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How Special Project Teams Succeed

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Calling in the troops: A short-term force can cut waste, solve problems and expand horizons.

You’ve been patching up a chronic production problem for far too long. Now you’re set to assign a short-term, special project team to resolve it once and for all.

Such teams cost nothing to set up and run, and they use the in-house expertise of employees rather than the expensive services of outside consultants.

But how do you ensure the team’s success? First, look within your management pool for a facilitator who’s passionate about teamwork and open to new perspectives and ideas. Then ask for volunteers who have a stake in solving the problem. Provide this team with basic training in procedures, such as brainstorming and holding effective meetings. A few hours of training can give a team the skills and motivation it needs to devise viable solutions.

Launching the Special Project

Once your project team is in place, the facilitator can use these key steps to get underway:

  1. Assign working roles. The team needs to be clear on who’s doing what. Roles, which can be rotated, include the facilitator or team leader plus:
    • The scribe, who takes minutes at meetings and later distributes copies to all team members. Minutes should record discussions, key points made, team decisions, assigned tasks, individuals responsible for them and task deadlines.
    • The timekeeper, who ensures that meetings start and end on time, schedules breaks and sets time limits for discussions. The timekeeper also alerts the team five minutes before time runs out on each agenda topic.
    • The process observer uses a help/hinder list (see No. 2 below) to monitor behavior. He also encourages full participation, identifies any conflicts and helps resolve them.
  2. Create a "help/hinder" list. Together, the group identifies behaviors that could aid and obstruct the team.

    Helpful behaviors include: Arriving on time, being prepared, showing enthusiasm, volunteering, communicating openly and honestly, listening actively, criticizing ideas rather than individuals, following through on assignments.

    Hindering behaviors include: Being negative, dominating discussions, avoiding decision making, being close minded, not listening, acting bored, not paying attention.

    Using this list, the process observer maintains accountability. If someone is having a side conversation during a meeting, the process observer will intervene — "Wait a minute, Diane. On our help/hinder list, we agreed not to hold side conversations, remember?"

  3. Set up a charter. Define team goals: "We plan to come up with a successful procedure to reduce production defects by 20% by December 2000." The charter should also specify any nonnegotiables. Example: A problem-solving team wouldn’t discuss salary increases.

    State team agendas. You’ll alienate everyone if you let the team get deep into working on solutions and then announce, "But I wanted you to explore this option to see if it would work."

    Review the charter with the team. Be prepared to negotiate. If the facilitator says, "We want you to achieve these goals by June," the team might counter with "June would be tight, but we know we can do it by July." Remember: Teams operate by consensus rather than majority rule. You negotiate until everyone agrees.

  4. Establish protocols. The team should agree on procedures for:
    • Meetings. When and where will it meet? Can a meeting be held with less than half the members in attendance?
    • Decision making. Will people have a time period — say 24 hours — to object to a decision made by the team in their absence?
    • Conflict resolution. What strategies will the team use to handle conflicts between members?

Next step: Once everyone’s clear about goals, roles and procedures, team members can get to work. They’ll take a specific goal — "Reduce production errors by 20% by December 2000" — and break it down into key steps, develop a plan for achieving the goal and divide tasks according to each person’s expertise and interests.

Meeting Deadlines

The project should have a final deadline, and those that extend beyond established deadlines cost the company by tying up employee time and other resources unnecessarily.

Focus first on priorities. Make sure all members are aware of the most important tasks. Agree that those tasks will be given top priority.

Establish mini-deadlines. Completing scheduled tasks along the way gives the team a sense of accomplishment and helps prevent loss of momentum in the middle of a project.

Monitor individual efforts. Are certain people always scrambling to meet interim deadlines? Find out why. They might need more information, resources or help with their daily responsibilities to focus better on the special project.

Watch out for perfectionists. Trying to meet their internal, inflated expectations can jeopardize deadlines. At one market-research company, a facilitator aligns expectations by announcing, "We’re aiming for excellence — not perfection! It’s more important to do a really good job and bring this project in on time then it is to go for unattainable perfection and annoy management by being late."

Emphasize cooperation. At certain times some team members may be rushing to meet an interim deadline and dealing with a heavy load of routine tasks. Encourage people to monitor fellow team members. If they notice someone struggling or obviously swamped, offer help.

Something to Talk About

Keeping members on track during meetings is crucial to the final outcome.

Clearly state the objective of each agenda topic. Voicing your purpose — "Now we’ll talk about how we can sell this idea to the CEO" — will help everyone zero in on the topic.

Setting a time limit will also help members stay focused: "We have eight minutes to brainstorm" or "We have 10 minutes to make a decision."

And remember to let your leader lead. Discussions can easily veer off track. The facilitator should say something like, "You’ve made a key point, and we can revisit it later. Right now, let’s continue with our discussion of … "

Handling Conflicts

Special project teams bring together different personality types. This mix can be a creative one that seeks innovative solutions. But conflicts and "renegade" behaviors must be dealt with quickly, before they dampen team morale and lower productivity. Here are two strategies:

Get conflicts out in the open. At a meeting, ask people to write down their answers to these questions about each team member: What do you like about Mary? What does she do that creates difficulty for you? What could she do differently? What do you count on from Mary for the team’s success?

Next, read aloud all responses and discuss them. Avoid accusations. Instead of saying, "You always come to meetings late," state: "I have a problem with your coming to meetings late." Since everyone on the team gets feedback and no one is singled out, members are less defensive. Ask each member to commit to working on one "problem" behavior for the benefit of the team.

If conflict continues, take a more direct approach. The team facilitator and process observer should meet with the troublemaker and:

  • State the problem behavior. "At Tuesday’s meeting, you maintained a side conversation while everyone else was discussing the agenda topics."
  • Describe the impact on the team. "That kind of behavior is disruptive and distracts others from the main discussion."
  • Propose a solution: "We’d prefer that you pay attention to the discussion of agenda topics, and wait until the meeting’s over to converse about other things."
  • Explain consequences: "We believe you can change this behavior. But if you choose not to, we may consider replacing you with someone who’s on our waiting list of volunteers."

Case in point: One facilitator was forced to replace the most creative person in his group. He ridiculed others’ ideas and repeatedly interrupted when someone else had the floor. Even after being confronted, he did nothing to change his behavior. The facilitator reluctantly replaced that talented individual with someone more team oriented.

Special project teams, which congregate for a short period of time and work intensely on a key problem, can’t accommodate self-appointed prima donnas. Only a cooperative team spirit will ensure success.

Writer: Kathleen Conroy

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