Successful Information Technology projects may depend on using a specific technology, but when projects require more than one person to complete they also require teamwork. This article will provide a vision of a high-performance team and guidelines every project leader can follow to improve team performance.
How big a difference does successful teamwork make? Read just the opening lines from one of the classic books written on IT management, first released in 1987 and updated again in 1999, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. Chapter One, entitled "Somewhere today, a project is failing," says it all: "Since the days when computers first came into common use, there must have been tens of thousands of accounts receivable programs written. There are probably a dozen or more accounts receivable projects underway as you read these words. And somewhere today, one of them is failing. Imagine that! A project requiring no real technical innovation is going down the tubes. An accounts receivable program is a wheel that's been reinvented so often that many veteran developers could stumble through such projects with their eyes closed. Yet these efforts sometimes still fail."1
DeMarco and Lister coined the term "peopleware" to analyze an often ignored dimension of Information Technology management: the human beings who develop and maintain the IT infrastructure. Routinely referred to as "our most important asset" and at other times merely as "resources," the individuals who make up IT project teams are more often than not the primary determining factor in a project success or failure.
Use your own experience to test this hypothesis. Think of the projects that stumbled along with interminable meetings that mercilessly beat the same immobile horse; the paralysis associated with consensus; designs where every ounce of innovation was sacrificed to the lowest common denominator among the stakeholders — finally leading to a completion that should have taken six weeks, but actually took a full year. Over and over again it becomes clear that our biggest obstacle often isn't technology — it is the way in which we work together.
A high-performance project team — a team that accomplishes much and enjoys the process — has many attributes, many more than can be fully addressed in a single article. In this article, the second in a four-part series on the art and science of project management, we will focus on the capabilities that enable a team to quickly, confidently, and consistently produce high-quality solutions to complex problems. I refer to such a team as a "Problem Solving Machine" and this article will reveal the three characteristics that you can develop to unleash the productivity of your own PSM. We'll finish with specific steps you can take to build one yourself.
The Problem Solving Machine
What is this machine and how does it relate to project management? Think of IT projects as essentially a series of problems to be solved. This is the difficult part of IT projects — solving problems — and this is the part that can slow our progress to an imperceptible crawl. What problems? Start with the business need for the project. That's usually a problem or an opportunity that we need to understand before the IT requirements can be clarified. Then comes the problem of defining the IT requirements, the problem of selecting the solution, the problems associated with detailed design, etc., — one long series of problems. To make matters worse, most of these problems require group solutions. The more abstract the problem and the larger the group of people that influence the decision, the less likely any progress will be made. This is why we need the PSM. The PSM is the kind of team that can take on problem after problem, working through each one in a steady, predictable manner, producing realistic decisions in a timely manner and, most amazingly of al