I'm leading, is anyone following?



In this paper you will learn how project managers should create, lead, and manage to form a successful project team. Techniques such as laying the team groundwork, focusing communication and information, synergizing the team, and providing effective leadership are discussed.

Lay the Foundation

The first thing you as a project manager must do for your project team is to prepare to lead them. Project management is more than just tracking budgets and schedules; it’s coaching, motivating, and engaging a group of people and forming them into a team. A key area you must serve in is as a model to shape “behavior and performance that reflects the expectations set for the team”. (Campbell, 2002) Thus a logical step for the project manager is to define team guidelines and set team expectations. By setting these, you create a working framework for the project team.

Prepare to Manage People, Not Just a Project

Leading without Authority

One of the major challenges that many project managers face is working in a matrix environment where they have little real authority. This lack of authority can be further compounded when team members are spread across multiple projects and know that all of these projects are only temporary. Their real commitment lies with their functional manager, not the project manager.

Within a matrix environment, you must learn to lead without authority. There are four key steps to this:

  • Initiate collaboration
  • Demonstrate integrity
  • Generate understanding
  • Create commitment
    (Ridlon, 2002)

The first step, Initiate Collaboration, requires determining who needs to be involved and how much involvement they need. At a minimum, there is the project team; but are there other stakeholders or parties that have a need to collaborate with the project team? Identify these people and figure out how to engage them as well. Some activities that you can use to help this step are holding an inclusive kickoff meeting, hosting a getting to know you session, and performing a stakeholder analysis that assesses their roles, needs, and concerns.

Another important component to leading without authority is Demonstrate Integrity. Who wants to follow a leader or a project manager that doesn’t set a good example? Do you follow the expectations that you have set for the team? You must. Are you sincere in your comments and praise for your team? Be sure to really mean what you say. By showing integrity you will establish the trust of your project team.

Generate Understanding, the third step, involves establishing the goal of the project. The project team needs to clearly understand why the team was formed and what outcome is expected. Be sure all the team members understand the project goals and scope and remind them of the goal throughout the project. Once the goal is understood, make sure the team develops the solution and figures out a plan to implement it.

Lastly, Create Commitment is a key to effective engagement. Generating commitment to the project is a long, slow process, but it’s worth it in the long run. It’s an incremental activity so it doesn’t happen immediately. It is first gained by ensuring team collaboration and understanding the project goal. The team has to buy in to the whole “project idea” before they will agree to commit. Once you have gotten their commitment, make sure everyone understands what he or she committed to and then create and nurture that commitment through the life of the project. Some ways to begin generating commitment are to involve the team in the project planning. Hold Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) sessions and collect everyone’s ideas, involve them in determining the schedule and critical path, and develop the risk plan with the team. When people participate in the development of plans, they feel more ownership of them and thus feel more committed.


As Flannes and Levin write “Within this mix of conflicting loyalties and commitments, the project manager must be able to apply people skills to motivate each team member.” (Flannes, 2005, p 12) Once you have gained the skills to lead without authority, you must then work to provide motivation to your project team. Learning to motivate is a foundational skill for a project manager.

At the heart of motivation are goals. The project goals have already been established and committed to, but what about the team’s personal goals? One technique for determining personal goals is to ask the team three questions:

  • At the end of the project, what would you like to see achieved or completed?
  • What do you want customers to say about us?
  • What have you learned on the project?

Answers to these questions will vary from one team member to another.

Now that you understand your team’s personal goals, what drives them to achieve their goal? People can be motivated by learning, new technology, working with people, working with new customers, or achievement of a project well done. See Exhibit 1 for a checklist of areas that can guide you in looking for motivational preferences.

Motivational Checklist for the Project Manager

Exhibit 1: Motivational Checklist for the Project Manager

Find out what is unique about each person, how they like to be motivated, and capitalize on it.

Set Team Guidelines

Everyone needs boundaries. Think back to when you were a child. Your parents told you the rules of their household and expected you to follow them. If you didn’t there were consequences. It’s not much different in your career. Your boss relays the company’s expectations, and you are expected to follow them. If you do, you can succeed. If you don’t, your career may struggle.

Your project team is the same way. They need rules and boundaries to follow in order to effectively engage with the project team. They need to know the boundaries as well as the limits. You, as the project manager, need to define guidelines and ground rules for your team, review rules before meetings, and stick to them. See Exhibit 2 for sample ground rules that can be used in project meetings. Use a set of team-defined ground rules in your kick off meeting and in subsequent meetings as needed.

Sample Ground Rules

Exhibit 2: Sample Ground Rules

Other guidelines that should be set for the project team center around communication methods and activities. For example, create a project workspace where everyone stores their project documents, agree to create project documents with standard software, and define communication protocol and escalation practices.

Tailor Communication and Meetings

Now that you have laid down the foundation for managing a project team and have gotten them engaged, you must continue to ensure that they are as productive as possible and must help to reduce information overload. Techniques that can be used to increase team productivity focus around communication and meetings.


Establish a Communication Process

As the project manager, you regulate the pulse of the team. Establish a regular meeting day and frequency for them. It’s good for them to know when to expect status meetings, working sessions, and other types of meetings. It helps the project team to plan and helps balance their project work with other responsibilities.

Make sure too, that the team understands how to communicate within the team framework. For example, what are the expectations for escalating issues or raising questions via emails or in meetings? Agree on the process with the team in advance to avoid having the entire project team and user community copied on a topic that should have only been shared with the core project team.

Also, since email has become a more time-consuming task, help the project team keep the email to a minimum to help reduce their information overload. At the beginning set up an email lists and determine with the team what type of information should be shared with which email list. And, if possible, set the first few characters of the subject line to indicate the project name so that they can easily sort out project email from other types.

Develop your Communication Plan

Communication is a major component of all projects for many reasons. It can help get the team engaged, informed, and reminded of the project goal. It is also important to communicate plans and intentions to make sure there are no surprises or misses in the execution of the project. Make sure that your communication plan is robust. It should include a list of the key project stakeholders, your project team, the project’s user community, and other impacted audiences. Analyze each of these audiences and plan your communications to them. Include status meetings, user surveys, as well as formal and informal communication mechanisms such as email announcements or lunch and learns.


Along with email, meetings can consume time and energy from your project team. It is important for you to model the right meeting behavior for your project team to help keep the energy alive and to help them make the best use of their time.

Invite the Right People

The first principle in modeling meeting behavior is to invite the right people. Not everyone on the project team needs to be included in every meeting. Your business expert does not need to help build the implementation plan for the project. Ask yourself what the role and purpose of each invitee would be before sending them a meeting invitation. If you understand what they will be expected to contribute and the value they will get from the meeting, it will help you determine whether to include them or not. Remember, the fewer meetings they attend, the more time they have for project work.

Plan your Meetings

Don’t just hold a meeting because a meeting is scheduled. Always plan your meetings with a goal in mind. If there is no goal for a meeting, cancel the meeting! If there is a goal, prepare an agenda in advance so you know what topics should be covered to achieve the meeting goal. Remind the participants of the meeting goals and the agenda in advance of the meeting so they can prepare themselves in advance for your meeting. This is especially important if there are action items or work products that have to be discussed. Finally, review your team ground rules. (Doyle, 1976, p 56) Remind the team often what has been agreed to and make sure that you follow the rules as well.

Minutes, Minutes, Minutes

If people can’t remember or agree on what actually occurred at a meeting, how can the team effectively accomplish its objectives? Minutes are important project documents because they capture main ideas and discussion topics, action items, and key decisions from the meetings. As follow-up and to make sure everyone is aware of the decisions and actions from a meeting, email minutes to your team list or post them in your project workspace.

One way minutes can be used is as an effective communication tool. The goal of one of my projects was tied to the company’s environmental initiative. Needless to say, there were many people interested in the progress and key decisions for the project. In order to make sure the meetings were managed well, only the key participants were invited. But to meet the increased project interest, I emailed the meeting minutes to my extended team members thereby freeing them up from attending the meeting and allowing the meeting discussions to remain focused.

Review, Renew, Release

Does the team need to meet? Review your regularly scheduled meetings throughout the life of your project and think about the meetings goals and attendees. Does the project team have different needs since the meeting was established? If so, reflect on whether or not the meeting is still accomplishing its original objective. One way to quickly determine this is within the meeting itself. Review meeting objectives at the beginning of the meeting and again at the end. Ask the team if the meeting is achieving its objectives and what can be changed. If the objectives are met, think about the meeting attendees and whether they are still the right people to meet. You should determine if team members need to be added or dropped from the meeting invitation.

If the meeting is not achieving its goals, renew the objective or purpose of the meeting. For example, a meeting that worked well at the beginning of a project may not work well in the middle of the project. If you find a meeting continually ends early, is being cancelled regularly, or has changed from a status meeting to a working session, consider reexamining and renewing the meeting. In the case of a shorter meeting, send out a new meeting invitation for a smaller duration of time. When a meeting is being cancelled frequently, evaluate how often that group should assemble to accomplish the meeting purpose, and modify the meeting for that frequency. Lastly, if the meeting has changed in nature such as from a status meeting to a work session, make sure that all the meeting invitees are appropriate for the meeting type and modify as necessary.

Finally, if the meeting is not needed anymore, release the meeting and return the time back to the participants. Everyone is grateful for an extra hour or two back on their calendar.

Create Team Synergy

If you are familiar with Bruce Tuchman’s forming, storming, norming, and performing team stages (1965), you know that teams can linger in the storming and norming stages. Your goal as the project manager is to get your team to the performing stage as soon as possible. Three ways to rapidly move your team to a performing team are by using team recognition, encouraging good results, and creating a team identity. The first step in creating a team is to figure out if you are one. Answer the questions in Exhibit 3. If you answered more yes’s than no’s, you are on your way to leading a team.

Is Your Group a Team?

Exhibit 3: Is Your Group a Team?

Team Recognition

Make sure you understand what motivates your team both personally and as a group. Along with the approaches to determine personal motivations in Exhibit 1, you can ask the team what they’d like to do to celebrate their successes. A manager of mine used a Recognition Preference template (Exhibit 4) which asks about high, medium, or low preferences for certain types of rewards such as movie tickets, monetary rewards, and restaurant certificates. That type of form can give you a clue for celebration ideas.

Just as it is important to plan communication, risk, and schedule, it can be just as important to plan team recognition. Giving recognition does not come easily for some people, so scheduling it in advance, or at least reminding yourself to think about it isn’t a bad idea. Review your team’s contributions on a recurring basis to determine if anyone has done an above and beyond job on the project within that timeframe. Reward them with a restaurant certificate, a lunch out, some time off or another selection from their rewards preferences.

Also, schedule team events for milestone achievements. This is especially important for projects that span many months. Team energy and motivation can hit all time lows as a project progresses. Make it a goal for you to keep the project team’s energy at peak levels.

Reward and Recognition Preferences

Exhibit 4: Reward and Recognition Preferences

Encourage Good Results

That which gets reviewed, measured, and rewarded gets done. Gauge the energy/synergy of the team and respond appropriately. If the team is stalling or has had some setbacks, a little encouragement goes a long way. If you have a pervasive attitude that everyone’s work is important, they’ll respond by providing good results.

Team Identity

Create commonness for the team. You can get matching t-shirts, find a recurring joke, or provide a team mascot. One project team I knew had a stuffed animal that came to all the team meetings. When times got tough, the team took out their frustration on the stuffed animal instead of the project manager!

Provide Exceptional Team Leadership

“Knowing how to draw together a team and how to provide them with the skills and tools necessary for teamwork may be among the most crucial roles of the project manager.” (NASA, 2001) Once you’ve synergized the team, make sure you continue to provide exceptional team leadership to help them move from a performing team to a high-performing team.

Create a Decision-Making Strategy

An area that should be planned in advance is the team’s approach for decision making. Discuss creating a decision-making approach with team from beginning and work to ensure that a plan is put in place. Make sure decision roles are understood by the entire team and be clear on who will make decisions or recommendations and for what situations. Agree to disagree within the team discussion, but once the decision is made it is critical that all team members support the final decision. Once a decision is made, communicate the decision along with who made it.

When creating your team’s decision strategy, keep in mind that there is a time and place for all types of decisions. Not every decision can be made by the entire project team. Certain decisions must be made autocratically, others can be made democratically, and finally some decisions can be delegated to portions of the project team. The mode the team is in can determine the appropriate decision making methods. For example, a decision needing quick turn around may need to be made autocratically since the time to gain full team consensus may not be available. (Verzuh, 2004)

Inspire Positive Attitudes

Be nice to everyone. Greet and smile at your teammates. Open your meetings with inquiries about personal topics that are appropriate to share with the team. Topics such as an upcoming vacation, plans for a big event, or an eventful weekend work well. Small talk encourages trust between team members as well as creating team identity.

Lavish praise on your teammates. Don’t just wait for the major milestone to recognize good work. Tell them when they have done something that exceeded your expectations like beating a deadline for a project deliverable or being sensitive to others. (Gallo) Learn if the individuals on the team receive satisfaction from personal gestures such as cards, team gatherings, or visibility from upper management. If so, recognize them with those when appropriate. In my company, some IT project team members also serve as run/maintain support. In one case a team member volunteered to switch with the nightly on-call person during an application move to a new system environment. Her explanation? She knew that there might be difficulties with some of the software runs in the middle of the night. Since the project team would have to fix the issues, she didn’t want to inconvenience the on-call person. She got a gift certificate in appreciation of her thoughtfulness and warm thanks from me.

Choose for Success

Give the project team a choice between yes and yes, not between yes and no. For example, ask them, “Do you want to work on this task or that task?” Don’t ask, “Do you want to do this?” That’s an easy out for them if they say no or it puts them on the spot to say yes. You want to be sure they are really agreeing to the task and not just feeling pressured into doing it. Give them an option between yes and yes.

Don’t take this technique too far though. Don’t give them a choice between yes and yes and yes. Too many decisions can lead to no decision at all. (D‘Souza, 2005)


Just because a team member has been assigned to work on a project doesn’t mean they’re automatically engaged. You can address the barriers to effective engagement, including lack of commitment, information overload, and inefficient time use by preparing yourself to manage people, not just projects. Also, by setting team expectations and defining team guidelines, you create a working framework for your project team. Once the framework is established, you must continue to support and nurture them by using proven techniques for focusing communication and meetings which can increase team productivity. To keep the team focused and driving towards the project goals, you need to apply approaches for creating team synergy. Lastly, by using exceptional leadership skills such as creating a decision-making strategy, inspiring positive attitudes and allowing your team to choose for success, you can help to move your team to a high-performing work team.


Campbell, S. (ed) (2002) Harvard ManageMentor. Leading a Team. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. [Retrieved from an internal online copy]

Doyle, M. & Straus, D. (1976) How to Make Meetings Work. Berkley, CA: Berkeley Publishing Company.

D'Souza, S. (2005, March 29). The Choice Between Yes and Yes: A Psychological Revelation. Retrieved on July 29, 2006, from www.MarketingProfs.com http://www.marketingprofs.com/5/dsouza41.asp.

Flannes, S. & Levin, G. (2005). Essential People Skills for Project Managers. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts Incorporated.

Gallo, C. (no date). 8 Tips to Inspire Positive Attitudes. Retrieved on July 9, 2006, from AskMen.com http://www.askmen.com/money/successful_100/148_success.html.

NASA Headquarters Library. (2001, November). Group Dynamics and Decision Making for Project Success. Retrieved on July 9, 2006, from http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/hqlibrary/ppm/ppm17.htm.

Ridlon, L. (2002, Spring) Leading without Authority—The Fours Gears Process. Center for Quality of Management Journal [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on July 30, 2006 from http://cqmextra.cqm.org/cqmjournal.nsf/reprints/rp13050.

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental Sequence in Small Groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384.

Verzuh, E. (2004, October). High Performance Teams: Building the Problem Solving Machine. PMI Global Congress: North American 2004, Anaheim, California, United States of America.

© 2006, Joli Mallick
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle, Washington



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