Are big project teams a thing of the past?

Are big project teams a thing of the past?

How can we adapt as project managers?

The way in which projects are being delivered is changing.  Take two projects within the same organisation, both with similar budgets. One was worked on 10 years ago and the other, last year.  The first had a project team of over 120 people; the more recent project had a dedicated team of just five.

The trend these days is to have a dedicated core, with the wider business contributing the additional resources, often on a part time basis alongside their day-job.  This means that the way in which we manage such projects, needs to evolve too.

There are a number of possible interlinking reasons that helps to explain why this is happening:

  1. Utilising Business as Usual (BAU) resource “appears” to keep the project costs down – depending on how the project is costed
  2. Recognising the importance and benefit of the BAU team being involved in the project so they don’t feel that it has been “done to them” and they have to sort it out afterwards
  3. Change and projects are a way of life for most organisations and therefore everyone is expected to participate in projects
  4. If staff first have to spend a lot of time explaining the business operation to the project team at the outset and then validating the output of the project, they may feel that they might as well be part of the delivery team
  5. Sponsors and senior stakeholders often do not understand what it takes to deliver a project well and therefore underestimate the resources required. There is also the possibility that they are simply playing the budgeting game and start with a lower budget so that the business case gets agreed with the intention of asking for more later – but that is the subject for another discussion….

As projects are now so much a part of day-to-day business with the number of dedicated team members significantly reduced, we need to view things differently and see those collectively responsible for delivery as a Project Tribe* instead.


Introducing the Project Tribe

A project Tribe is wider than just the dedicated project team and the stakeholders.  It includes those people in the business working on projects alongside their day jobs as well. Think of a project Tribe as being everyone in the business who can influence or contribute to the successful delivery of the project itself.

Tribe is a part of the ExtraordinaryPM’s 5T’s Framework.  Based around the same principles as Seth Godin’s definition of a Tribe, ‘A group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader and connected to an idea’, it focusses around a shared goal, engaging others across the organisation to deliver what needs to be done in order to achieve this goal.


Mitigating New Challenges

Not having a dedicated project team presents us as project managers with a new set of challenges:  How do you create engagement and interaction with a dispersed team?  How to get them to commit and want to be a part of the team?  The answer lies in our leadership styles and in defining The Big Why.

Steve Radcliff (author of Leadership Plain & Simple) believes the ‘Future – Engage – Deliver’ lens is vital in such situations.

  • Future: Be clear and guided by the future you want. When this future is connected to something you care about, and put into context of the bigger picture, it is an extremely powerful tool to demonstrate your commitment and belief in something that is really worth achieving.
  • Engage: This is about your impact on others and how you stimulate them into engagement and action. Focus on the ‘Big Relationships’ that will help you collectively deliver. Engage also means ‘listen’ and understand different perspectives, involve others in the shared goals.
  • Deliver: Make things happen. Deliver a plan, nurture the members of the team and provide a safe space for them to work in.

The BIG WHY, as discussed by Simon Sinek in his TED talk ‘Inspiring leaders’, should sit at the heart of your project’s goals, targets and objectives. This is the purpose, cause and belief behind the what it is that you are doing and working towards.  The Big Why can engage and align a team, drive the right behaviours and facilitate collective decision making.

Looking in more detail at this evolving approach to project resourcing, there are further issues and potential conflicts that will need contending with;

  1. PM’s no longer have autonomy to prioritise the work of all the resources that are working on the project
  2. We are working with people who do not necessarily understand the drumbeat of the project and therefore good project discipline may be more difficult to embed
  3. It is more difficult to control the messaging around the project as the business resource will have their own communication channels and views on how the project is progressing
  4. It can be very difficult to prevent other business priorities ‘stealing’ the resource that you need.

The PM who is used to sticking rigidly to a methodology, leading a dedicated team and keeping a tight control on project communication, is likely to be challenged by this new Project Tribe though.  With a diverse Project Tribe covering dedicated team members, part time business resources and other stakeholders the Project Tribe now needs to be managed using the techniques and approaches previously reserved for senior stakeholders.

These include:

  • Understanding stakeholder expectations
  • Setting desired outcomes
  • Being open and honest
  • Agreeing regular info & comms flow
  • Focussing on what matters to them & their role within the project
  • Listening
  • Providing options to resolve issues / identify potential compromises
  • Staying transparent throughout.


A Different Perspective

Try also taking a different perspective; try looking at each of the challenges listed above as opportunities rather than blocks to successful delivery instead – where successful delivery is defined as something which is embedded in and bought into by the business.

  1. Not having total autonomy to set priorities for the wider business team forces us to work alongside the business priorities, adapt as they change and not just to steam roller over them. This doesn’t have to mean that the project deadlines are delayed, but that the plan needs to reflect the fact that the team will not be 100% dedicated
  2. Not having a team made up of project professionals forces us to think creatively about how we utilise the available resource effectively to deliver the project. We also need to ensure that the project disciplines are appropriate for the project in the context of and aligned to the organisation in which we are working
  3. Not having total control of the project messaging forces us to embrace the multiplicity of communication channels available and the insights this can give on how the project is being perceived in the business.
  4. Having to negotiate for resource with other business priorities or other projects forces us to hone the skills required to persuade people to do things for our project when they don’t report directly to us. It also encourages us to check that the organisation has a good governance framework to review projects at the programme and portfolio level so that resource prioritisation is clear and co-ordinated.

Shifting from Project Team to Project Tribe is a different way of working.  With a project team you can give them clear roles and responsibilities within the project – a Project Tribe is a much more flexible affair.  There will be people in the Tribe that do not have specific project deliverables yet they can still influence the outcome of the project.  There will be people in the Tribe that we really need 100% of the time and yet probably the best we can negotiate is 50%.  So, we have to be creative about how we run the team, how we create a project culture people want to be part of and how we decide what has to happen and what we can let go.  It’s a balancing act, but when it goes well it is successful and satisfying and the chances are that the changes we are implementing will live on in the organisation long after the project is done.


ExtraordinaryPM’s 5T’s Framework

Please read on for some further top tips based around the ExtraordinaryPM 5T’s Framework for making part-time project teams work:

  1. Make sure everyone is aligned around the project Target* – this reduces the risk of conflicting messages being received by the business. This alignment needs to include the stakeholders as they are the ones that prioritise the resources
  2. Make sure your project process is appropriate for the Terrain* of the organisation and the resource level available – for example weekly reporting is a great discipline, but if the team spend most of the week collating the report when does the work get done? Remember this needs to sit within the organisation’s existing governance and review process
  3. Create a project culture where your Tribe* feel valued and appreciated for the unique insights they bring to the project by making project meetings effective and fun – you are more likely to get the resource level you want if people want to work on the project.
  4. Encourage Time* Mastery by ensuring you utilise the available resource to do the things that only they can do. Other tasks can be spread around the team on the basis of who has capacity.  This can work well provided you don’t constantly change people’s priorities to fill the gaps
  5. Thrive* by taking care of yourself as the project manager – don’t agree to deliver everything as though you have a full and dedicated team – engage your sponsor and project board in those critical prioritisation decisions

*Target is the first module of the ExtraordinaryPM FrameworkTarget focuses on the how, the why and the what of a project and its scope.  On our ExtraordinaryPM Mastery programme, we explore the mobilising power of the Target (‘Big Why’) for your project. With a clear Target in-sight you can align and lead your Tribe more effectively. Your Target is your ‘North Star’ for decision-making and prioritisation and will guide you across the Terrain of your project.

*Terrain is the next of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. The Terrain is the landscape and business context of your project’s journey. We train our Extraordinary PMs to plan each project like a runner plans a marathon.  Our Mastery Programme encourages you to consider where the tough, sticky or uphill stretches could be, what risks you might face, where you’re most likely to need refreshment or rejuvenation and how to deal with both expected and unexpected events that will crop up along the way.

*Time management is critical in project delivery. ExtraordinaryPM’s focus on Mastering their Time, not just simply managing it, so they get the very best from the precious and limited time available to them and their Tribe. On our Mastery Programme, we teach you how to be more productive and balance and prioritise your efforts in order to hit your Target within the time available to you and your Tribe. everyone’s working at the right pace.

*Tribe is another of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. Your Tribe is much wider than your team. It is those people you need to build connections with around a shared goal, the Target (another of the 5T’s), in order to get the best from the people around you – whether they’re taking action, controlling risks or delivering a physical product.  As part of the ExtraordinaryPM journey, we show you how to lead and influence, inspiring your colleagues, peers and stakeholders to step up and become more effective and engaged. Because building better collaboration is the best way to create real change and measurable impact.

*Thrive is the final part of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework and is all about taking care of yourself.   A phrase often used when considering the work-life balance, but there is so much more to it than this. Being mindful of how to show up as a leader, choosing how you respond to situations, ensuring you have a support network and protecting yourself professionally through ensuring your project has good governance and decision-making processes are just some of the areas we explore on the ExtraordinaryPM Mastery Programme.

To start your own journey to extraordinary, please contact

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