Don’t Let Project Teams Become Committees

Tom Peters

Industry Week and BusinessWeek recently highlighted multi-function, team-based product design and development. Fortune at the same time chronicled the attraction of self-managing work groups. Though I’ve long supported both ideas, it occurred to me that all three articles, and my own work, evade a critical issue: How do you keep such teams from becoming committees, with plenty of talk but little action? The following baker’s dozen guideposts, culled from observing successful teams at the likes of 3M and Apple, should help.

1. Goal/hard dates for key subsystem tests. Committees deliberate. Project teams do. Successful project teams are characterized by a clear goal—though the exact path is left unclear to induce creativity. Also, a half-dozen strict due dates for subsystem technical and market tests/experiments are set and adhered to religiously.

2. One hundred percent assignment. Members must be obsessed by the project. Forget “one-fifth obsession”: Key function members are assigned full-time for the project’s duration.

3. Key functions on board from the outset. Members from sales and distribution, marketing, finance, purchasing, operations/manufacturing, and design/engineering are all part of the project team from day one. Legal, personnel, and others provide full-time members for part of the project.

4. Members commit their function. With few exceptions, each member can commit his or her function to goals and due dates without second guessing from higher-ups. Top management establishes and enforces this “rule” from the start. If commitments of one’s home function (e.g., engineering) are conditional, then you’ve got a committee.

5. Team-member destiny in the hands of the project leaders. As a consultant at McKinsey & Company, life was a series of projects. The team leader might be from San Francisco (my home office) or Sydney, Australia; either way, his or her evaluation of my project performance made or broke my career. In general, then, the project boss rather than the functional boss evaluates team members. Otherwise, the project concept falls flat.

6. Career a string of projects. A career in the “project-minded company” is viewed as a string of multi-function tasks. How one does on these determines career prospects.

7. Live together. Project teams are sequestered, away from headquarters. Team camaraderie and commitment are to a surprising extent a function of hanging out together, isolated from one’s normal set of functional colleagues.

8. The social element. Spirit is all important: “We’re in it together.” “Mission impossible.” High spirits are not accidental. The challenge of the task per se is central. Beyond that, the successful team leader facilitates what psychologists call “bonding”—“signing up” ceremonies upon joining the team, frequent (at least monthly) milestone celebrations, humorous awards for successes and setbacks alike.

9. Outsiders allowed in. The team product-development notion is incomplete unless outsiders participate. Principle vendors, distributors, and “lead” (future test site) customers are full-time members. Outsiders not only contribute directly, but add authenticity and enhance the sense of distinctiveness and task commitment.

10. Self-contained systems. The engaged team has its own work stations, local area network, data base, etc. This may mean duplication; and if you go too far, excessive isolation creates integration problems with the rest of the firm down the pike. But you’re mainly trying to create an “it’s-up-to-us-and-we’ve-got-the-wherewithal” environment.

11. Pick their own leader. A champion blessed by management gets things underway. But successful project teams usually select—and shift—their own leaders, or even choose to be leaderless. We should expect (hope) that leadership changes over the course of the project, as one role and then another dominates a particular stage (engineering now, manufacturing later, distribution later still).

12. Spend/approve their own travel. Spending authority is not limitless, but the team feels that members can, for example, visit a key customer, dealer, competitor, etc., at the drop of a hat; or buy a new workstation or outfit a small lab on its own authority.

13. Project leadership skills honored in the company. No less than a wholesale reorientation of the firm is called for—from “vertical” (functional specialists dominate) to “horizontal” (multi-function task teams are the norm). Projects become “the way we get things done around here.” Horizontal project leadership therefore becomes the most cherished skill in the firm, rewarded by dollars and promotions. Good team-member skills for junior members are cherished and rewarded as well.

Few experts or practitioners disagree: To halve product development time and constantly improve quality and service, all companies must destroy the walls between functions and commit to perpetual “horizontal” improvement projects. But to become project focused requires more than appointing teams. Teams and task forces often have ended up adding to rather than subtracting from bureaucracy. Follow this advice and you’ll avoid the project-turned-committee trap.

(C) 1990 TPG Communications.

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