Are Big Project Teams a Thing of the Past?

We look at the demise of the large, dedicated project team and what opportunities this now presents us.

When we speak at Association for Project Management events we often talk about the example of 2 projects with similar budgets; one we worked on 10 years ago and one that we worked on last year.  The first had a dedicated project team of over 120 people; the more recent project had a team of just 5.  This situation seems to get a lot of heads nodding in the audience so we concluded that we are not alone in this experience.

Projects are now so much a part of all businesses that the number of projects with dedicated teams has significantly reduced.  So all the techniques we used to use to manage our stakeholders now need to be applied to our whole Project Tribe* made up of people in the business working on projects alongside their day jobs.

There are a number of possible combinations of reasons for the demise of the large project team:

1.    Utilising business as usual (BAU) resource appears to keep the project costs down – depending on how the project is costed

2.    Recognising that if the BAU team are not involved in the project they often 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 have to spend a lot of time explaining the business to the project team 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 of another discussion…. 

Not having a dedicated project team presents us as project managers with a new set of challenges:

1.    We 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.

So a PM who succeeds by sticking rigidly to a methodology, leading a dedicated team and keeping a tight control on project communication is likely to be challenged by the reality of a new Project Tribe.  With dedicated project resources the approach to managing the team is often seen as different from the approach used to manage stakeholders.  With a diverse Project Tribe covering dedicated team members, part time business resources and other stakeholders, the whole Project Tribe now needs to be managed using  techniques previously reserved for stakeholders.

However, when it works well this can be an ideal delivery model,   if each of the challenges listed are seen as opportunities rather than blocks to successful delivery – 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.

This is a different way of working shifting from Project Team to Project Tribe.  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 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 change we are implementing will live on in the organisation after the project is done.  

Top tips for making a part time project team 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.    Optimise the use of people’s 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 provided you don’t constantly change people’s priorities to fill the gaps

5.    Taking Care of Yourself (TCOY*) 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

*Tribe – a project Tribe is wider than just the dedicated project team and the stakeholders. At EPM we think of our project Tribe as including everyone in the business who can influence or contribute to the project.

*Target, Terrain, Tribe, Time Mastery and TCOY are the 5 Ts of Extraordinary Project Management.