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Making progress on team projects

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Making progress on team projects

Scott Miker

I’ve spent my whole career working on projects at many different organizations.  From Fortune 1000 companies to working with local artists, I’ve seen how projects can take many different paths.

One of the most important things that I have found is that progress is crucial.  But instead of focusing on making progress, most people get stuck trying for perfection

Sometimes this makes sense.  In some situations that are heavily compliance related or dictated by government regulation we have a very narrow range of options.  And some situations, such as lifesaving medical procedures, the room for error is very small. 

Because in all of these situations, the room for error is very small, this may slow the progress and become more attuned to the details.  But it still can’t derail progress. 

Years ago I obtained my MBA.  The concentration that I chose was leadership.  A major focus of the program was on team projects so I assumed that since we all had a leadership concentration as our focus everyone would be fighting for the role of leader within the various projects. 

But surprisingly this wasn’t the case.  The project would get assigned and almost every project followed one of two paths. 

One way the project started was that someone would jump into the leader role.  They would quickly email the group and ask everyone what they thought about the project and how we should tackle it.  But time after time I saw this lead to struggle.  They would ask questions like, “What does everyone think?”, “How should we do this project?”, and “What should our focus be?”.  But these were either ignored or team members would respond with, “It doesn’t matter to me, what does everyone else think?”

The second way a project would start would be that all the team members sat back hoping someone else would step up and do the majority of the hard work so that they can just coast through the class.  At first this surprised me.  Since we all were here to become better leaders, I assumed everyone would want to have exposure to situations where they could lead the team.  After a few weeks the deadline would be fast approaching and finally someone would say, “So what does everyone want to do for this project?”

But there is a third option that I started to implement.  It involved laying a framework and doing some difficult work up front.  But when done right this guides the team through the project, making progress the entire time.  It involves giving enough for the team to contribute in a meaningful way without expecting the team to have all of the answers. 

The way that I used this throughout my MBA experience as well as on hundreds of projects over the years is to really focus on progress.  I tend to hone in on whether or not we are moving forward and then use a few tactics to nudge the work along whenever we slow down or completely stop making progress. 

The reason that we become stuck early on is because we have too many options.  We can do anything.  Because of this ideas get tossed around - which may seem like progress but usually ends with more brainstorming sessions. 

So I learned to change the focus for the team from brainstorming everything to brainstorming certain factors.  Instead of starting the first meeting with “So what does everyone think?” I start with some general knowns.  I list the restrictions that we know are there.  This could be the rules, the goals of the project, the general requirements, the expected outcome etc. 

Then I tend to have several options for going forward that I present to the team.  The key here is that there is enough structure to give a path forward but enough flexibility for brainstorming or responding to suggestions from the group. 

An example of this could be presenting the roles needed in the project (someone to write the paper portion or how to split up the written portion, someone to do the PowerPoint, someone to present, etc).  But not give the topic for the paper.  The team can brainstorm that easily as long as everything else is in place. 

What I found was that this quickly led to members of the team stating what they are good at or what they prefer to work on.  It was surprising how quickly everyone grabbed a role that worked for them and how much this seemed to move things forward.   Then everyone had a focus throughout the project.  This helped move things along. 

And because I did enough work in the beginning to lay a foundation to go through the project, we didn’t have to stop and groupthink about everything.  We only had to think about changes or about aspects that were not yet defined. 

But this isn’t just beneficial for working on a project in an MBA program.  I use the same approach to large corporate projects, personal projects, and even fun projects. 

One example is when we have a group of friends deciding on where to go for dinner.  Everyone throws around responses but it still difficult to decide where to go.  So what we do is brainstorm 5-8 places that we would like to go.  Then we have each person eliminate one place from the list.  After a few short minutes the place that is left is good for everyone, otherwise someone would have eliminated it.

The systems and habits approach fits perfectly with this mindset.  Because the focus is on making progress, it helps to make small changes without worrying about every possible situation or obstacle.  We just start to move forward and make progress.  Using the systems and habits principles and focusing on progress over perfection, we can effectively lead teams to success.