on how they can accomplish their individual goals while delivering on the project objectives. Find out what's important to them, what gets them excited about their work.
  • For each person, find out how independent and experienced they are. Make sure that they have the right level of competence for how you plan to manage the project. If you will be giving each team member lots of latitude in how they solve problems in their area, do they have the experience and emotional intelligence to handle that responsibility well?
  • Don't forget to praise and reward each individual for her contribution to the overall team and the success of the project.
  • Help define each person's role within the group, and agree on the tasks they're responsible for.
  • If any project team members seem to be lagging behind, coach them until they're back on track.
  • Is each project team member committed to the delivery dates?

It's easy to forget that project managers are more managers of people than they are managers of technology. If you manage the people correctly, the people will manage the technology.

You need to manage your individual team members effectively in order to prevent burnout. In some environments, the customer will always be there with new demands, new "Priority Ones" that require you to drop everything and fix now.

It's your job to manage these demands. Not to just acquiesce and keep pushing your team members, but to present trade-offs to the customer. Showing the value of the current path, demonstrating the impact the change will have, and helping them make a more informed decision. The result is a more engaged customer, who gains more satisfaction from feeling more in control of the output. At the same time, your team members are more engaged.

It used to be that project managers believed that you needed to crack the whip over your team members, that if you gave them any leeway they'd slack off and surf their favourite sports websites. However, now we know better. Being focused and excited by your work comes naturally to most people. Creativity is widely distributed on your project team. People want to be proud of their work. People will seek responsibility, if you let them. If you think your team is mediocre, and needs your leadership to be successful, trust me, they will rise to the occasion and give you mediocre work. If you want your folks to surprise you with amazing work, you need to engage them.

The best way to motivate team members is to respect them, give them autonomy, and help tie them to a strong purpose. When you let your team members figure out how to solve a problem, and how to work together, it can have a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. Autonomy leads to higher productivity, less burnout, and more enjoyment of work. Make an effort to see issues from your team member's point of view. You provide the problem, and listen to find the answer. Let your team figure out the best solution.

Involve people in goal setting. Employees have greater commitment to goals they helped create. Individuals are more engaged when they're pursuing goals they helped create. If you create a goal for someone, it will be less aggressive than the goal he chooses for himself, as people like to stretch themselves and do work they can be proud of. They will do everything they can to meet this goal.

Autonomy creates motivated, happy employees. If you need folks to be creative and problem solving, why not get into the habit of engaging them on that level in the workplace?

Don't Just Manage the Plan, Engage Your Team Members! is an extract from the book, Project Pain Reliever, published by Wiley in 2011.


Jennifer Russell, President of Mastodon Consulting, has championed good governance practices for numerous Fortune 500 companies in a variety of industries. Her work has included partnering with executives on large-scale change initiatives, from sustainability programmes and regulatory compliance to strategic execution.

Jennifer has advised many high-tech multinationals including Vodafone, Thomson, Genentech, Nikon, and eBay, helping them improve efficiency and creating strong governance.

Unlike consultants who work from an academic or human resources perspective, Jennifer combines her experience in technology infrastructure, corporate governance, organisational development, and change management with a background in all facets of business, from marketing and sales to accounting and IT. Working seamlessly throughout the organisation to assess challenges and risks, develop practical solutions, and provide implementation guidance, she helps companies reach greater control at lower cost.

Profiled by Ziff-Davis Media as a "Great Mind in Development," Jennifer speaks frequently on governance, risk, and strategy. She has served as a regional board member of Project Management Institute and Association for Strategic Planning.

Jennifer holds a BS in Business Administration from Indiana Wesleyan University, where she graduated Summa Cum Laude. She is a Certified Project Management Professional (PMP).


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