Go, team, go!


by Simon Kent ‹‹ illustration by Otto Steininger


for some team members, it just takes cold, hard cash. For others, a day of go-karts does the trick. And others require a good talking-to. Creating an environment that keeps the team motivated over the long haul can take on many forms. The simple fact is that working on projects can often mean a great deal of stress and anxiety. So project managers must do whatever it takes to maintain team morale, while ensuring team members remain on track.

Of course, setting up the project with realistic timelines and workloads is the first step. But most projects almost inevitably seem to veer off course. And that means leaders have to find ways to keep team members inspired to forge ahead through even the toughest of times.

“You have to remember you can't actually motivate anyone,” says Anne Smith, author of The Lead Dog Has the Best View: Leading Your Project Team to Success [American Society of Civil Engineers, 2005]. “You can only provide an environment in which they feel motivated.”

This may seem a game of semantics, but there are practical implications. “It's not motivating to be given a task without being told how that task fits into the rest of the project,” says Ms. Smith, president of Smith Culp Consulting, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. “If you tell a team member how their work fits into the bigger picture, they can focus on that contribution rather than just thinking of it as their next job.”

It's not motivating to be given a task without being told how that task fits into the rest of the project.



At BlueCat Networks, a provider of IP address management platforms, project managers check in with team members scattered across Canada, the United States and Europe by phone—often dialing up each person individually.

“We have a round robin call where we talk to the team and discuss their thoughts and expectations of the project,” says Daniel Hepp, director of professional services at Toronto, Ontario, Canada-based BlueCat. “It's a good way of gauging confidence and to find out what the success criteria are for everyone involved.”

Motivation can only exist if individual team members are given clear ownership of a task, the training and ability to do that task, and accurate, timely feedback that holds them responsible for the results, Mr. Hepp says. Setting up accountability not only ensures the team works together but also that it's able to interact successfully with the client or project sponsor—sharing an understanding of how the work is to be done, assessed and rewarded.

When London, England-based software development and outsourcing company 2i sets up its projects, it builds a bit of motivation right in the contract.

“If we [complete the project] before their deadline, there will be a reward. If we fall behind that time there can be a penalty,” says Jonathan Bowman, a 2i program manager working out of Malta and London.

Any potential extra remuneration is equally divided between team members before work even starts. Making the split at this point provides a nice little incentive to work together as a team to achieve the goal.

“I don't want a situation where one team member will excel at the cost of someone else,” Mr. Bowman says. “The reward has to be for the entire team and not for individuals. If we want to reward individuals for work over and above that expected, we have a separate post-implementation report scheme where their behavior can be rewarded through their salary.”

Mr. Bowman has tried to create a more motivating environment in a more literal sense, too, by transforming the 2i office. Teams are grouped together under banners with each project's name. “The desks have separators so you're not always looking at each other, but if you want someone on the project, they are literally just around the corner,” he says. “It adds an element of fun to the environment.”

What Do I Get Out of It?

Obviously, the easiest way to get something done is to offer up something in exchange—and it doesn't have to be money. To that end, project managers should look for ways to ensure a project provides new challenges for team members, whether it's acquiring new skills or simply carrying out a task they haven't performed before on an otherwise routine project.

Federico Parrella, senior project manager at MWH Environmental Engineering Consultants in Milan, Italy, tries to add some variety to the assignments he makes to project teams working on the U.S. airbase at Aviano, Italy. “The project environment is always the same,” he says. “So I try to locate each person into different activities each time. This means they get to do different things and are also then capable of supporting the needs of the project in more ways.”

Although the change in scenery can inspire some team members, project managers must exercise a degree of caution. People have different strengths and weaknesses—and it's good to play to the strengths. Someone with an attention to detail, for example, gravitates to a quality-assurance role. Give that job to people who like to think big-picture strategy and they may end up uninspired because they've been given a task alien to their capabilities and working preferences.

Ms. Smith suggests providing a learning experience for each team member alongside his or her required work. Doing so broadens the horizons of each person without increasing the risk a project may fail because the company is relying on someone to do something they've never done before.

“Everyone on the project team should have an individual learning plan that operates as part of the project,” she says. Learning activities can cover just about anything—mastering new software, perhaps, or making a presentation to a client. And they need not be activities that require extra resources. Indeed, Ms. Smith emphasizes such activities should be delivered through mentoring and coaching from within the project team, and always be aligned with the project goals.

mapping out motivation

Even in these times of globalization, what inspires teams in Morocco might not necessarily work in Australia.

And it turns out there's some truth behind the stereotypes, says Nancy Settle-Murphy, president of Guided Insights, a consulting and cross-cultural training company in Boxborough, Massachusetts, USA.

U.S. team members “crave popularity and approval,” she says. “For Germans, the goal is to do an excellent job with great attention to detail. Asian cultures tend to value group harmony far more.”

Faced with this diversity, Ms. Settle-Murphy says it's impractical to try repackaging every project directive to reflect cultural differences. But she does recommend the following tips for maintaining motivation across borders:

1 Use diverse communication methodologies. If you have a teleconference between team members, run a written correspondence online at the same time. Some people will find it easier to express themselves in writing than in speech, especially those for whom the project language is their second or third.
2 Consider time differences. Asia Pacific locations are effectively ahead of everyone else, which should be factored into communications and workflow. Team members probably won't be motivated to carry out a list of tasks handed down at the end of their day.
3 Don't underestimate gimmicks. For one worldwide project all team members were issued golf shirts carrying the emblem of their project team. Ms. Settle-Murphy was initially skeptical but the shirts were treated like gold dust. “With virtual teams it's great to offer something tangible they can have in their hands,” she says. “It sounds childish but it enhances the identity of the team and can be really valuable.”

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Once the project is under way, team leaders should identify opportunities for celebrating milestone achievements. The frequency of these depends on the length of the project and number of people involved, says Joli Mallick, PMP, program manager at semiconductor company Texas Instruments, Dallas, Texas, USA. For one supply-chain project, the sign-off on project requirements was cause enough for a day of go-karting for the entire team.

But motivation isn't always about fun and games.

“There are times when you need to come down harder and say what has not been achieved and how the work has to be done,” she says. “This is one of the difficulties about being a project manager, because you have to be able to gauge the level of energy within the team. Sometimes you need to dig deeper to find out what's going on and that can tell you whether you need to offer a positive or negative [message].”

To help with this process, Ms. Mallick and her colleagues rely on a “team barometer,” a series of questions such as: “Are the goals and deliverables well-understood?” or “Does everyone participate?” After a team discussion, project managers then use the answers to identify problems and motivation issues, and then determine what can be done to remedy the situation and move things forward. Typically the barometer is used once a month—even on long-term projects.

Online assessment exercises are available and certainly capable of providing information on individual personalities. For many project managers, though, getting to know what motivates a team is done around the water cooler or during an evening meal or a one-on-one chat. Ms. Mallick asks individual team members specifically how they would like their work rewarded, noting some people dislike public pronouncements and prefer simple cards recording their contribution.

It's up to project managers to figure out just what it takes to inspire team members slogging their way toward the finish line. PM

Simon Kent is a U.K.-based freelance writer who specializes in human resources, IT and training.




Related Content

  • PM Network

    Pick up the Pace member content open

    By Rockwood, Kate David Barbieri, PMP, knows how to put the pedal to the metal. When he was given 12 months to complete a construction project that would normally take 24, he didn't roll up his sleeves and start…

  • PM Network

    Banishing Burnout member content open

    We asked the project management community: What steps do you take to ensure team members aren't overwhelmed by the project workload? In addition to project management practitioners responses, global…

  • Leadership and team dynamics in the new millennium member content open

    By Raghupathy, Shobhna There is a pronounced shift in the demands confronting organizational leadership, and these changes are a reflection of shifts in the global marketplace. With globalization, companies need to…

  • The project manager as team coach member content open

    By Woods, Juanita | Abdon, Pamela Coaching is a widely recognized business management skill today, with business leaders focusing on coaching their direct reports to success. Coaching can be a valuable tool in the toolkit of a…

  • PM Network

    Beyond the hype member content open

    By Fister Gale, Sarah | Mersino, Anthony During the past decade, many educators and journalists have touted the significance of developing emotional intelligence as a method for helping leaders achieve success. This article examines the…