on November 18th, 2009

Dear Colleagues

You’ve just won a great contract but have to work in a team. Great, a technical challenge, but in groups! As engineering professionals this is not our best scenario. You may be outgoing and extroverted, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you have good team interaction skills. Engineering projects today, however, are increasingly complex and need a team to succeed.

Teams are brought together for specific projects, with some of the group often operating out of offices oceans apart. Once the project is completed the team breaks up. Web based collaborative techniques (such as web conferencing) are making the interface between different groups seamless – one of the new buzzwords is the ‘virtual team’. An outstanding engineering team, including skilled design engineers from around the world, has a higher probability of getting an innovative product, of a high quality, to the market quickly and successfully. It is rare today to see a single engineer developing a product and getting it to market on his/her own.

Operating in a team requires many soft skills such as consensus building and co-operation. The added difficulty is the successful use of these skills with men and women from different cultural backgrounds. This is challenging, but encourages diversity of thought. Some even believe that in the past, with the predominantly all white, male engineer, products were compromised through the lack of consideration of size, weight or strength differentials, for example in women and children.

Personally, I have been on many unsuccessful team projects. I now know that if one can harness the full power of the team effectively, from its inception, great results can be generated quickly. This sort of team becomes iconic – one that everyone talks about for years. Remember, you can’t simply tell everyone to work as a team and assume they will work happily and harmoniously together. Practices and objectives can differ quite significantly between different team members and cause problems. Cost overruns, poor quality products and services and significant delays often result when a project team crashes and burns.

A few suggested ways to make your engineering team really work well (please send me your suggestions so that I can publish them):

Ensure outstanding leadership of the team. This is surely the most important (and often neglected area). A traditional leader, perhaps, but someone who is also enthusiastic, ensures everyone in the team knows everyone else, glues everyone together, extracts every ounce of ability from the team members and gives an overall vision of where the team is heading. The leader should handle the frequent setbacks with a Churchillian resolve to keep “fighting on the beaches” until the job has reached completion. Mediation of the inevitable disputes is critical and manageable with a  wise, long term approach. Finally, some careful management is required to help the team navigate the trade-off between: as a team “you sink or swim together” against “every team member must be held accountable for their tasks”.

Drive deadlines hard. Team members must be clear about deadlines well before they occur and understand the importance of meeting these. Support should be provided in order to meet the deadlines.

Plan practically and hard. Detailed, practical plans are essential. These need to be understood and agreed upon by all team members and the resource availability clarified (watch out for writing software!).

Prioritize and compromise. All plans for the individual groups must fit together. Where problems with resources arise, priorities must be quickly revised and compromises made and clearly communicated.

Educate, train and keep improving. Team members (and the leader) should identify the strengths and weaknesses of everyone and where necessary provide mutual support. Identify the skills each person brings to the team and use these. Keep improving the team members’ know-how.

Communicate aggressively. Ensure everyone across the group is aware of the status of the project at all times – no matter how painful. Break down the silo mentality and ensure everyone communicates openly and often about how his/her particular part of the project is developing. Interaction between team members is vital to success.
Involve the client. Whether an internal company member or an outside party, the client must be constantly updated regarding the project progress – particularly when design compromises are made. Due to contractual issues, the client may be less than enthused with giving any tacit support, but listen carefully – this can be helpful.

Don’t take short cuts which compromise quality. Looking for improved ways of doing a job is positive. In the drive to finish the job quickly, however, short cuts may seriously undermine the quality or final product performance. It is best to do the hard yards.

Think of the other person before yourself.  Try and understand the difficulties and challenges the other team members have. Provide them with thoughtful and unsolicited support as in any good partnership. This should not be your intention, but the reverse is likely to occur if you need help.

Cut out the rot quickly. When things go wrong or a team member is not playing ball; face up to the particular problem and deal with it quickly. Without quick intervention problems often spread and can impact on everyone in the team. The leader needs to counsel the disaffected team member, get him/her back on track or moved to other activities.

Nurture your team. As both a leader and team member, look after your team. This can be done through education, support and training. Help with problem solving difficulties. And whilst avoiding the “jolly hockey sticks” mentality, build up the esprit de corps and morale with positive activities. A team is a delicate thing and needs constant attention.

Face up to contractual issues quickly. If there is a variation developing, because of some team development or a client requesting change; communicate this to everyone immediately. Watch for team irritation and provide counselling where necessary. Ensure the client is apprised of the costs or project changes as soon as possible.

Measure – measure – measure. Whether you are the leader or a team member, track your progress in the project in terms of costs and time and obviously the real progress of the product or project.

A positive team experience means that you will be in even better shape for the next team project.

Two great quotations this week:

“To succeed as a team is to hold all of the members accountable for their expertise.”
Mitchell Caplan, CEO, E*Trade Group Inc.

“Players win games, teams win championships.” Bill Taylor

Thanks to Catherine S. McGowan of the IEEE for her interesting article  which served as a timely inspiration for me.

Yours in engineering learning


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