Guiding Principles: How Great Project Teams Behave


If there’s one thing we all seem to share, it’s that at some point each of us has had a role on a project team that is assembled to create or implement something new. Indeed, project work is how things get done in business—how we innovate and transform.

Clear project plans with roles and responsibilities, accessible leaders, and achievable and measureable goals are a few of the essentials. But, achieving standards of quality and completing the work on time and within budget—the classic triple constraint of project management—is not enough. Projects must be executed in context. Sometimes that context can be very broad, and things may get tricky.

When people who come from different organizations and geographies with different skill sets, levels of commitment, and ways of doing business are banded together, projects can benefit enormously from a set of guiding principles.

The first steps (and maybe the hardest ones) are to: 1) accept that complications may arise, and 2) recognize that they can be difficult to resolve without a previously defined code of behavior.

In the next step, the core project team and its sponsors describe what success looks like. The conversation should address the consequences of the work to other related projects and initiatives. From there, the key is to identify the kinds of behaviors that are needed to assure success of that project in its context. Ultimately, the only objective truth about what makes a good set of guiding principles is that everyone involved must share a sense of ownership about the principles, and each individual is committed to aligning with them.

Recently, I was part of a large and complex project team comprised of business leaders, marketers, technologists, attorneys, accountants, and management consultants. The project was integral to the future of the enterprise we served (in our roles as both consultants and employees). While the multi-functional nature of the team made it potent, we recognized that the cultural diversity in the team could also present challenges. And, we knew that our project was just one of several equally critical work streams. To help assure we would achieve the kind of grand success to which we all aspired, we established a set of guiding principles. Here is a version of those.

  1. Maintain a line of sight to the big picture, and focus on what’s just ahead
    • Be opportunistic: what’s possible, what’s right, what’s practical
  2. Integrate work into the project management structure
    • Track and report activity to facilitate integration
  3. Be value add, not just additive
    • Harmonize with other teams and tools
  4. Help everyone maintain perspective about project impact across the organization
    • Provide perspective: what we know, what we know we don’t know, what we don’t know we don’t know
  5. Be consultative
    • Manage expectations of executional teams, senior teams and others
  6. Align with and build upon the work of other teams
    • Direct all work of this team through the project sponsor, as the interconnection with other parts of the organization
  7. Escalate often, according to plan

It’s a short list. That’s what makes it powerful. And, it characterizes the strategic posture of the team to its members and others.

Once you get the process going, your new guiding principles will become a source of strength, effectiveness and project efficiency because it’s in everyone’s interest to perform well. But, if you have a project and need some help getting a handle on planning, developing guiding principles, or just need a sounding board, let me know. I’m happy to be your guide.

By the way, if you look carefully at the picture above you’ll see my daughter in red at the center of the group!

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