5 Steps to Build a Productive Project-Based Team

Allison Mandel

As the tendrils of the ‘gig economy’ continue to permeate working structures, project-based teams are becoming increasingly common and for good reason. Fluid, ‘agile’ teams are able to magnify individual expertise, seamlessly adjust to changes in corporate strategy, and mitigate workforce interruptions. All of this maximizes your organization’s capacity for innovation.

Whether your group is compiled of external workers (freelancers, alumni, or retirees), internal collaborators (agile workforce), or some combination of the two, the success of future leaders hinges on their ability to manage project-based teams. We outline five steps to building a productive, efficient and harmonious project-based team, allowing everyone’s talents to shine and making your role as a leader easier.

1. Align on Expectations

Since your team is inherently bound to the parameters of the project at hand, the first step is to align everyone’s expectations. Team members may have competing priorities and differing conceptions of what the project entails, so be sure to discuss:

  • Timeline for project or phases
  • Hours and/or deliverables
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • What success looks like

Ensuring that everyone is on the same page from day one will set you up for smooth sailing. Each contributor needs to know what is expected of them so that they can do their best work.

2. Establish a Reporting Structure

Some project-based teams follow a traditional, pyramid-shaped reporting structure with a clear hierarchy. Others, particularly those that involve cross-functional collaboration, break these norms and flatten the reporting structure. Each team member may be responsible for managing an individual workstream, everyone may work independently on a single element, or you may nominate a few team managers to lead the charge.

Keep in mind that even if your team follows a traditional reporting structure, these team members are still not necessarily your direct reports. Those from different departments, companies, or freelancer platforms are responsible for hitting KPIs but cannot be managed in the way you might a subordinate, especially in terms of defining a prescriptive workflow.

Regardless of your team’s decision, it is important to establish a structure at the beginning of the project to help understand responsibilities and ensure that nothing is left behind. From there, you can outline a regular cadence to keep everyone on track and marching towards the same goal.

3. Streamline Ramp-Up

People on project-based teams are brought together because of the unique knowledge each possesses. A freelancer may offer expertise in a niche field, experience with a particular process, or an external perspective. An internal collaborator may hold knowledge from a different function, product, or geography.

Inherently, these people do not come to the table with the same foundational knowledge. To hit the ground running, have each team member compile what they consider to be baseline knowledge and hold a sharing session to ensure everyone is on the same page.

4. Maximize Collaboration Tools

After ramping up, you’re ready to hit those key deliverables. You may have members who work in different geographies or at different times, so you’ll need to maximize virtual collaboration tools to work efficiently and frictionlessly.

There are countless tools at your disposal, many of which are free or available at a nominal cost. Below are a few that we recommend:

Slack: Instant-messaging, undercutting the need for lengthy emails and enabling seamless communication. Capabilities include individual messaging, group channels, and file sharing.

Google Docs: Real-time collaboration across multiple file formats, including word documents, spreadsheets, and slide shows.

Trello: Project management allowing for flexible collaboration, including file sharing, timelines, calendar views, and status updates.

Monday.com: Project management facilitating high level management of existing deliverables, clearly outlining responsibilities and status updates.

Confluence: Democratically-controlled intranet, allowing users to edit webpages shared among team members.

5. Give Continuous Feedback

Your project-based team likely involves people with whom you don’t have an established relationship. To meet expectations, keep the team on track, and help everyone grow together, foster consistent feedback among teammates. This feedback should be frequent and have some structure in place to ensure that it is provided regularly, such as biweekly touchbases.

If you do have a team hierarchy, encourage bidirectional feedback. Upward feedback can be difficult to encourage but will help you and other team leaders grow. Ultimately, your business would not be successful without the people and relationships that keep it afloat, and project-based teams are a fantastic way to strengthen this valuable asset.

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Your company has so much to gain from forming project-based teams, but they require a shift in how we conceptualize workflow and team structure. As companies move into a more agile future and leaders increasingly use innovative solutions to maximize top talent, it is critical that we reimagine how work gets done.

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