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How To Manage Teams (An Interview With Ben Aston)

I was recently interviewed by Joseph Phillips for his book Project Management with CompTIA Project+: On Track from Start to Finish, Fourth Edition and had the opportunity to talk a little bit about leadership, building relationships, and the challenges of managing teams. This is a great book, not only for those who intend to take the CompTIA Project+ exam but also for project managers in general.

Check out the interview below which you’ll find the book.

Q. What is the key to successfully managing a team?

A. I’d say it’s really about leadership. Managing a team well actually starts with leading the team properly. When you’re able to provide proper leadership, managing the team becomes much more straightforward. Within the context of projects, that leadership starts with casting a big vision, setting the team up for success by briefing them properly, doing whatever it takes to empower your team to succeed and leading by example with your dedication and passion for the project. That then in inspires the team to follow and can help make the project successful.

Q. What must a Project Manager do to ensure that his or her team is committed to the project?

A. I think commitment from your team starts with a really good understanding of what they’re being asked to do and they know what success looks like. When we give people a really solid brief with clearly defined expectations around the level of effort, quality attributes and the milestones that we need them to deliver to, we have an opportunity to pause and get their buy-in – that what we’re asking them to do is fair and realistic. When people feel like it’s not something that’s just been thrust on them but that they’ve had a say, their commitment level tends to be much higher.

Q. How can a Project Manager inspire the project team?

A. Inspiration comes from having a vision for the project that captures your team’s imagination. As a PM, it’s our job to ensure that we’re clear about why the project is important so that we can get our team excited about it beyond doing it just because it’s their job. A good starting point is asking yourself – if we didn’t do this, why would the world be a worse place? And we can demonstrate our passion for the project in the way that we engage with the team, showing that we care and that it’s important to us; that in turn will be contagious and will inspire the team.

Q. What is the most difficult part of managing a project team?

A. I still find it hard calling people out when they’ve committed to something and then fail to deliver on their commitment. It’s tough but you need to ask them to put it right, even if that means staying late or working at the weekend to catch up. If you don’t deal with it quickly you’ll find that it can, in turn, demoralize the entire team and set an expectation of sub-par quality among the team.

Q. How does a Project Manager lead a team when team members are geographically dispersed?

A. With remote teams, I think it’s so important to establish a sense of team and the sense that you’re in this together. That starts by building a culture of communication and as the project manager, you need to be the one leading by example in that. With everyone using tools like Slack, the temptation can be to confine conversations and meetings to typing in a chat window. But I think what’s more important for the team and the success of the project is for your team to feel like they’re a team, to see each other and actually talk to one another so use Skype and use the phone! It’s so important to have some banter and chat through problems together so that they begin to work as a team and get to know each other beyond their chat avatars.

Q. How do you handle team members who are disgruntled and unpleasant?

A. It’s always best to try and nip any kind of negativity in the bud as quickly as possible. Take them out for a coffee, away from the office and see if you can work out how to get them back on board. But if that’s not working, for the sake of the project, it’s important to be decisive and replace them from your team as quickly as you can so that you can maintain positivity and momentum on the project and get things back on track.

Q. What are attributes of a good Project Manager in regard to leading a team?

A. A good project manager always knows what’s going on – they’re the hub of the project and no matter how many things are spinning around them; they’re still at the center, aware of what’s going on so that they can be decisive and make quick decisions to keep the project moving in the right direction. When the team feels like the PM is in control, and trust their leadership, they are then released to focus on delivering great work. The PM should care about delivery, but also care about their team; they need to be someone who their team want to work for, and to do that, the team needs to know that as the PM, you’ve got their back.

Q. How does a Project Manager lead a team when a project is consistently going awry?

A. I think you can find often projects are going awry when people aren’t sure about what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s when people start guessing and filling in the gaps that the project can start drifting off course. So when you realize that things keep going wrong, it’s worth pausing the project briefly to level set and make sure everyone’s clear on the overall vision of the project and what it’s going to take to be successful. Then you need to drill down into the detail of everyone on your team and their briefs and ensure that everyone’s clear about what they need to do to make sure the project succeeds.

Q. What must a Project Manager do when new team members come aboard when a project is already in the integration phase?

A. Regardless of when someone’s getting on-boarded on to the project, the on boarding process needs to be robust enough to give the new team member a fighting chance for success. Give them a full project overview as well as whatever supporting documentation you can. But rather than just parachuting them directly onto the project it can be helpful if you can slowly increase their exposure onto the project and give them time to wrap their head around what’s going on,. Do that before asking them to jump onto some critical development where they might end up doing more damage than good, if they haven’t had enough background and exposure to the project.

Q. What methods do you use to resolve disagreements among team members?

A. What’s most important about getting to any kind of resolution when you’ve got conflict on your team is that you’re still friends at the end of it. It’s got to end up feeling like a win, win. Everyone’s got to continue to work together afterward and continue to deliver the project so you need everyone on board. Often disagreements come from a misunderstanding of the facts, so as the PM, we can often provide some clarity by giving our perspective and what seems like a logical solution. You want people to make the right decision for you, rather than having to force decisions through. It’s not just about getting consenus but you want their ongoing buy-in.

Q. What types of rewards have you used for your project team to keep them motivated?

A. I’ve never really been a position where I had a mandate to give any tangible rewards to the team so I think that what’s most important for motivation is for people to feel like they’re part of a team, that they’re valued and that what they’re doing genuinely matters. I’ve found that creating a positive team environment where you lead the charge with the team in calling out great work or particularly strong contributions and combining that with celebrating together as a team when you hit important milestones is useful in keeping the team engaged in the project.

Q. Can you share an experience of a project you’ve managed that required you to go the extra mile to lead a team to a project’s conclusion?

A. With most big projects, the days leading up to the final deployment to push to production and go live are always a bit crazy. They’re the times when you’ll do anything for your team to just make sure they keep slogging on and get the project out the door. As well as keeping them fueled with copious amounts of coffee, donuts, pizza and Red Bull, those final days are when you jump in the trenches and QA until you can’t keep your eyes open any longer!

Q. What are some pitfalls a new Project Manager may face in regard to leading a project team?

A. When you’re starting out it can be hard to know the warning signs when a project is beginning to veer off track. In wanting your project to be a success and prove your ability you can find yourself thinking your project is doing well, when it’s not really, and being over-optimistic in assessing the health of your project. Sometimes, your timeline, budget and scope might seem fine but there are some underlying risks that haven’t been identified or managed properly that rapidly become issues and then seriously derail your project.

Q. What advice do you have for aspiring Project Managers?

A. Keep asking questions and learning. When you’re starting out, the temptation can be to try to pretend you understand things that you’ve really got no idea about. If you do that, you’re not going to learn very fast at all. On the other hand, if you stay curious and keep asking questions when you don’t understand things you’ll find you learn far more quickly and become more effective at managing your projects and teams.

Got interested and want to learn more? You can buy the book here (which I totally recommend).

By Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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