Engineers, Programmers, Scientists: Start Here to Lead a Technical Project Team

Chemical Scientist Showing Stop SignCan’t we just get to work? Why do we have to spend time getting all touchy-feely about how we will work together? If you lead or assist virtual teams of engineers, programmers, scientists, or technical experts, you have probably heard similar comments.

The most effective virtual teams have a clear agreement—often called a charter—that spells out how they will work together on a project. Will Felps, senior lecturer and associate head of the school of management at University of New South Wales Business School, along with recent postgraduate Virginia Kane, have clarified in new research that a team without a charter wastes time and energy and produces lower quality results. Depending on the work of the team, a charter can be brief or extensive—but all good charters address a team’s purpose, goals, team norms, roles, and decision making.

Despite what we know about the value of chartering, taking time at the beginning of a project to talk about how the team will work together often meets with tremendous resistance. So how do you get experts to charter? The secret to effective chartering is to take advantage of what scientists, engineers, programmers, and technical experts all have in common—the love of problem solving.

Consider positioning the chartering process as a series of problems to solve. Here are some examples:

Problem: On my last team we had a problem with team members duplicating each other’s work. Solution: Let’s make some agreements about roles and responsibilities.

Problem: I had an experience where team members were not sharing all their information, so we made a bad decision. Solution: Let’s create some practices to ensure everyone gets the information they need before we make a decision.

Problem: Our team wasted a lot of time because people had different ideas about the goal and deliverables. Solution: Let’s talk freely and decide goals and preferred outcomes together.

Problem: A previous team I was on spent way too much time on conference calls that were disorganized and boring. Solution: Let’s decide together via email about creating an efficient standardized agenda for our calls.

Problem: I was on a team once where we couldn’t find the most up-to-date documents because there were no naming conventions—and no one ever deleted old versions from the shared drive. Solution: Let’s agree on a document sharing system at our first meeting.

At the beginning of a new project, establish the need for a team charter by acknowledging a few of the typical problems new teams encounter. Then say, “In everyone’s experience, what problems do you think we might need to solve before they happen?”

Don’t feel you have to use the word charter. Feel free to call the team agreement anything you want—internal service level agreement, way of working, problem solving strategy, action agreement—anything that appeals to the team. The goal is to get each team member fully engaged in problem solving and norm creation.

Smart, ambitious experts are motivated by competence and accomplishment. Use this technique to leverage the team’s love of problem solving toward creating a powerful team agreement for success.

About the author

Carmela Southers is a senior consulting partner with The Ken Blanchard Companies who specializes in increasing organizational, team, and leader effectiveness in the virtual work world.

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