Slaying The Beast Of Slow Project Cycle Times – It’s All About The Interaction

People are often skeptical that simply changing how people interact — how they assign tasks, discuss issues, make decisions, and so on — can really have much of a business impact. Although the benefits of better interaction are sometimes hard to quantify, one of the most common business results that almost every team sees when it starts really optimizing all its people resources is in time saved; and time IS money. Here’s a case in point:

At one of our clients, a large US based technology company, the senior leadership were very frustrated by the length of project cycle times and identified this as a major area for improvement. Thad, a seasoned manager, was named the “Cycle Time Reduction” project leader and he shared his initial findings with us: a significant percentage of their process improvement projects were taking well over a year to complete against the expectation of 3 to 6 months.

Although the usual suspects — scope creep, incomplete charters, lack of sponsor support, etc. — contributed to some problems, it was clear to Thad that the real root cause that was slowing the project teams down was the way they were working together. Some teams would take forever to analyze their data; others rushed to implement solutions that weren’t well thought out. Some team members confessed they rarely contributed to discussions; others complained about how contentious their discussions got.

To address these issues, Thad decided that in addition to their regular corporate project management training he would have the teams and their leaders complete a phased series of workshops on team interaction. He chose for one phase the Belbin® Team Roles approach and specifically the Team Mapping activity to develop a common language in the teams on how to collaborate and allow each member to understand and play to their strengths and weaknesses. This significantly improved how the teams started assigning roles, responsibilities and tasks.

Another phase focused on team operating processes: setting and aligning on goals and priorities, handling conflict, making decisions etc. This resulted in the teams establishing clear ground rules for better interaction, as well as an improved quality of discussion that helped get all ideas out on the table and increased buy in to the decisions made.

Beyond the initial training, Thad also ensured that there were ongoing reinforcement activities in place. Each project team scheduled periodic checks to review and improve the effectiveness of their interactions. Another very successful reinforcement activity was where all the project team leaders were formed into self-managed “Peer Teams” that became very effective forums for sharing successes or challenges and giving and receiving feedback.

Over the following year, not only did the average project cycle time drop to between 4 and 5 months (down from 12 or more), but several particularly slow projects were brought back on track and completed. When asked what made the difference, Thad credited the improved quality of interaction as the most significant success factor. When identifying the mix of collaborative skills present on the project teams, for example, each team had discovered hidden talents among its members. That allowed them to be far more deliberate about which people were in charge of different kinds of work, ranging from arranging meetings to championing creativity to making sure issues were resolved in time to make the deadlines.

Thad cites an example of where major efficiencies in meeting effectiveness were achieved in one team. In the initial interaction workshop, their collaborative Team Map showed that two team members thrived on data analysis. Thad set up separate pre-meetings where the two “analyzers” could pour through the data to their hearts’ content and then report on their findings during meetings. That helped the team avoid “analysis-paralysis.” In this way, the team was able to exploit these people’s interest in thorough, and very necessary, analysis without slowing down the team’s progress.

Being smart about how to optimize the talents of all the team members cut out a lot of wasted time, which both positively impacted the corporate results and created a norm for high performance teams.

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   About the Author

Max is the CEO of Belbin North America. He brings a depth of knowledge and experience from his career in general management and consulting in North America, England, Europe and Asia. Max has assisted CEOs and senior leaders within client organizations with the design and implementation of Interaction Planning processes, team based organizational development programs and Lean Six Sigma initiatives.