The 5 habits of highly effective project teams

Here at Cooper, we’re pretty well known for our holistic and methodical approach to design, but don’t let that fool you – when the situation calls for it, we’re more than happy to get all “mavericky” with our clients and provide some good old fashioned ad-hoc consulting.

For example, I was recently asked to provide management support to a client who is in the midst of implementing a Cooper re-design of their robust web application. As I immersed myself in the project, I was quickly reminded of my previous life as a project manager and business analyst at a large software company, and how easy it is to fall into the many efficiency traps that often permeate large-scale development projects.

Over the course of my recent engagement, I identified several critical success factors for effective project teams, and some specific things that both project managers and team members can do to ensure project success.

Establish structure and discipline

At the start of a project, it’s common for managers and participants to be certain only of the impending release date – everything else is anyone’s guess. While this date is sometimes arbitrary and malleable, more often than not it is tied to a critical business driver and can’t (or won’t) be moved. When resources are scarce, project scope becomes the only fungible element, and typically suffers multiple revisions over the course of a project. With an aggressive deadline, shifting scope, and no clear plan for success, folks will naturally conclude that the project is doomed and assume a “death march” posture. In this environment, the focus switches from getting things done to simply getting through the day, which inevitably requires frequent puppy breaks.

To instill confidence in the project from the start (as well as in times of change), successful project managers consistently provide a clear path:

  • When developing or revising a detailed project plan, always put a short-term work plan in place to guide the team’s efforts in the interim.
  • Require team members to set firm commitments for task completion, and hold them accountable for meeting those deadlines.
  • Be disciplined about changes in scope and keep them to a minimum. If scope cuts are needed, move quickly to identify what’s in and what’s out, and be clear about which plan (old or new) the team should be operating under while changes are being evaluated.

Act with urgency

Without a sense of urgency, projects become deeply vulnerable to inefficiencies, meeting proliferation, and analysis paralysis. Nothing says “death march” more clearly than dozens of individual contributors shuffling into a conference room, slumping in their chairs, and staring off into space or their laptop screens while each in turn gives a perfunctory status update or discusses issues of interest to only a small subset of the attendees in excruciating detail.

Enforcing structure and discipline goes a long way towards communicating a sense of urgency, but successful project managers also keep meetings lean and efficient:

  • Look for opportunities to handle regular status updates via email or in small groups, and reserve meetings for resolving issues.
  • Keep meetings small, but make sure that the necessary decision makers are present and engaged, and set a clear timetable for issue resolution if it can’t be closed out in a single session.
  • Watch the body language of meeting attendees – they may not tell you directly, but odds are their posture and expression will communicate loud and clear if they’re sitting in a meeting that provides little or no value to them.

Cultivate a sense of ownership

If workers don’t feel personal responsibility and ownership for the project, they will distance themselves from it at the first sign of trouble. Without a sense that everyone on the team is working towards a common goal, dynamics can quickly devolve into finger pointing and sandbagging and waiting for everyone else to get their act together before anyone is willing to begin their own work. In this environment, even minor setbacks and churn can crush morale, and the resulting feelings of pointlessness, hopelessness, and distance prevent people from looking for creative ways to keep things moving forward.

To keep the team engaged and motivated, even during difficult times, successful project managers instill a sense of ownership in each team member:

  • Articulate a clear and compelling vision for the project up front, and ensure that everyone understands the customer, user, and business benefits that success will bring. If scope is reduced, acknowledge that the original vision will not be delivered in the first release, and map out the steps that will be taken later to get there, or why the revised vision is more appropriate.
  • Encourage participants to take full ownership of their tasks, work with the necessary people to resolve issues on their own, drive their deliverables to completion by the dates they committed to, and look for opportunities to streamline and speed their work.
  • Be on the lookout for flagging morale and address it with individual team members directly. Listen to their complaints, acknowledge mistakes that have been made, commit to addressing issues they raise, and ask them to reaffirm their commitment to the project and to moving forward in a more positive way.


Successful project managers don’t just take meeting notes, update status reports, and assemble project plans – they lead:

  • Set the tone of the project. Set expectations, serve as an example, and hold team members accountable.
  • Instill confidence by developing a clear plan and using it to guide and drive the project forward.

Be the change you want to see in the project

Turns out that Gandhi fella was on to something. An individual project team member may not be able to single-handedly turn things around, but you’d be surprised what an impact you can have simply by adopting good habits of your own:

  • Fully engage in meetings and operate with a sense of ownership and urgency at all times. Move aggressively to define what is needed from you, by whom, and when.
  • Make specific commitments, and then do what it takes to meet them. If your PM isn’t managing to deadlines, set them for yourself, make them public, and hold yourself accountable.
  • Whenever scope creep rears its head, point it out to the entire team to force a conscious choice about increasing or changing the project scope.
  • Respect your own time, and demand that others do the same. Be judicious with the meeting invitations you send and accept. When you do attend meetings, don’t just be a warm body in a seat or a multi-tasker who’s not really present – give the meeting your full attention.
  • Take ownership of your role in the project. Work with the necessary people to resolve issues, and drive your deliverables to completion by the dates you committed to.
  • Turn a critical eye to the way things have always been done, and look for opportunities to streamline and speed your work. Can you complete and hand off a discrete part of your deliverable so the next person in the chain can get started?

Projects succeed when project managers and team members alike operate with discipline, urgency, ownership, and leadership.

Suzy Thompson

Learn more

Subscribe to our mailing list and stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities.

Connect with us

Want to know how we can help your company drive real business progress?

Let’s talk

Stay up to date on our latest thought leadership and learning opportunities