Team leaderSo…  you’ve been asked to lead a team on an important project.  This is both good news and bad news!  The bad:  you’ll have to temporarily suspend work on your elaborate plan to impress Heidi Klum by controlling the weather in North America.  Damn it!  Hold on though, there’s  good news:  those merry pranksters you work for have entrusted you with a key project:  this is your chance to wow them with something other than your natty attire and commanding knowledge of 50 Cent lyrics.  (What were they thinking?!?)

One of the biggest challenges project leaders have always faced is getting results from a group of people who do not directly report to them.  Coupled with the fact that today many of us operate in lean environments (this is code for “the organization has been downsized”), the job of the project or team leader has gotten even tougher.

Given all this, how do you keep your team on task and accountable for their individual contributions and results?    I will assume that the team has collectively developed a timeline and in so doing has estimated how much time will be required to complete each key task.  This should be a collective endeavor, and there should be a healthy exchange between team members during this process.  And by “healthy exchange” I mean you should beat the crap out of any sandbaggers (or wild optimists) on the team.  (I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly.)

If Bob from Cost Accounting suggests it’ll take him 3 weeks to provide a costed Bill of Materials for the Super Colossal Fabuticulator and you know that that can’t possibly take more than, say, 15 minutes, you all might want to challenge him a bit.  If you don’t, you’re going to be stuck with an absurd timeline that will be challenged – most likely by the people who asked you to lead the project.  Or, another option:   just accept what everyone says, face reality and admit that President Obama will be in office when the project is completed.  And I am referring to Malia Obama.

Develop a reasonable timeline with an appropriate amount of stretch and risk, and do it collectively.

So…  you have a good timeline, buy-in from team members and your management, and the project is off and running.  And then a funny thing happens.  Pierre in Marketing doesn’t quite have his draft launch plan done on time, and needs another week.  Jody from Finance suddenly announces that the custom report she’s developing will require 3 weeks, not 2  …and so on.  Suddenly your timeline and the project deliverables are at risk.

Is there any way to avoid this? Sadly, no.  Thanks for reading!  Awww, just kidding.  There’s no absolute certainty you can keep your team on task, consistently hitting its deadlines and milestones, but I’ve used variations of the same tool for 25+ years with remarkable results.  In brief:

  • Develop a plan as described above
  • Make it clear that you and your fellow team members expect everyone to deliver
  • Be clear that you’ll regularly report the team’s progress to the team sponsor or champion and everyone’s supervisor or VP – “just so there are NO surprises”
  • And then do just that

The third bullet point above is key.  It’s amazing how much people do not want to be the weak performer on the teamOne effective way to track progress and flag issues is to utilize a simple Excel worksheet that instantly conveys what tasks are complete, which are in process, and which are late. If you click on this image you’ll see a close-up view along with a legend which explains the color coding:

Project Management Template - Tasks

I send this out after each team meeting along with any relevant meeting notes.  It always goes out the day of the meeting, no exceptions.  In addition, late in each week I send out a brief email that identifies two types of events:

  • Tasks with start dates during the current week (i.e., you ought to be working on these things now)
  • Tasks with due dates for the following week  (these ought to be complete or nearing completion)

This email notice is sent to the team (set up a distribution list in your email program) and the project sponsor and everyone’s supervisor or VP, whichever is relevant. Rememberno surprises.  Composing and sending this email takes about 2-3 minutes.

A word about your tasks:  do everything humanly possible to hit your own due dates.  You need to set a good example for the team.

The spreadsheet shown above becomes the focal point of each meeting.  Completed tasks are ignored.  Tasks in process are reviewed quickly and the person responsible for the task gives a quick update.  Tasks that are late – and there shouldn’t be many – are covered in greater detail.  The individual responsible should detail her/his recovery plan.

If using a tool like this – in a highly public manner – strikes you as overkill or rude, let’s be clear:  you were not asked to lead the project because you’re a nice guy or gal.  You were asked because your management believes you can deliver the project.  On time, on cost, and with the anticipated performance.

But let’s be clear:   you can use this tool without engaging in assholian behavior; instead, you can – and should – use humor, grace, diplomacy and your excellent people skills in managing your team.

You just need to have a very clear, very explicit understanding among the team members that they’ve helped develop the timeline, they’ve committed to the dates, and you all expect one another to deliver.  With this spreadsheet, you are merely reporting the team’s progress.

This spreadsheet is available on the FREE Downloads page.  If you manage projects, I hope you’ll consider giving it a try.  Who knows?  Maybe even Heidi will be impressed!

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1 Comment on How to hold your project team members accountable

  1. Inspired says:

    Your post on preparing the timeline inspired me greatly. I must comment that your post is full of exaggeration- but it’s just so brilliantly written too! It was highly surprising to find myself in a fit of the giggles when I was supposed to read something that’s long and boring. keep up the good work! :)

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