Creating an Effective Project Team

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In this episode of Project Management Paradise Johnny speaks to Tony Llewellyn of ResoLex, who offers us 5 steps to creating an effective Project Team.


Tony is a team coach, facilitator, and consultant who works with project teams and team leaders to help them learn how to manage project complexity and has written a book entitled “Performance Coaching on Complex Projects”. ResoLex is an independent project consultancy specialising in risk monitoring, collaborative working and stakeholder engagement.

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Excerpts from Episode 46: “5 steps to creating an effective Project Team”


I spent most of my career as a surveyor working in the construction industry in the United Kingdom. In 2010, the firm I was working for was bought out, and I took the opportunity to change direction. I signed up for a Master’s degree in Coaching and Behavioral Change. In the course of that, I became interested in group dynamics and how you work with groups. With the experience, I decided to write a book. For the first time in my life, I enjoyed writing. It was nice to write for other people and not just technical reports. I’ve spent the past three years focusing on teams as a team coach, facilitator, and consultant.

How is team coaching different from one-to-one coaching?

There is a fundamental difference. Many people are familiar with the idea of having one-to-one coaching or an executive coach in the context of the project. One-to-one coaching is around how do you work with an individual to help them improve themselves?

From a team coaching point of view, you’re not too worried about the individual. What you’re concerned with is how to help the team achieve its objectives. You might ask, “Why does the team need help?” As the projects become bigger and more complex research finds that when projects go wrong, it’s not because of the technical answer, rather not enough attention was given at the beginning on how the people in the team worked together. Fundamentally team coaching is how to get your team to work together as an integrative group.

In a team, how do you ensure my needs are being addressed if it’s not about the individual?

It’s not that I wouldn’t care about the individual. In the context of the project, my main concern is that you feel that your thoughts and ideas are being listened to and that you’re committed to what’s being done. If you’re a project leader, then that’s part of your job, and it’s not a skill necessarily taught in project management skill-set. In the way that the world is shifting, if you look at all of the information that’s coming out around the PMP’s role in the future, I think team coaching is going to be one of the new project management skill sets. It will become integral to what an ambitious project manager needs to do.

An effective Project Team: The Five-Step Model (or ASARI)

1. Assess Stage- slow down, pause, and think. Look at the project you’re going into.

What’s the project environment? Various factors are going to affect the success of a project. By having a look at these issues beforehand, you have a chance to go back to the project sponsor or the stakeholders and discuss the resources available.

-Do you think they’re right? Are they going to work? Is the budget tight? What are the business imperatives here?

By asking these questions, you’re making sure that as a project manager you’re going in with your eyes wide open. Projects are always under pressure for resources and urgency, but all too often is we roll into projects with a conspiracy of optimism, so we ignore all the difficulties until it’s too late. Once the project starts, it’s difficult to go back to the clients and ask for more money or time, and then you’re starting to make excuses.

2. Set up-putting time aside.

-It’s not just the planning stage for who’s going to do what? And what are the technical challenges in a project, but it’s how do we set the right behavioral norms?

What studies have shown regarding human behavior is that when a team first comes together—especially with those who haven’t worked together before—you have to opportunity to shake their behaviors. This is called establishing the behavioral norms. The problem is if you don’t take this opportunity at the start, everyone just brings his or her old behaviors into the new team.

Whether it’s shaping behaviors on how we communicate together, turning up to meetings on time, what happens in meetings, if you can set the ground rules at the start, then there’s a much higher chance they’ll follow them. This is especially true if the team feels like they’ve had a role in creating the ground rules.

There are some different steps in the setup. There’s creating a vision for the team, thinking about the project stakeholders, their needs, and how we can keep in touch with them. There are rules of project engagement. There’s a crucial thing of accountability, and to the extent you can influence it, making sure that you have the right people on your team.

The only radical thing at this stage is to ensure set up happens because frequently it gets pushed aside due to time, resources, costs, and doesn’t think it’s necessary. If you believe that it’s needed and will make a difference in the project’s success, then you would take the time to push back and make sure it happens.

3. Action-implements the planned collaboration so that the team can adopt efficient work patterns.

Say you have a workshop, it’s going great, people are getting along with each other and coming up with good ideas. You wake up the next morning and then everyone goes back to what they were doing two days before. In other words, all of the output gets ignored because everybody leaps back into “let’s just get on with it” and sort out the problems later. With a team approach, we want to focus on sorting out the problems now. It’s about slowing down at the start so that you can pick up speed later.

Are there exercises during this team coaching to allow this to happen effectively?

I think it’s an efficient process. There are books, tools, and techniques, but not so much available for the team coaching world. Part of my book and website explains how to do it. In the action state, it’s about using practical tools such as how to assess the project environment, setting up the project checklist, and engaging a team, sponsors, and stakeholders.

4. Building Resilience-how do you keep going once you’ve started?

-How do you make sure once the times get tough to stop the team from a breakdown, but rather have them become a stronger unit? How do you keep the team collectively building their resilience?

Sometimes teams get into a bad state where things have started to go wrong. People stop talking to each other properly, they lose engagement, and the leader has lost the following of the team. There are team-coaching exercises to reset everything and say, “okay let’s stop. How did we get here? How do we get out of this?

Confidence issue?

Absolutely. The problem is understanding that we can’t be heroes all the time. The last thing any team needs is a hero. What we need is people working consistently for the good of the team and enjoying working as a collective unit, rather than as individual heroes.

5. Improve, and Learn – How do teams improve?

There’s no doubt that teams who get into the habit of continuously pausing and asking, “How did that work? Could we do that better? What went wrong? What went right?” It’s something that takes daily time away from the team. Quite often teams are under pressure and don’t feel like they have enough time to discuss these components, they just need to get on with things. Whether it’s a daily, weekly, or monthly exercise, the end of each stage needs to stop and get into the habit of having a clear exchange where they discuss what’s working or how to improve.

Only asking about how the project went when the project is over does nothing for the project. The team coaches’ role is about the project and making it successful. Part of their role is how to take that time, lead the conversations, and draw different opinions out. You don’t just want to get the loudest voices in the room dominating the conversation.

How does the model transfer to other teams? Is there an element or risk of starting over?

The interesting thing I’ve found in talking to those who’ve worked on projects is that if I ask about a project that went well, most people can find one. When you ask, “What went well?” They can say, “it was an exciting project and everybody worked well together.”

When you start asking why or how they worked well together, then you draw out all the different things that went one. Invariably what happened is that when a project went well, all of the things I’ve mentioned were present. In some ways, there’s nothing radical here. You can look at it and say it’s common sense. Being able to take that into the next team is useful.

One of the techniques I like is at the start of the assessment or set up stage; project managers should be asking the team, “Tell me about a project you’ve done in the past and what went well. What can we bring into our project that is useful?” When you ask that question in a calm period before a project takes off, you can get some great information out. It’s not only the project manager’s ideas, but it’s stuff from the team too.

What we’re finding out some of the big infrastructure projects we’re involved in the teams are potentially huge. How do you scale this process? You scale through having a model and best processes sit inside of that. As human beings, we’re not very good at squeezing into somebody else’s idea of a structural model. We like to feel that what we’re part of is something that we created. The real nuance in coaching a project team is how do you bring the team in so that they feel it’s their process, not your process? You can do that by taking the time to ask the questions and let people answer them.

Is your project complex or simply complicated?

It’s an important distinction to make. When you start working on a project, the chances are that’s something complicated. What I mean by that is there’s a pattern you can see.

For example, if you walked into the cockpit of a model 747 airliners, and you see all the dials and switches and think how does anyone possibly learn to fly a plane? That looks way too difficult. It’s a complicated problem, not a complex one. When you’re a pilot, you learn over time what each of those dials, switches, and levels do. Once you know the pattern, then you can learn how to fly a plane.

A lot of the work on a project that you’ve done before, you know the process and personal behaviour. Things shift into the complex when you get a lot of people involved. When a project gets bigger, more and more people are involved. You also get more stakeholders, more people participating in the client or sponsor decision, and it’s people that make things messy.

As projects grow, the project manager needs to make this distinction that says, when it was merely complicated all I needed to do was to k now how the building was built or how the engineering process works. Then make sure everyone else did what he or she needed to do. As a project manager, I’m an expert often in that particular sector or industry; I know what needs to be done.

When it becomes more complex, you can’t work that way. By definition, you no longer have all of the answers. If as a project manager you start on the basis that says, “ I don’t know everything, but I’ve got to get a team who does. Between us, we can find all the components together to find an answer.” Crucially then in a complicated project, you can be quite directive. The classic preemptive directive style works quite well. As you move into the compound area, you’ve got to go into a softer style of leadership where it’s more about drawing out the best in the team around you rather than making sure that it’s working, focused, and efficient.

Show Notes

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