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Michelle LaBrosse


Keeping the Dream Team Alive

Don’t make your project the place where talent goes to die

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 15:36

Let’s say you’ve found the perfect mix of people to staff your new project. They get along great together. They’re all top performers in their respective fields. They’re all gung-ho to get going. But then something happens.

First, one starts showing up late to meetings. Then, someone else plans a vacation he absolutely must go on. Next, you have another who leaves the company altogether for warmer waters. You reflect on what went wrong and realize that, one by one, they lost their will, their zest, their joie de vivre for working on your project. One of them needed an upgrade to a special coding software, but you didn’t want to get it for her. Someone didn’t have the tool he needed to do his best work. Another needed to attend a training class for using the upgraded safety gear the company mandated—but you wouldn’t give her time off the project to attend. And another team member was great at graphic design, but because no one was willing to do the project accounting and he had some slack time, you assigned that job to him. Willing to be a good team player, he accepted, but he had no talent or aptitude for that.

You’ve suddenly become the leader of the project where good people come to die.

At Cheetah Learning, we’ve found that regardless of the type of project your team is working on, the team members need the right talent, tools, and training to do the required work. But there also must be willingness to use their talent, and the willingness to provide the right tools and training.

People can have all the talent, tools, and training in the world, but if they don’t have the will to do something, nothing will happen. On the other hand, people can be willing, but if they are missing any or all of the three pillars—talent, tools, or training—you risk creating that project where good people come to die. As a project manager, to keep your dream team alive and thriving, start with the folks who have both the talent and the will, and then make sure you provide the right tools and training.

I’ve been working on a huge project all summer in Alaska called the Alaska Research Garden, where we are testing out a variety of year-round food production ideas. This is our first year at it, and one of the projects is to build our main outdoor garden area. The outdoor project got off to a slow start when it took three times longer than expected to get the material we needed. We found the talented people to do the work, but they were busy wrapping up other projects. We hit our stride and our dream team-ness about a month into doing the actual manual labor. We had the talent, the tools, the training, and the willingness. It was an absolutely incredible experience, after dealing with one frustration after another (as is the norm for doing projects in remote parts of Alaska).

We’d been waiting, waiting, waiting for a large chipper to arrive on the ferry from Juneau. The project crew went to work on other job sites. We’d cleared the land, done the masonry work, and built the 3-ft raised planting beds and filled them with large trees that will act as the soil heating source over the next two decades. Then chipper finally showed up. The mason had to come back to do the second part of the project, so he offered to get it off the ferry at 1:30 a.m. since he was staying in town closer to the ferry. Our dirt-working guy had moved us up to top priority because we paid him well and fast. (Plus we made him lunch, so he liked being on our job site.) We were done with the chipping part of the job in less than a quarter of the time we’d allocated—even though on the day most of the work happened, there was a torrential downpour. We had the right talent with the right training and the right tools to create this dream team. Every single one of us had the willingness it took to create such a sweet spot.

I started contemplating: How do you assess willingness? I realized that it shows up in team members’ attitudes and behaviors: enthusiasm, availability, and active engagement. Developing these qualities in yourself first can inspire your team members to perform in a similar fashion. Willingness is contagious. Let’s look more closely at all three elements of willingness.

Enthusiasm. How willing are you to get this job done? What are you going to do to make it happen? Just where is your “oomph,” spirit, and vision with this project, and how are you going to react to road blocks? It has not been easy doing this research garden project in Alaska, but I have a longer-range vision. My enthusiasm attracts and keeps enthusiastic people working with me. Our collective positive energy has an immediate effect on keeping morale high. Yes, people can get down on some element of the project at one time or another. But when you’re all in it together, you carry each other through those times. You can’t mandate or fake enthusiasm, but you can cultivate it by being enthusiastic, being there for people when times are tough, and having the right tools and training so your team members can use their talents to do their best work.

Availability. This one seems like a “duh,” but the people who have stayed working on the Alaska Research Garden Project are those who have been consistently available. Yes, we’ve had to make schedule accommodations. The salmon are running, it’s moose hunting season—these are real things up here. People live through the winter on the food they hunt in the summer. Because I was flexible about accommodating their requirements, they worked above and beyond to meet my requirements. Winter is coming here, and it comes fast. This is an outdoor project. We have tight blocks of time to work on this project, and we made sure not just the people with the right talents were available, but that we also had the right tools available when they were needed.

Active engagement. That “sweet spot” moment of team members’ willingness happened when the outdoor garden project all came together as if in a dream. The mason was there, the dirt-working guy was there, and our wood chipper had finally arrived. It was raining as if someone had turned on a fire hose. It wasn’t the mason’s job to work the wood chipper, but he couldn’t set up the forms in the rain. So he got right in there with the dirt-working guy, and they made short work of clearing out huge brush piles and filling the 3-ft culture garden beds with wood chips. Both men were in the rain gear they wear on fishing boats. I was out helping for a while doing what I could do until it became obvious they could work a lot faster without me around. But they appreciated I was right there with them. It was active engagement at its best.

People tend to mirror those around them, so when you show up with a high level of willingness to get the job done, you are typically matched with the same level of energy in others. When you show up as the project manager with the consistent willingness to deliver the best results, you role-model what it means to be a successful team member.

If your team feels sluggish and unproductive despite having all the talents, tools, and training needed to get the job done, check in with yourself on your willingness to do the project. Learn more about how to develop greater willingness in your project teams by hiring for talent and providing the right tools and training so people can do their best work.


About The Author

Michelle LaBrosse’s picture

Michelle LaBrosse

Michelle LaBrosse is an entrepreneurial powerhouse with a penchant for making success easy, fun, and fast. She is the founder of Cheetah Learning and a prolific blogger whose mission is to bring project management to the masses. She is a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program and holds engineering degrees from Syracuse University and the University of Dayton. Cheetah Learning is a virtual company with 100 employees, contractors, and licensees worldwide. More than 50,000 people have used Cheetah Learning’s project management and accelerated learning techniques.