Project Teams Will Change Your Organization

The MadPipe team asked Daniel DiGriz about getting a team aligned around a project. Daniel is our resident Digital Ecologist® and routinely creates and leads teams consisting of internal and external professionals for clients. We brought out these points:

What’s the difference between a project team and an ordinary team in a company?

Routine and predictability are the hallmarks of traditional team employment. You check your emails, attend a regular meeting, and have some fairly fixed areas of responsibility that need to be performed repeatedly. There are a lot of talented people in these regular full-time positions; but they usually focus on doing something well and repeatedly. Like it or not, most CEOs complain about this entrenched conservatism. They call out the fact that this kind of engagement can become focused on maintenance more than growth, and it has a hard time shifting with company needs. A project team needs to be “on” and agile all the time. Agile is a buzzword in project management, but we mean it here in the general sense. A project team is focused a set of goals that will eventually move, and it’s responsible for outcomes, not simply consistent behaviors. It runs on defining and documenting deliverables (specific things it will deliver) and ETAs (due dates for each deliverable). It’s aggressive, not conservative. It is relentless forward moving.

Do those who’ve spent more time on traditional teams have trouble keeping up?

Project teams are a crucible. It’s the difference between building rockets every month, and building out whole new areas of space exploration. If you’ve done a lot of project work, you adapt quickly, because that’s what projects require. If you’ve done mostly “area of responsibility” work, where there’s a lot of routine – corporate sales, accounting, etc., you learn to stretch new muscles, and the adoption time is slower. Project teams can be daunting for people who’ve never seen every goal broken into milestones, and every milestone given an ETA and responsible person. This is how project teams achieve momentum and actually move the needle on marketing or in overhauling an area of the company. We’ve all been at a meeting where people had a lot of good ideas, but there was little action taken afterward to achieve them. A project team confirms the goal, defines what “done” looks like, and works backward from that—breaking it down into milestones and the steps to achieving those milestones. MOST importantly, it assigns those responsibilities to specific people with specific “by when” dates. Then it asks for accountability; it asks people whether and by when we can have the deliverables. It can be surprising at first, to new members that come from traditional teams where operations are more static. But these things are what actually generate action. We’ve all heard political candidates say things like “we need better schools and less crime”. A project team would confirm those as goals, break them down into key performance indicators (KPIs) and steps for achieving them, and then assign actual people to deliver on those steps. In that sense, project teams are the professional athletes of the “team” world. A project team is the business version of the Marines.

Can employees make good project team members?

Internal staff are essential to project teams. To make them effective, you have to clearly distinguish their roles. The most basic project team arrangement is to put together two types of experts: SMEs and PPEs. The internal subject matter experts (SMEs) are people who know the brand, operations, clientele, and the business experience better than anyone. They’re often, but not always, high ranking long-term employees in the organization. The professional practice experts (PPEs) might be a marketing strategist and accompanying marketing implementers who have made a business out of staying close to trends, latest algorithms, tested strategies, and emerging technologies. Their value is precisely in coming in from the outside. That combination of unparalleled knowledge of the company and industry space that took years to accrue, and external practice area expertise yields a critical mass.  It’s even better, because the SME contribution is undiluted by having to also have a deep and current understanding of marketing and digital strategy. The PPE/marketing side is unhampered by the conservatism that industry-specialization creates; instead of rehashing the same tired gimmicks all your competitors are doing, they bring a fresh perspective and new eyes from across multiple industry lines. The best way to gain project skills is work on a lot of different types of projects. I’d rather have a team build my house that has also built skyscrapers—not just a string of cookie cutter templates. Add one more element to that: the role of thought leader—the person with the vision of what the brand really means (and WILL mean) in the current and emerging marketplace, and you’ve got the ideal marketing team. That thought leader is usually a founder or major stakeholder in the company; if you really luck out, you get a couple of them, and they have better ideas out of the back and forth.

What does it take to bring internal and external people together into an effective team?

Leadership buy-in is the key that opens the lock to diverse teams. Left to its own devices, conservatism will prevail. Entrenched conservatism is the common agony of the CEO. People will offer complaints and a few interesting ideas, but resist change in how those ideas convert to the action and execution side of a project. Left alone, the goals are just good ideas with no air in them. What the leadership has to do is encourage participation, and that most often takes the form, at first, of the basics. Document your contributions, adhere to meeting agendas, communicate in a transparent and sustainable way. There are long-standing reasons why company silos and individual professionals don’t already do this. There’s maintaining reputation—people want to look effective and avoid seeming ineffective, being embarrassed, or looking bad. So communications happen in tightly controlled formats like email and document attachments, and no one needs to feel threatened by being on point for contributing ideas that have weight. There’s also a fear of taking on extra work. You hear “I’m already so busy. Can’t we just (fill in however we’ve always done things).” That’s conservatism trying to prevail. In effect, project teams are a form of culture shock. But it’s healthy culture shock. It means we need to have more constructive ideas than complaints and more commitments to see a thing done than empty, theoretical ideas. The leadership needs to buy in on documenting everything, measuring everything, having a tight structure for meetings, and maintaining open communications in a transparent environment. Project communications need persistence somewhere, instead of getting buried in an email folder or hard drive. Even the C-level might struggle adapting, a bit, but they need to show that if they can do it, so can everyone else.

How do you integrate the project people and traditional employees culturally?

Stop emphasizing a culture of “fit” and start underscoring the need for diversity of attitudes, talents, and perspectives to spur growth. You CANNOT have it both ways, Dorothy. If people are saying “this group isn’t like us”, tell them to deal with it; be accepting, open up more, invite more collaboration, learn something from them. When Ken Bone asked the two 2016 presidential candidates to identify something they respect and value about each other, it was a relief valve to all the tension in the room. If you have people that cannot find it in their souls to learn from another team member, no matter how different, the problem isn’t integrating people in, it’s entrenched prejudice that needs to come out. Most of the time, though, sitting down and having a beer together does wonders. If you’re too remote, have a few visual conference calls instead of just voices on the line.

Most importantly, companies MUST adopt a strategy of treating external team members as INTEGRAL staff, whether contractors, affiliates, partners, freelancers, vendors, or others. It’s not an option to have us/them anymore, if you plan to remain competitive. We’re never going back to a market where 95% of a company’s operations and marketing were handled by W-2 employees. You can’t get enough agility, flexibility, and adaptability to change out of that; they can’t roll with economic cycles in the market and the need to take advantage of rapid growth opportunities. Companies have been figuring out since 2010 that, in order to gain a competitive edge and scale, they have to allow for roughly 40% of their workforce to be contingent. The contractor is now the norm. Static, traditional, unchanging employment that depends heavily on fixed routine simply can’t keep pace with an aggressive CEO, organization, or competition.

What is the future of project teams within companies and non-profits?

The future of project teams within organizations is centrality. Increasingly, every aspect of the company’s operations is becoming project based. It’s simple math: the needs you have this year are not the ones you had last year. Decades ago, things stayed roughly the same for ten years at a time, so traditional employment became the norm. Now, technology comes out overnight, competition springs up in months not years, and the market shifts in rapid moves that a company must pivot with. If all your talent resources are tied up in a fixed labor pool, you either can’t pivot with the needs you have, or you have to hire and fire (or lay off) too frequently, and that in itself is an expensive opportunity cost. Not to mention it gives you a bad name as a CEO and a brand.

Upping the contingent part of your workforce is insurance, even if you don’t have a project right now to change how the company makes its revenue, or how it will deliver services in the near future. Companies that keep trying to maintain course are overtaken by more agile competitors and die; and we’ve seen the death of some pretty big brands we all grew up with, lately. But just look at what Uber and AirBNB are doing to entrenched taxi and hospitality interests; and legal resistance will only slow but not stem the tide. You can feel the pain of the top leadership. CEOs know they need to move; they want to seize what they see right in front of them as gleaming opportunities; they need to pivot with the market, often quickly, but they’re held back by an entrenched workforce used to doing things a certain way and busy managing personal reputations. And most of them are good people; you can’t just fire them all; it’s a real but outdated environment. Project teams are what deliver the company from that morass, and give the CEO back the reigns of the stage coach and let him or her turn it into a network of stage coaches that becomes the next Wells Fargo.

MadPipe’s approach to marketing is aligned with the company C-suite; marketing isn’t just a few gimmicks to get you a few more customers. Marketing is supposed to help you scale your business. It’s central to your operation, not an afterthought. We use marketing as the entry point for optimizing a company’s project team communications, documentation, and deliverable tracking, and to shift the culture toward a more sustainable one that involves transparent communications and “bring your best game every time” interactions. By that means, even before we raise a client’s profile by a single customer interaction, they’re poised for genuine scale. Often, our methods and tools are adopted by other ad hoc teams in the client company and, before long, we’re seeing movement (not entrenchment) in multiple departments. All of that helps marketing, helps the CEO, helps scalability, and makes collaboration a dream.

You want that! You do. So scroll down to the Contact link and let us know. We’ll schedule a discovery call to identify your core objectives for scaling your business, and recommend a course of action for putting your stage coach on the path from one to many. You can’t afford to wait for things to carry on as usual.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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About once / month, corporate storyteller and digital ecologist® Daniel DiGriz weaves together interesting business stories, analytics, & examples for organizations committed to achieving their goals.


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