How and Why You Need to Build Resilient Teams

One of the factors that has most helped project teams to function effectively during this pandemic is the capacity of the team to deliver results that matter. How resilient is your team? Periods of adversity can test your resilience. Let’s face it. Even in more normal times, project teams can get beaten down a lot. And we aren’t likely to enter our past normal any time soon. What can you do to build resilient teams?

As I’ve said for years, once you have a highly effective team it is a shame to disband it when a project is over. Why not reuse your most effective teams? And when a business or government forms a new team for a short-term project, whether in a crisis or during more normal times, does it make sense to spend time on team building? Clearly when there is a policy of trying to reuse project teams it makes sense.

Assess Ambiguities

Resilient project teams are able to quickly assess ambiguous situations. And project work frequently requires assessments when there is ambiguity. Time-blocking conversations (and putting that timeframe in your meeting agendas) is an excellent tool for helping teams do this. It’s not too different from giving yourself only an hour to solve a challenge. If you have a day, the activity will expand to take a day. Teams operating in a crisis when time is critical learn to quickly assess the situation. It’s easy to lapse back into dragging out these conversations after the crisis is over.

Assessment happens throughout a project, from the early days of trying to quickly understand scope, to project closure when you are trying to understand what worked and what didn’t, to the messy middle, when you need to process needed, or unneeded, change. The speed with which teams are able to quickly cut to the chase and know what needs to happen next will determine how effective a team is.

It’s easy to think that time-blocking will solve all of your problems when we hear about hospitals being built from the ground up in less than two weeks. But I don’t always think creativity can be rushed. Sometimes, the words just don’t flow from the pen. And no amount of time-blocking helps. So perhaps you need to take a break and play, or work on something else.

I believe time-blocking helps immensely when we are talking about team meetings — where the conversation needs to be focused. To help that, use these two questions to drive the conversation.

  1. What’s the problem? Get consensus on the problem first.
  2. What’s the end goal?

If you can’t agree on the problem and the goal, stop and bring in some expertise to help you. Without agreement on those two things, you’ll be wasting your time. And if you can’t get there quickly, you likely need to bring in some new voices. After you’ve answered those two questions, start identifying the how.

Building Blocks

Resilient teams have focused on building the structures that are needed during adversity. They have building blocks in place. It begins with developing a culture of safety and trust and creating defined project processes. And then, teams keep improving as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

It’s hard to imagine highly resilient teams making up the rules every time they start playing again. Imagine how much easier it is when everyone agrees on how to do a project. Imagine your team believing it knew how to start a project wisely and how to close a project like the pros. Suppose you had a system for identifying stakeholders, documenting roles and responsibilities, managing issues and risks, and learning from failures? I’ve written a blog series that outlines some processes that you might consider: Why You Need Project Management Processes and How to Create Them. After you start putting processes in place, then work on improving them.

Highly resilient teams seek opportunities to experiment, see what works, and fail quickly and cheaply. They are comfortable with letting the present inform the future. They don’t have to see the entire plan before they get started. These teams work in sprints with a clear understanding of what work they plan to deliver at the end. They look at lessons learned and actually learn enough that they don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again.

They have a process for breaking down their projects that leads to success and reduces the tendency to get stuck in the weeds, even on projects with massive amounts of detail. And they understand when change needs to be managed and when it’s just agility.

Project success really comes down to having teams that can deliver the results that the client wants, regularly and rapidly — until the project is finished. Accountability is key. Team members need to trust each other. But that doesn’t happen accidentally. Trust has to be earned. That is one reason that I prefer effective meetings over emailed updates. Effective meetings are a way to build trust and accountability.

Build teams that look out for each other and trust each other to do what they promise, or at least, the best they can. Life happens and sometimes, we all need a little grace. Managers need to protect the team from interruptions during sprints. That gives more focus to the effort. The result is more likely to be the delivery of positive results and early feedback from the client. When teams are battered by change on a daily basis it’s hard to make progress. If a project is moving fast, shorten your sprint length.

On resilient and effective teams, members feel safe disclosing problems and don’t feel the need to know everything or save the day. Anyone on the team can call an audible. But that circle of safety and trust requires work and attention. Let’s face it. Who really loves confessing or admitting failure? And yet, we all fail at times. And our teams fail at times. We’re human. That’s part of life. The key is to fail quickly and recognize it quickly. Learn and grow from it. Fail while the cost is low.

The best project managers know how to communicate effectively. They focus on their audience and what will work best with that group or person. No one style of communications works with everyone.

Communicate and Collaborate

To build resilient teams, the project manager must focus on communications and collaboration.

Collaboration is best achieved when everyone is excited about the story. So how can you tell the story of your project in a compelling way? Mark Mullaly, of Interthink Consulting, wrote a great blog on why we need to tell our project’s story. I’ve written for years about finding a clear and compelling vision early — as it will sustain your team during the challenging times.

The best project managers know how to communicate effectively. They focus on their audience and what will work best with that group or person. No one style of communications works with everyone. Some people aren’t readers. Other people don’t listen well. Some people think with their phones in their hand and others need pencil and paper.

  1. Are your teams able to experiment quickly and fail fast, while the cost is low?
  2. Are your teams delivering value to the client regularly and rapidly?
  3. Or do you need to build resilient teams?

I have an upcoming online course that teaches the Smart Projex methodology. It is limited to a small group of participants. Email me at suzanne@smartprojex.com if you’d like to be on the list when it launches. Please use a subject line of SPM Crash Course.

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Suzanne S. Davenport

Writes on project management, leadership, team building, and value delivery. Imagining work management in the future. Smartprojex.com