How to Pick a Project Team

Tech skills are only the beginning.

When Bill Hagerup was a novice project manager, he attended a meeting in which managers were picking people for upcoming projects. He let the other project managers step all over him and ended up with the leftovers. "The project didn't go well, and I vowed I would never let that happen again," he says.

Next time, he was prepared. Well before the meeting, Hagerup approached each of the top-skilled people and sold them on the project, so their bosses agreed to let them go. "I got all the people I wanted," he says. "And it turned out to be a terrible project."

He had picked people for their technical skills and ended up with a team of prima donnas. "They couldn't work together," explains Hagerup, who is now a project management specialist at Ouellette & Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Bedford, N.H.

A great project team requires more than technical skills. It takes the right mix of "soft" skills, personalities and attitudes to gel and achieve results. Here are some tips from project managers about whom you need on your team and how to get them.

Fewer is Better

After the fifth member, a project team's effectiveness is inversely proportional to its mass, says Catherine Tomczyk, a project manager at First Data Corp. in Greenwood Village, Colo. But affected departments often want representatives on a team regardless of whether they have any value to add. The result is bloated teams with uneven skills, knowledge and commitment levels, and getting them on the same page wastes time and energy, Tomczyk says.

Her best teams have had only four people. Each person understood the project's direction and his role, and they all pulled together. This type of team can work two to three times faster than an overstuffed one, Tomczyk estimates.

Attitude Counts

How to Pick a Project Team
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Image Credit: David Clark
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Look for people with positive attitudes and behaviors, says Sue Young, CEO of ANDA Consulting, a project management consulting firm in Williston, Vt. People with a good work ethic who are upbeat, respectful of others and continually learning will help lift the team's spirit, she says. Conversely, one cynic can spoil the entire team's outlook.

If you have to choose between specific skills and attitude, go for attitude. "Experience is very important," says Jeff Anderson, a project manager at First Data, "but I can override experience for a person with a strong work ethic that I can count on."

Diversity Lowers Risk

"The riskier the project, the more diversity you need in the team," says Johanna Rothman, president of Rothman Consulting Group Inc. in Arlington, Mass., and co-author of Hiring Technical People (Dorset House, 2004). IT tends to attract similar types of people, and that's something you need to counteract.

For example, people who want to bring quick closure to decisions are overrepresented in IT, she says. That can be a danger because their desire for closure can lead them to focus on a strategy before considering the alternatives. "They come up with the first idea, and that's it," she explains. "You get 'groupthink' much more easily." Adding someone who likes to examine many options can make a big difference, she says.

Familiarity Breeds Action

It's helpful if team members have worked together before, Tomczyk says. "Everybody has his or her own communication style and approach, and if you don't have any of that background walking in, it takes a lot of time and energy to build a team," she adds.

Availability Trumps Everything

Availability is where the real world intrudes on the best-laid plans. "In most decisions about project teams, the No. 1 factor is who's available," says Hagerup.

Availability takes planning, says Tom Watson, a project manager at Bayer Corporate Business Services Inc. in West Haven, Conn. "You need to identify what resources you will need and when," he says. If you're expecting to need a certain person three months out, do something about it now. "Contact that person's boss and make it very clear that in three months you will need Joe's technical expertise," he says. "If he's not available, you may have to shift the project or deliverables based on when he is."

Leverage Matters

Once you know what kind of team you'd like, how do you get it? One key to obtaining leverage is good relationships with other managers. "If I say I need Joe, that manager may have the same request five times a day," Anderson says. "But if I have a good history with him, he won't just blow me off."

Leverage can also come from an educated customer. When Rothman has trouble getting the people she wants for a project, she explains the implications. "I say, 'Here's what I can do, given the investment you're willing to put in. And if you give me the skills I want, here's the extra value I can add.' "

When it comes to picking teams, project managers shouldn't take no for an answer, says Jim Highsmith, a consultant at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "Fight to get the right people on your team," he says. If you can't get them, tell the customer to alter or postpone the project until you can. It takes guts, he says, but the issue is simple: "Do they want projects done, or do they just expect miracles to happen?"

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