What’s the best project team you’ve ever worked in? Not the best project, but the best project team? Why was it so good? What made it special? Most of us get to work on project teams at some point, very often with people we’ve never met or worked with before. In fact, some of us only ever work in this way. But what makes some project teams soar with creativity, energy and shared commitment while others never really ‘click’? Why do some teams just ‘feel’ right from day one? No doubt the leader plays a big part, but come on, we can’t put everything at the door of the project lead. We all want to be part of something good and projects give us the opportunity to do just that – to work with others towards a common goal, to bask in the satisfaction of a job well done. It helps to get off to a good start – to set the tone at the beginning – but even a mis-firing team can be re-energized. So here are ten creative ways to put that little bit of ‘oomph’ into your project.
1. Make your team’s mission visible. The team is more likely to be focused and motivated if they can see tangible representations of the project objectives around them. A great way to do this is to create an inspiration board. Put aside space in the project office as an area where team members can share ideas, inspirations and artefacts that will get them and the rest of the team fired up. This doesn’t (necessarily) mean Gantt charts and project documents. Try to be much more creative than that. Go for cuttings, photographs, newspaper headlines, postcards, drawings, anything that has a meaning related to what the project is about. For instance, if the project is about ‘delivering service excellence’, ask the team to bring something in that they feel represents ‘excellence’. It could be a picture of Roger Federer or a Ferrari. Think laterally. Try to encourage the team to be expressive, colourful and have some fun with it. These things really do have a positive psychological impact on performance and behaviour,
2. Write a press release. Get the team or each workstream to write a press release about their part of the project, but ask them to date the release two or three years in the future, when the project has finished. This forces them to forward wind and imagine looking back at the project. Encourage them to imagine it’s been a great success and everyone delivered everything they set out to do. What would the press release read like then? When complete, look at the words the team has used and how they have captured what success means. Pin the press releases up on the inspiration board.
3. Turn the project into an adventure. This brings the art of storytelling into an office project. Step back from the nitty gritty of the project, strip out all of the detail and think of a metaphor for the change/project. What, when all is said and done, is this project all about – making something better, introducing something new, fixing a problem, finding a new world, learning new skills? Boil it down and then ask the team to turn it into a story, with a title, characters, heroes, villains, obstacles, romance (?), locations etc. Keep the metaphor running through the project, just within the team only, so everyone involved feels part of it. Use the inspiration board to bring it to life.
4. Give workstreams decent names. I always find workstream names to be so dull and uninspiring. Get the team to think of titles for the workstreams that generate some excitement, maybe linked to the story idea above. Use imagery, colour and icons to give some character to the team names, a bit like you get in sports and call centres. Use it to build a competitive element into the project and help colleagues in other teams to understand more about what each workstream does. Build identity and get people wanting to belong.
5. Do something together. Even the best and most productive project teams can run out of fizz, so keep injecting some freshness into proceedings by bringing the team together. It may be work-related or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter but whatever it is, make it engaging and creative. Step away from the office every now and again. Take a problem up a hill, meet over a picnic or chill out down the pub and have a game of darts (in workstream teams of course!). Use this time to get to know the people behind the job titles, those people who are helping you make this project a success.
6. Make project meetings fun. When you ask people about the best team they ever worked in, they will often talk about the characters in the team, fun activities or how the individuals “just clicked” with each other. Projects can be tough, especially if they’re not going well, so try to keep the team relaxed and motivated with some light-hearted team building. I know of a project manager who likened every team member to a character from the Muppets. When they came in for a meeting he had each person’s character stuck to the back of their chair. I worked on a project last year in which the PM opened team meetings by playing clips of old Peter Sellers films from You Tube to lighten the mood before a heavy discussion. These little things work. They make work fun. Instead of spending your next team meeting going round the room for individual workstream updates, ask the leaders to present their update in the form of an infographic or photo montage. Try it.
7. Plan in 3D. Most project plans are on Gantt charts, MS Project, PowerPoint right? Fair enough, but try planning in 3D. Think of how they use models in architecture and construction to visualise the ‘end state’. Think how the military plans its engagements, with those huge table top maps and model representations of forces moved like chess pieces. Think how the local church roof fundraising committee uses giant thermometers to show money raised so far. Be creative and turn your plan, milestone, dependencies, risks, workstreams, progress etc into practical three dimensional models to bring your journey alive. In fact, create it as a journey, like a model railway, with stopping points, obstacles and journey times. Again, be creative. Bring in ideas from other worlds. Make it fun and engaging.
8. Spring some surprises It’s easy to get very introspective when working on a big project. Everyone’s looking inwards and the topic of conversation at project meetings is invariably about things that aren’t going to plan. It can become negative and it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. What’s more, morale can drop quickly. People get tired, irritable and unproductive. So that’s when someone in the team (not always the PM) needs to break the pattern and do something out of the blue. It may be as simple as cakes all-round in the office or as drastic as whisking the team away for an impromptu morale boosting activity. I know a PM who uses any old excuse to celebrate an event or theme her communications to the team – chocolate on Valentine’s Day, Shakespearian style memos on midsummer’s day, fluffy rabbits at Easter, surprise gifts at Christmas, a film quiz in Oscars week, sporting metaphors in the Olympics etc. Great creativity which really energises teams.
9. Celebrate the heroes. Forget formal recognition schemes (well, put them to one side for a minute) and think about more creative ways to celebrate achievements in your project. Make a big play of good work done well. Call out the ‘heroes’ and the hardworking back-office grunters who very rarely get the credit they deserve. Have a Heroes’ Wall in the project office and stick photos up of the good performers in the last week. Make a point of recognising contributions at team meetings and highlighting individual achievements that have helped the project inch nearer a successful conclusion. But do it in a creative way.
10. Encourage creativity. We all know the old cliché that most projects fail. It’s well documented that the vast majority of business change projects fail to deliver on at least one of their objectives, and the reasons why projects fail are too many and varied to go into here. But often they just run out of steam. They lack momentum and drive. Projects rarely go to plan, we know that, but they can be rescued under the right conditions – good leadership, realistic objectives, a fired-up team etc. The best projects have a good ‘culture’ – a can-do ethos and a great sense of common purpose. They also encourage creativity. So if you want to energize your project, open the doors to new ideas and diversity. Create a culture of innovation. Put up whiteboards for colleagues to share ideas, create and use collaborative spaces, follow principles that encourage creativity and challenge. Give team members time and space for quiet reflection. Run creative workshops and create an inspiring environment for the team to work in. Creativity is key. Keep trying new things, challenge the status quo and generally just give it some welly. But always stay focused on the business outcome, of course.