I met with Ted last week to discuss his project to install a standard manufacturing package at our new plant. Ted had managed to get his project back on schedule after some initial difficulty but was now starting to fall behind again.
“I think we are doing a lot right,” Ted said. “But as we are getting to the end of the project, I’m asking the team to do quite a bit of multitasking. As a result, the team is having difficulty completing their assignment on time.”
“It’s not uncommon to have a rash of work to complete at the end of the project,” I said. “This is the time where discipline and time-management skills are so valuable. Tell me more about why the work is falling behind. Does everyone know what’s expected of them?”
“I sure hope so!” Ted exclaimed. “I’ve tried to make it simpler by dividing the group into two subteams. Each subteam is responsible for about half the remaining work.”
“That sounds reasonable.” I replied. “What does your team say about missing their deadlines now that the project is so close to completion?”
“That’s one of the frustrating side effects of having two subteams,” Ted sighed. “I’m trying to give the teams maximum flexibility to complete the work however it makes sense. Now, since I am assigning work to a team, I don’t really know who to hold accountable when deadline dates are missed.”
I could begin to see a problem. “Ted,” I said, “you may have taken the team concept a little too far. Even though the work is given to a team, you still need to assign someone to be responsible for each activity. When people are working on multiple activities at the same time, it is especially important to have someone accountable for the work.”
In a perfect world, all teams would understand what is expected of them, and the members would all hold themselves accountable for ensuring that the expectations were met. These types of mature groups are sometimes called high-performing teams.
In the real world, almost all teams fall short of this idealistic goal, and people don’t always understand what is expected of them. In many cases, they overemphasize certain activities to the detriment of others.
If there are problems, no one may step up to deal with it. In the worst case, anarchy might break out as people thrash amongst various activities, without the focus needed to complete any of them on time.
Just as a project needs one project manager, so each activity needs one person assigned to be responsible and accountable for ensuring the work is completed on time. If there is only one person assigned to the work, the responsibility naturally falls on him.
When activities are assigned to multiple members, one person still needs to be responsible for ensuring the work gets done. One person is responsible for providing status reports. One person can escalate issues and scope-change requests. There is also one person who is accountable when work is not completed on time.
In Ted’s case, he has reorganized his team so that they can each focus on their portion of the remaining work. However, he has opened the door to a potential loss of focus by not assigning one person to be responsible for each remaining activity.
Of course, Ted does not have to assign the same person to be responsible for all tasks. He can assign each of the members of the subteam to be responsible for specific activities. In this way, each activity has one person to make sure the remaining work gets done on time.
If they are accountable, they will also have an interest in making sure all potential roadblocks and issues are identified, addressed, and overcome, so that the work is completed successfully.
Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life-cycle skills. He's also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.