How Do You Improve Team Performance in a Project Environment?

I recently responded to a question about “How do you improve team performance in a project? 

  • It is very common for project managers to over-manage teams and I think that is a mistake. 
  • A team is like a dynamic organism and rather than simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance, a better approach is to understand the dynamics of how a team performs and work on the factors that impact improving performance. 
  • An even better approach is to help the team become self-organizing and take responsibility for improving their own performance.

What is a Self-organizing Team?

Here’s a good definition of a self-organizing team from the Scrum Alliance web site:

“A group of motivated individuals, who work together toward a goal, have the ability and authority to take decisions and readily adapt to changing demands”

What is a Self-organizing Team

The diagram below shows a comparison of a traditional project team and a self-organizing team:

Does This Mean Abdicating all Responsibilities to the Team?

The principles behind empowered teams can be used in any project. It is just different levels of empowerment.  The diagram below shows a comparison of different levels of empowerment:

How Do You Improve Team Performance

Here’s a description of each of these levels:

  • The lowest level of empowerment is a “manager-led team”.  In that environment, the only responsibility delegated to the team is for managing the execution of tasks that they are responsible for.
  • At the other extreme is a “self-governing team” where the team takes complete responsibility for their operations including setting their own direction.  It would be unlikely to find that level in a project team but you might find a senior management leadership team that operated that way.
  • The two levels in the center would be more commonly found in a project environment.  A “self-managing team” takes responsibility for monitoring and managing work process and progress.
  • A “self-organizing team” goes beyond that and takes responsibility for designing the team including defining roles within the team and defining the organizational context of how the team operates.

An important point is that “self-organizing” does not mean that a team does not need any direction at all. Self-organizing teams should not be used as an excuse for anarchy.

What Are the Advantages of Empowered Teams?

There are a number of advantages of empowered teams:

  • It more fully utilizes the capabilities of the people on the team
  • It reduces the need for someone to directly manage all aspects of how the team operates
  • It improves team performance because the team takes more responsibility for managing its own performance
  • Team performance is more sustainable because the performance of the team is more self-correcting
  • It encourages creativity and innovation and enables the team to quickly adapt to new problems and challenges

How Do You Improve Team Performance?

Project Managers have a tendency to over-manage the performance of teams because the perception is that is what a Project Manager or Team Leader is supposed to do; however, in many cases, simply putting pressure on the team to improve performance may not be the best thing to do. A more proactive and more sustainable approach is to better understand how the team functions as a dynamic organism and work on the factors that drive performance.

In an Agile environment, if there is a project manager involved at all at the team level, that project manager needs to be more of a coach to help the team improve its own performance. However, there is no reason why the idea of empowered teams is limited to an Agile environment.  The same ideas can be applied in a traditional plan-driven environment; however, it may involve somewhat less empowerment.

1. Traditional Plan-driven Projects

In a traditional project team, a Project Manager or Team Leader typically provides direction to the team and he/she is the one who is held responsible for the performance of the team and the results that they produce.    In a traditional plan-driven project, some level of control may be needed to manage conformance to the project plan; however, even in that kind of environment, it is essential to delegate some level of responsibility to the members of the team.

2. Agile Projects

In an Agile project, there is a much higher level of emphasis on creativity and innovation rather than conformance to a plan.  In that kind of environment, it is very important to fully empower all the members of the team to actively contribute to the solution as much as possible.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.