Jeanne's work is specifically focused on new product development, but the problems she encounters in those teams resonate across project types. The insights she has on what it takes to make teams truly gel and do great things can be applied to teams and organizations of all sizes – from the leanest start-ups, to large global organizations that involve thousands of project team members.
We'll publish my conversation with Jeanne in 3 segments, starting with this one and continuing with our next two newsletters. Each segment covers a different aspect of what it takes to actually achieve a high-performing project team:
I'll have our guest introduce herself and give us some background on her career and the work she does now, as context for the questions I'll ask and advice she'll give us all.
Thanks, Cinda. I'm Jeanne Bradford, and I'm a principal and cofounder of TCGen. We're a boutique management consulting firm based in Silicon Valley. Our area of practice is in product development and product innovation. I'm not a career consultant, but have actually spent the majority of my career working in product development leadership roles for some of the industry's best technology companies, include Apple and Cisco.
I came to California to work for Apple Computer and was there for about ten years. One of the responsibilities I had at Apple was to lead a cross-functional team that re-architected the product development process (the Apple New Product Process - ANPP). We did that in order to ship MacIntosh computers faster and more cost effectively. This is where I gained an appreciation and passion for the power of best practices in the product development process.
We put that process in place for Apple, and it has evolved over the years, but they essentially use the same process today to ship the iPhone and the iPad.
My work since Apple, including the work I do now, is very much the same – helping companies implement best practices in their product development process, identifying and focusing specifically on the areas that have previously prevented them from achieving their product development goals. I typically work with mid-sized to large companies that are either not scaling fast enough for success, or on the other end of the spectrum, large companies that are being choked by their current product development process. I help them unravel and put in more appropriate processes – we call them "just right" processes. Not too much process, not too little process, but just right, to be as flexible and innovative as possible.
Processes are really nothing more than a collection of tools, techniques, and communication used at logical times during a project. The process provides a logical framework, and the tools and techniques provide a concrete way to put new practices into place and make the team's goals achievable. And then PMs and team members need to communicate, and also develop certain skills to effectively use the tools.
Thanks for that background. Let's dive in!
I'd like to start by talking first about what a high-performing team actually is, in your view.
Here's what I believe a high-performing team looks like:
Then, here are the acid tests of whether you are truly achieving a high-performing team:
Great. Now let's explore what it takes to actually achieve that ideal.
Let me start by asking about common problems with actually making project teams WORK. People say things like, "Yes, we know that we should have strong teams, made up of cross-functional people, and we've tried that. But we hit so many issues!"
For example, people on their so-called teams are still really operating within functional silos. So even if the team members are willing to play a new cross-functional team role to make product development go better, that doesn't mean that the functional schedules, priorities, or attitudes are aligned such that they can really achieve a strong cross-functional core team.
That's when PMs and teams can start to feel helpless pretty quickly – especially when many of the project problems relate to scarce resources, or other factors they feel THEY cannot control, problems that will instead require some action or change by Management. In short, they feel they can't really achieve high-performing teams at all.
In your view, CAN meaningful team performance improvements happen "from the bottom up?"
Yes, which I'll discuss.
But - to achieve the promise of cross-functional Core Teams, there must be a WILL to have strong core teams, at the TOP - across the management team. It does take an alignment in the management team around the purpose, roles and responsibilities, and authority of a Core Team, and then continued follow-through by the functions to let the team do its job.
But that doesn't mean it ALL comes from the top. In fact, achieving great Core Teams requires very strong, influential individual project managers. And what I mean by that is not that they just have good core project management skills, in terms of schedule development and risk mitigation. They also must have excellent soft skills and be able to influence in a major way in a challenging environment.
For example, to enable a strong Core Team – one that really gels and excels on their project – the Core Team Leader must be savvy enough to see and speak up when there is misalignment. They have to recognize when there's more functional allegiance than there is product or customer allegiance. And then they have to have the skills, the savvy, and the fortitude to talk to the leadership team about that, with specific recommendations on what must change and how.
So let's continue to talk about this "bottom up" aspect of achieving strong, high-performing teams. (We'll come back to the "top down" aspect in our next segment in two weeks.)
What else can and should the project manager, the Core Team Leader, do to help achieve a high-performing team?
Well, again, I do believe that they need to demonstrate strong "technical" project management skills in terms of blocking and tackling – know how to construct a schedule, understand critical path, understand how to mitigate risk, how to communicate well. These skills are a basic part of PM competence, of course, and an important part of their credibility with their team and with Management.
But it's absolutely critical that they have strong relationship and influence skills.
Here's one important example of having influence: They need to be able to compel people to come to team meetings, even though those people have a lot of work to do.
Very interesting – you just brought up meetings as an item at the top of your list of important influence items! Why did you specifically single out meetings, and achieving team meeting attendance, as an important relationship skill?
It's simple. Team meetings are a quick and potent indicator of how efficient and skilled a team is. The project manager sets the tone for the entire team's work together through those team meetings! It's the way this matrixed group of people gets together regularly to do critical integration and decision-making for the project. That cross-functional time together is critical.
In this case, the ultimate influence at work is both direct and indirect. How those meetings go reflects directly on the project manager. And think about it, one of the easiest ways to get people to come to a meeting is to make sure that you make it the best use of their time. So by running a worthwhile Core Team meeting, I've gained credibility and also influenced team members to keep attending.
Not very many people realize this, think about their team meetings that way. But what I tell people is that if you're going to run a meeting and you expect people to give you an hour of their time, you want them to walk out of the room thinking "Wow, that was a great use of my time. I'm really glad that I came. That was really productive."
Not just so-so, but "Wow, that was really worth it."
"That was a great use of my time." That's what gets them to come back to the next one.
The tone of every meeting also sets a bar for the whole team. It establishes that there is a sense of urgency around productivity itself. It's ironic, because most organizations we work with are under a lot of stress, trying to deliver products on an accelerated timeframe – but then they tolerate unproductive meetings.
Mastery of meeting management can have a huge positive impact on the Core Team Leader's credibility, and by extension their relationships and influence. Strong meetings with the right tone of productivity and urgency, and time spent on truly important subjects, will also absolutely increase the performance of your team.
So what we've just essentially said is that one of THE key ways a project manager can help achieve high-performing teams is to use a mix of soft skills and hard skills to achieve incredibly productive Core Team meetings – and they'll gain additional influence by doing so. Do I have that right?
The influence subject reminds me of the "thousand cups of coffee" metaphor from the government. Have you ever heard that one?
When I did a multi-agency program a few years ago, there were so many people involved – six different agencies in a 20-year program. A common comment I heard was "Well, that issue's going to take a thousand cups of coffee to resolve." Meaning they totally got that it would take a lot of communication and influence work, to work through and resolve the issue.
Oh, yeah. There you go.
But I don't think that's necessarily commonly understood. It seems like as project management has become more of a defined profession, with associated certifications, the job has gotten equated much more with the mechanics, the blocking and tackling. "As long as I do schedules and actions and risk lists and all these other processes, that's my job. What do you mean I might have to go talk to all these individual engineers? How the heck would I have time to do that?" And yet, that "extra communication" is exactly what is required many times.
A colleague of mine in biotech was telling me that for clinical trials, she has specific relationship strategies with all the clinical research organizations and the coordinators of the data coming in from clinical trials. She told me how much time she spends on the phone each week just making sure that she is at the top of each person's priority list, so that they don't put her work down behind somebody else's!
Right. And so a couple of comments on that: you probably don't have to go talk to everyone. Or you could maybe have one conversation with everyone to emphasize critical priorities.
But you do have to make sure that you don't allow those people – the ones who don't have the same sense of urgency that you do – to stand in the way of your success. You really need to zero in on what's hopefully a small number of people – the ones you're not sure you can count on to deliver when they said, to do what it takes to ensure they're going to deliver, or to make sure that any lateness on their part will NOT delay the project.
For example, I worked at a startup that had a brilliant architect. Because the company was so small, they also had him writing code and fixing bugs. But in his heart and soul he's an architect, a creator. So he's never comfortable feeling "done" with this product. And he doesn't have business acumen, so he doesn't really understand that we need to ship the product to make money so that we can pay him next month.
What he sees instead is "I had a great idea last night. It's just a couple lines of code. " And so from a program management standpoint, I had to make sure that he was never on a critical path. You could barely keep him from going in and making changes when the code was supposed to be locked down. You absolutely couldn't have him on the critical path of delivering a feature or a bug - because he would be done when he's done, and he'd let you know when he's done, and no sooner. So that's where I learned early in my career that architects can't be on your critical path!
These are the kind of soft skills that I see as being so critical – judgment calls and proactivity around the people issues. With a hundred things that any project manager has to do in a given day, how do you spend your precious time?
Do you send out the team meeting notes, or do you make sure that this guy's not on the critical path?
Do you want to explain to the VP why you didn't publish the meeting notes, or do you want to go explain that you slipped the schedule because the architect wasn't done fixing bugs?
So let me continue by tying all this back to making improvements and achieving high-performing teams from the bottom up. The point I'm making is that the project manager, the Core Team Leader, absolutely has the ability and responsibility to help the team achieve its best performance.
They must use their time well and take action at several levels:
I'm not saying it will be easy. As we noted before, in the project management world, an extremely broad range of skills gets labeled as "project management" – from the more administrative work (tracking down actions, constructing a schedule), to also being a thought leader and motivator of people and a business leader and an influencer.
The fact remains that if you want to realize the promise of the Core Team approach, it's critical for PMs and their managers to understand that the project manager role is in NO WAY just about the mechanics of project management. But not every company recognizes the broader list as part of the project manager's role. So depending on what company you work for and how they define the role, it will be easier, or harder, for the project manager to fulfill all the contributions they can make to achieving a high-performing teams.
But that shouldn't stop project managers from trying. They have a critical role in this! It may take time, and it will take influence, but it can be done.
The subject of that wide range of project management skills – including the often-more-difficult soft skills – brings up an interesting question. Are such project LEADERS born, or can they be made? Have you been in situations where project managers were not strong to start, but you saw them learn and develop and grow?
Yes. How challenging it will be for them depends on where exactly they are not yet strong. We've talked a lot about influence today, and I do think that the secret sauce is all the soft skills related to influencing – including the courage to speak up and take a stand. Having enough gumption to walk into an executive review and tell them the truth about what's going on. And yes, maybe getting "shot" as the messenger sometimes, but still taking that stand.
I think it's much easier (and less stressful) to learn the blocking and tackling of project management. Here are some tools to construct a schedule. Here are some tools to do a thoughtful risk assessment and mitigation. But it's the soft skills that really ensure that the project moves forward every day.
So you DO believe that people can learn those soft skills and the confidence (and courage) to use them?
I do. I think it's a different type of learning. Project management blocking and tackling is more book learning. But I think that you can gain the emotional maturity and gain the soft skills through coaching, and by finding people who do it well, and observing them and talking with them about how they do it.
(But of course the first step is understanding how important this is to your overall short and long-term success as a project manager.)
You mentioned coaching. I'm a big sports nut, and this is the place where I really appreciate how sports teams practice, with constant coaching.
Sometimes, I wish we would sit back and say, "That meeting I'm about to have, that's the performance, people. That's our equivalent of "the game." Let's spend a few hours actually getting ready for that critical meeting, actually learning and practicing some influence skills, presentation skills, whatever it's going to take to have the credibility we need, and make that meeting go well and get the decisions we need "
And that preparation will be worth it. As we discussed earlier, meetings ARE a critical aspect of strong, high-performing Core Teams. No one will ever get that hour of their busy lives back. For the project manager, it IS something of a performance! And as a project manager, especially if you're a new project manager in an organization, you really don't get much latitude. If you have one or two inefficient meetings that are just a waste of people's time, then you're going to have a hard time convincing them that you actually can lead them in this project.
So you're going beyond the earlier statement about good meetings building credibility. You're saying that "poor meeting performance" bleeds over into everyone's impression of your leadership abilities as a whole – can actually make people think you will NOT be able to lead the project. This is definitely not "just a meeting thing."
YES! They might never say those words, but I mean, if you can't compel them to take an hour out of their week for supposedly critical Core Team work together, and you can't make that a great, productive use of everyone's time, then there's probably some reflection to do.
[Laughter] That's good.
Sound too harsh?
No, it sounds like what we all need to hear sometimes. I think teams fall into this mentality of "Well, we'll just do the best we can." All these factors are out of our control, including everyone being "too busy" to come to a regular team meeting. I do see many instances where this whole concept of "we're all too busy and we'll all spread too thin" is treated as immutable and insurmountable.
PMs think they really can't even expect to get that hour of people's time each week. They also say things like "I can't even get people to talk about risks on the project; they say they don't have an hour to talk about risks." We're talking about people having NO TIME for things that are key responsibilities of a team – big goals of having a team in the first place!
Well, like with team meetings we have to be careful to not let critical project items get dropped. The project manager has to use influence and relationships to get attention spent on important areas.
But your example (no time to think about risks) is one where savvy project managers are flexible in how they work with their time-strapped people – in this case, try an alternative way to engage the team around risks, to use their scarce time wisely. (This, by the way, is another way to demonstrate leadership!).
Say I'm the program manager and we need to get our heads around project risk, but time is an issue. Well, I wouldn't invite people into the room with a blank piece of paper and ask "What do you think the risks are?" and get risks by brainstorming, taking a lot of their time to build a list from a scratch. Instead, I'd spend 30 minutes or an hour of MY time on my own, and map out a draft of what risks I see.
Then I can get people together and say "I want you to take ten minutes to read this and tear it apart. What's right? What's wrong? What's off the charts, and what am I missing?" We take this draft work product and together make it something that reflects our collective thinking about where we're going to go off the rails on this project – but using much less of their precious time. Then we can also identify the worst risks and focus their time on how to mitigate against those.
Good advice. Showing leadership on the "process side," if you will.
Yes. But let's be really clear here too, about opportunities for becoming that strong project leader. Meetings aren't the only important area for project manager growth, of course.
You can learn how to ask most impactfully for something in a one-on-one conversation with an executive. You can learn new skills that will help you better handle conflicts in the team (especially if you're a conflict-avoider, as many people are). You can learn how to understand and communicate better with people you may have labeled as difficult to get cooperation from. And you can certainly learn more from experienced people on the "mechanical" side too, to help the team come up with realistic schedules and make tough trade-offs, for example (which is way more than just operating a scheduling tool.)
So you are resoundingly saying that this strong core team LEADERs are NOT just "born", somehow naturally this way. That project managers can definitely grow into fulfilling this strong role.
Yes. And that realization, and the attitude of being willing to learn and work at it, are key.
There are so many ways in which a project manager can show leadership with their teams. And I like that word because it implies an attitude of responsibility-taking and proactivity, not victimhood, even though there are challenges.
Leading a Core Team on challenging projects is not easy. But we can do more than we think to personally impact how productive and high-performing our team is and can become.
Finally, yes, we WILL need alignment at the top, support for the Core Team approach at the top, across the management team. But we need to treat that as a separate subject, and not as a reason to not do everything we can "from the bottom up".
And that's a great place to end our first segment of this interview.
In our next installment, coming out in two weeks in our next newsletter, Jeanne and I will talk about what DOES have to happen at the top, at the leadership team level, for the cross-functional Core Team approach to fully work – to truly make high-performing project teams a consistent reality.
Until then, thanks for reading everyone, and look out for our next installment!
All the best, Cinda and Jeanne
Questions or comments so far? You can get in touch with Jeanne at email@example.com.
Jeanne Bradford is the co-author of "Innovate Products Faster: Graphical Tools for Accelerating Product Development". She has led global organizations to deliver compelling products and technologies for some of the industries leading companies, including Apple, Cisco and Texas Instruments. While at Apple, Jeanne re-architected Apple's new product development process (ANPP), building the core capability that allowed Apple to quickly deliver innovate new products to market.
As Principal of TCGen, Jeanne has been a trusted advisor to some of the industry's leading technology companies in the areas of product development, program management and operations.
Jeanne is a frequent industry speaker on the topics of product development best practices and the application of social technologies to the product innovation process. She earned a MBA from Santa Clara University and a BA in mathematics from the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO.
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