Building camarderie and accountability in your project meetings

Abstract

Project managers constantly struggle to build teams that are highly accountable and work well together. Indeed, these elements of camaraderie and accountability can often be the keys to enhanced productivity and team success. Astute project managers recognize that meetings can provide great opportunities to build that sense of camaraderie and reinforce accountability. This paper provides practical facilitation techniques and best practices that project managers and team leaders can use to develop and sustain a culture of accountability and camaraderie on the team.

Introduction

One of the greatest gifts a project manager can have is a team that works well together and is highly accountable. Healthy camaraderie is the oil that truly makes the team engine work properly. Camaraderie shouldn’t imply that all team members are best friends or socialize on the weekends. Instead, the goal is to build a level of trust, respect, and affection that enables easy and productive relationships. This sense of camaraderie is not just a “warm, fuzzy” ideal to make everyone feel liked. Instead, this camaraderie (or lack thereof) has a direct impact on the team’s ability and willingness to communicate effectively, question authority, effectively solve problems, negotiate conflict, assist one another, and work together effectively and efficiently. Indeed, project teams can produce results without a sense of camaraderie; however, it’s quite difficult and often costly to the project and the team output.

One key component of team camaraderie is a sense of accountability. Indeed, each team member should feel a strong sense of accountability toward the project, project manager, and other team members. The most effective teams maintain a strong “culture of accountability,” where there is an understood expectation that team members will be held accountable for their actions (or lack thereof). Project success is directly contingent on team members’ ability and willingness to complete tasks on time on budget. Maintaining a culture of accountability in many ways is the key to avoiding the all too common due date/budget slips and quality shortfalls.

Teams lacking camaraderie and accountability often operate dysfunctionally and with less than optimal results. Without camaraderie and accountability, teams often struggle with missed due dates, incomplete action items, lack of follow through, poor relationships among team members, and low trust. These missing elements directly impact project success.

To continually build a strong team, project managers must adopt a management style that balances focus on task and relationship. Too much focus on task (“I need that design document completed tomorrow!”) often results in low team morale. Some project managers mistakenly think that focusing primarily on task will produce better results. Although the task focus may produce positive results in the short term, the long-term impacts are often quite detrimental. Team members in this “task-focused” environment often grow resentful, avoid interactions with the project manager, fail to volunteer for tasks, feel underappreciated, and can sometimes even begin to sabotage project success; on the other hand, project managers should also avoid using a style that is too relationship focused. While team members typically appreciate a style that focuses on individual acknowledgment and motivation, too much emphasis on relationship can blur the lines between the professional and personal and detract from the team’s overall focus on its objectives, tasks, and deliverables. The ideal management style should balance the focus on task and relationship. As a result, project managers should strive to maintain such balance in their project meetings for optimal results. The techniques presented below not only strive to encourage timely, high-quality task completion but also emphasize relationship building.

Reinforcing Accountability

In many ways, the entire “project team” concept is based on accountability. The concept of project manager and project team requires that the manager be able to trust that team members will follow through on tasks as assigned. When the project manager, client, or team members can no longer trust that team members will follow through as promised, project managers become tempted to micromanage tasks, and significant problems often ensue. Ideally, project managers build and reinforce a “culture of accountability” so that team members don’t necessarily feel a sense of responsibility toward the project manager; instead, they feel a sense of responsibility toward the entire project team. They’re not as focused on letting the project manager down as they are about letting the team down. Building this culture is important because it propels a team from the traditional top-down management focus to a more mature team that is self directed. In a self-directed team environment project managers are able to truly manage the project and avoid the need to micromanage tasks or constantly reprimand and/or nag team members about assigned tasks.

Project managers should utilize meetings as an opportunity to not only assign responsibilities but also build and reinforce this culture of accountability. Meetings are often the times in which all team members come together and this provides a unique opportunity for the project manager to establish norms and expectations. Meetings also provide an opportunity for all team members to internalize and observe all interactions (whether the interaction involves them directly or not). When leading meetings, project managers should consciously decide which issues are best handled offline and which ones should be addressed with the full team. Keep in mind that addressing issues with the full team provides an opportunity to not just address that specific issue with one individual but also establish norms, expectations, and establish the desired climate.

One challenge that many project managers face is “the slacker” team member. This is the team member who accepts tasks or other responsibilities but fails to follow through on them as promised. This behavior is quite dangerous because it not only negatively impacts the tasks but can also serve as a negative example for the rest of the team; as such, this behavior should be addressed promptly. Failing to address slacking behavior sends the message that the behavior is acceptable and only encourages it.

Consider the following scenario...

Team member Jill Mansfield approaches the project manager immediately before the start of the project meeting to let her know that she didn’t have an opportunity to complete her task on time due to a last-minute work crisis.

Many project managers will tend to react in a manner that overly emphasizes the task-focused management style or the relationship focused management style. The “task-focused managers” will tend to reprimand on the spot and focus the discussion on when the task can be completed. The “relationship-focused manager” will feel compelled to excuse the behavior on the spot and ask the team to provide an alternate date (that works for them). As stated earlier, the most effective management style is one that balances both task and relationship. In this case, it’s also important for the project manager to use this as an opportunity to set a precedent and send a message to the entire team.

Suggested response: “Jill, thanks so much for letting me know. We’ll be reviewing all open tasks as usual at the beginning of the meeting. When we get to that task, please just give your update to the group.”

This response doesn’t excuse or condemn the behaviour; instead, with this response, the project manager shifts the accountability back onto the team member and insists that he or she addresses the group. By pulling the project manager aside before the start of the meeting, the “slacker “team member is attempting to shift accountability and the project manager must avoid this. Once the project manager begins accepting last-minute excuses outside the presence of the team, he or she sets a dangerous precedent that may signal to the rest of the team that last-minute excuses are fine. By insisting that the slacking team member instead update the team, it affords the team an opportunity to decide on the appropriate response. Teams are typically quite successful in determining whether the team member deserves more condemnation or support. The simple fact is that this type of response by the project manager sends a strong signal to the slacking team member that he or she will indeed be held accountable.

Project managers should also establish meeting ground rules that reinforce accountability. Instead of waiting for accountability lapses, the project manager can proactively ask the group how missed due dates or incomplete tasks should be handled (or can be avoided). In Michael Wilkinson’s The Secrets of Facilitation, he clarifies that ground rules are used to set an agreed-on level of behavior that guides how the participants will interact with one another. (Wilkinson, 2004, p 73). Sample ground rules that the team might adopt to encourage accountability include the following:

img All tasks will be assigned an owner and back-up owner (in the event the original owner cannot complete it as assigned)

img Anyone who accepts a task and can’t complete it must find someone else to complete it on his or her behalf prior to the due date

img The team will impose a mild consequence for anyone who attends the meeting unprepared (e.g., sing a song, contribute money to the team bank jar, etc.)

Managing Action Items

Michael Wilkinson’s The Secrets of Facilitation asserts that the action item list contains activities to be performed some time after the completion of the session (Wilkinson, M. 2004, p 164). Indeed, action items are absolute key elements in project meetings because they capture the actions to be taken outside the meeting. Unfortunately, many project managers don’t effectively utilize this critically important tool.

When assigning and managing action items, the meeting leader should remember these best practices to continue to encourage accountability and team camaraderie:

img Document all action items in “real time” during the meeting

img Document the action items in a manner visible for all in the meeting

img Document action items with the task, owner, and due date

img Repeat the wording of the action item for the scribe if it’s a virtual meeting

img Allow the action item owner to suggest the due date (and negotiate that due date if needed)

img Repeat the action item to the owner and get verbal confirmation (e.g., affirmative response, head nod, thumbs up, etc.)

img Always read through the action items at the end of the meeting and gain agreement

img Document action items in a database, wiki, or other electronic format

img Include a link to the action items database in the meeting notes (to be sent out no later than 48 hours after the meeting)

Project managers should also consider the three magic questions when assigning tasks to further encourage accountability:

  1. What is your understanding of the task?

    This question ensures that your message was received accurately. Once someone tells you his or her understanding of the task (in his or her own words), you have a much better sense of whether there are any disconnects or possible misunderstandings. Too often, team members nod in agreement while the project manager delegates a task; unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they truly understand the project manager’s expectations. Oftentimes, the team member will return days, weeks, or months later only to admit that he or she didn’t quite understand or provide a deliverable that isn’t what was requested.

  2. What will the deliverable look like?

    Project tasks are often focused on deliverables—tangible outputs. Deliverables are often the documents to be reviewed, analyzed, or evaluated by the project sponsor, client, external partner, or other stakeholder and as such become quite important. Whenever the project manager assigns a task, he or she should ensure that there is clarity on what the deliverable will actually look like. Because the work hasn’t yet been completed, the team member isn’t expected to produce a completed deliverable; instead, with this question, he or she is being asked to describe that deliverable. Description elements may include the following for a document-type deliverable:

    img Document format (e.g., Visio, PPT, Excel, Word, pdf, etc.)

    img Document length

    img Level of detail

    img Content types (e.g., text, bullets, tables, illustrations, etc.)

    In addition to clarifying the structure and look of the document, also clarify content:

    img Objectives

    img Audience

    img Scope (in and out)

    img Outline

  3. What three steps will you take to begin working on this task?

    The response to this question provides key insight into how the team member will approach the task. Based on this feedback, the project manager can immediately course correct if needed to ensure that he or she is proceeding as required.

Building Camaraderie in Your Meetings

Balancing the focus on task and relationship, project managers should use meetings not just to update status and discuss tasks but also to motivate, energize, and acknowledge team members. Ultimately, the project manager’s goal in this regard is to build connections and relationships with and among team members that help the team progress to a high-performing team. Remember these best practices to help build camaraderie during team meetings.

Encourage team members to share personal information to build connections

img During introductions, ask each team member to share a personal fact (e.g., first job, favorite childhood television/cartoon character, proudest accomplishment)

img Ask remote team members to send photographs of themselves prior to the meeting

img Create a bingo card with an interesting fact about each team member in each square. Ask team members to mingle during breaks and identify the owners of each square.

Create opportunities for bonding and informal information sharing

img Provide food either immediately before or after the meeting

img Conduct working lunch meetings (as long as the team doesn’t perceive it as a punishment)

img Conduct team building events to reward the team at various milestones

Encourage connections among team members

img Look for opportunities for the team to discuss issues in small subgroups during the session

img Establish a peer recognition system in which team members acknowledge each other during the session

img Ask team members to build on each other’s ideas

img Assign a back-up owner for each task and encourage members to work together

Discuss and document expectations

img Document a team charter

img Document meeting ground rules

img Decide on meeting dates, times, and locations

Engage all team members in meeting facilitation and leadership

img Rotate the roles of facilitator and scribe. Ingrid Bens’ Facilitation at a Glance defines a facilitator as “one who contributes structure and process to interactions so groups are able to function effectively and make high-quality decisions” (Bens, 1999, p 2).

img Ask one person to lead a debrief at the conclusion of each meeting

img Empower all team members to enforce ground rules

Conclusion

Meetings shouldn’t be just another onerous task the project manager must tick off of his or her to-do list; instead, they can be powerful opportunities to build a sense of camaraderie and encourage a strong sense of accountability within the team. The astute project manager uses virtually every meeting as an opportunity to build connections within the team and encourage a culture of accountability. Team members can easily fall into a cycle of slacking on due dates and socializing in cliques. Both behaviors can spiral into an environment that is dysfunctional and counterproductive. The most astute project managers utilize a style that focuses on holding team members accountable while also prioritizing the team-building experience. Indeed, project managers achieve results through their team members. The key is to insist on accountability while creating a positive team environment. Each meeting provides yet another opportunity to do just that.

References

Bens, I. (1999). Facilitation at a glance. USA: GOAL/QPC

Wilkinson, M. (2004). The secrets of facilitation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2010 Dana Brownlee
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2010 - Washington D.C.

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