Eric Verzuh has become an expert at taking a project team’s “mojo,” as he calls it, and dissecting its components to understand how to repeat the practices that work and how to eliminate the ones that are getting in the way of gaining top performance among team members. Verzuh, who has gained a reputation for his practical ideas on how to get better at project management, is the president and founder of consulting and training company Versatile. He’s also the best-selling author of the The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, a Wiley book now in its third edition.
Recently, he spoke with MPUG on the topic of high-performance teams. In this interview, Verzuh lays out the phases of team development; explains how to handle a jerk on the team; and offers his thinking on what one characteristic all high performance teams share.
MPUG: What distinguishes a high-performance team from a team that’s doing a good job?
Eric Verzuh: In how they handle adversity. What distinguishes high-performance companies from companies that just do a good job is that they innovate and jump out in front. High performance companies rely on high performance teams to do this. They don’t have to be producing the next iPad to be innovative. You can have a school district, a local county utility district, facing a tough project. Those teams face adversity.
Here’s the other thing that we need to understand about project teams. Project teams come together to solve problems. They don’t come together to do business as usual. The project is about doing something that’s new. That’s what a high performance team does well: it solves problems with so much skill that it energizes the team. It stays strong in the face of adversity. The people on the teams are willing to stick with it both for the good of the cause but also because they care about the other people on the team.
MPUG: Projects tend to bring people together for a specified duration, and there’s often the assumption that the participants come in with their own skill sets. They do their jobs, and they move on. Is it necessary to impose the expectation that we need high performance out of this team too?
There’s absolutely no question that a talented group of individuals will not accomplish as much as a cohesive group of talented individuals. Any talented team is made up of people with the right skills. If you don’t have the right skills, good luck. It will be a major factor. But a group of individuals who play as a bunch of talented individuals can be beat by the talented individuals that play as a team.
Why did we bring this group of people together Because we need them to work together. They don’t just execute. They have to sit down and figure out what the problem is and come up with a solution. That group of diverse skill sets and so forth has to collaborate.
MPUG: It sounds like communication is a big deal.
I would stress on any project team that the number one communication skill is the ability to listen. I would challenge anybody to rate their team’s communication quality on one factor alone: how well they listen to one another. If they can say to you, “When we sit down together, my number one objective is to make sure I absolutely understand every other person’s point of view,” every other communication issue would be dealt with.
MPUG: Going into a new project, you bring these people together. Do you have to have a boss or manager, a team leader?
In 1965 a psychologist named Bruce Tuckman came up with something he called the stages of team development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. Every project goes through common phases.
“Forming” refers to the team as it initially comes together. Envision yourself coming together with a bunch of people you don’t work with regularly. You’re part of a new team. How do you feel right now? You’ve probably got a lot of questions. Are you going to challenge my leadership right now? Probably not. You’re optimistic. This is going to be interesting. You’re reluctant to challenge. You’re being super polite.
The “Storming” phase is when somebody finally says, “Look, this is a bunch of [bologna], and there’s nothing happening here.” Or “I don’t know why we have this project going on in the first place. The real problem is…” The storming phase is when people have to jump in or they quit. If they’re going to jump in, they have to figure out why this works for them. You end up with a bunch of pushback. You have friction between team members who haven’t figured out how to get along.
In the “Norming” phase people have figured that out. They’re doing a good job. They know how to get their jobs done. They know what the rules are. They play well together. But they’re not high performing yet. In the face of adversity, they don’t know how to rise above it. They still rely on the leader to lead them through it.
The “Performing” team has learned the skills of resilience, of self planning, of self recovery. They’re the ones who allow the leader to change the way the leader leads. The leader then becomes the enabler — the one who makes sure that these people have what they need but doesn’t really have to tell them where to go. The team is telling itself where to go. It’s not a leaderless team. It’s the team itself that has gained the ability to visualize its direction, to plan, to recover from challenges, to be mature. That’s what a high performance team has.
So the first phases — forming, storming, and norming — absolutely need a leader. The performing team is capable of rotational leadership within it. Every team needs a leader. If nobody steps in to fill the leadership role, then the team will flounder. The leadership role is to provide structure and guidelines for the team. It’s not to tell everybody how to do their job. It’s to provide a framework for people to collaborate.
MPUG: Besides having the leadership role shift among its members, how do you know you’ve reached that point of having a high performance team?
They do a lot of little things well. They run meetings well. They listen to each other well. They deal with conflict. They make decisions rapidly. The team deals with adversity and change with ease. It’s not without effort, but it’s not an emotional event.
MPUG: Say that the team gets a new member who turns out to be a jerk — dismissive, glory seeking. How does the high performing team respond?
It’s still the leader’s job to deal with that person. That’s one of the leader’s jobs that should not be delegated. I think people like to say that peer pressure is the most powerful tool that you have to deal with people like that. If you get to the point where the team has to deal with that, that means the manager’s not doing his or her job.
The high performance team recognizes this disruptive force, but they have some pretty good habits in place, so they continue to move forward. They acknowledge it, but they don’t let it be as disruptive as it could be. And they look to the leader to deal with it, to call somebody on the carpet and say, “These are the behaviors we expect on our team. This is the way we act. This is what we need you to do.”
If you get a jerk who can’t adjust his or her behaviors, that jerk will ultimately be disruptive. They’ll cost everybody else more in productivity than they contribute.
MPUG: You mentioned that a high performance team is fast at making decisions. What’s its approach?
One of the skill sets that a high performance team has is its ability to shift its decision style. There are days when they say this is a consensus decision. Other times it’s a majority rules decision. They understand there are different strengths and weaknesses to different approaches. Sometimes they expect the boss to make the call. We call that the autocratic style. The team understands that and is willing to flex with that. That’s a key leadership attribute, which is to be able to make sure the entire team is aware of how we’re making this decision, why we’re taking this approach, and that people know how to do it.
For example, everybody knows how to do a majority vote. But consensus is more challenging. What we don’t want to end up with is a team that feels consensus-bound — meaning we seem paralyzed by our need for consensus. That’s not effective. Consensus isn’t unanimity, and a high performance team understands that. They’re willing to move on when there isn’t a unanimous direction. But because they’ve used the consensus process, the team can continue to stick with the overall direction.
MPUG: Here’s a question that everybody will want to know. To be part of a great team, do you have to go away and hold an offsite retreat and do exercises together to get the team off the ground?
Here’s the funny thing. Teams bond to two things. They bond to goals and to people. The only reason I would do an offsite is to clarify the goals and the plan. Sometimes they need to get away from all the noise in their lives to be clear about that. So if you take me to an offsite, great. Make sure the offsite is about goals and plans. Make sure that if there are issues, those get space for discussion — such as how we as members of the team will communicate.
The other thing I’d encourage people to do is bring a picture of your family. Talk about who you really are. The fact is that is if I’m going to bond to you, it’s because you’re a person, not because you’re the PM, the DBA, the boss.
To learn more about Versatile Company, visit versatilecompany.com. To learn more about Eric Verzuh’s latest book, The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, visit the Wiley site.