Dare to Inspire (3)

Dora Maar - Picasso. Courtesy art.com
Dora Maar - Picasso. Courtesy art.com

Are you working with a ‘can do’ or ‘cant do’ project team?

We have all been in both kinds of teams.  The difference in potential energy is enormous.  And, what a difference that makes to team dynamics and project results!  ‘Can do’ teams seem invincible, welcome challenges and proudly talk about the battles fought and won.  This in turn builds their confidence and enables them to meet even more challenges.  On the other hand the ‘cant do’ teams stumble on the most basic issues, squabble constantly and check out as soon as they are able to.  

So, is there anything you can do as a program manager to transform a ‘cant do’ team to a ‘can do’ team?  Well, you at least need to try – because the success of your project depends on it.  And, perhaps even more important, you will have more fun in a ‘can do’ team.  I can tell you that having fun means even more to me now that it did 10 years ago.  Time goes by fast – the things you do need to be meaningful.

I have been told that I have a knack for attracting cool projects and strong ‘can do’ teams.  So, I must be lucky.  Huh? Well, I wish it were that simple.   It was mainly just plain hard work and enabling people to do their best.  Things happen because people make them happen.  And, I have turned some otherwise bland projects around into cool projects and in the process converted ‘cant do’ teams to sizzling ‘can do’ teams.  The quote that inspires me most in this process is this:

“I am always doing things I can’t do, that’s how I get to do them.” Pablo Picasso

Let me give you an example from my past where I had the responsibility of running a project with a cross functional team and many of the members were mired in a ‘cant do’ mode.  When I probed as to why they were in a rut, the feedback was that they were not terribly interested in the project because it just was not ‘cool’.  It was not engaging them intellectually. There was an underlying sentiment that ‘other engineers’ always got to work on the cool stuff while this team was being punished with the old stuff.  The project plodded along and I pushed, pulled and threatened to get things done.  It was really painful.  Then, I tried a different tactic.  It hinged on the ‘coolness’ factor.  I know engineers will engage more readily on a cool project than on a ho-hum, run of the mill project.  The challenge was that the project was indeed somewhat run of the mill.  So, I had to find elements of coolness and spice it up.  So, I called the core project team to a meeting and we had a discussion about how we can make this project a bit more interesting.  The team had lots of ideas about adding new features.  We had to be careful – we had a concrete deadline to meet – and I did not want this to get out of control.  But, at the same time, we desperately needed some creative engagement so that the team felt challenged and energized.  So after the brainstorming, we selected a few add-ons.  These would be the ‘coolness’ factors.  The project team rallied around these add-ons.  While they were not a strict requirement – they added spice to an otherwise bland dish and energized the team.  This was the difference between eating boiled chicken or chicken a la king: some spice, some sauce – makes a bit of difference to the main meal and makes it a bit more enjoyable.

The project delivered on time with the required content and quality.  But, it also resulted in the filing of a couple of patents and cool innovations.  The team mindset had changed. They now viewed themselves as innovators and not just doers.  The ‘can’t do’ chorus had transformed to a ‘can do’ song.  

As a leader, you need to go beyond the letter of the requirements and tap into the creative spirit of the teams: challenge them to do something beyond reach.  Expect more, get more!


3 thoughts on “Dare to Inspire (3)”

  1. “There was an underlying sentiment that ‘other engineers’ always got to work on the cool stuff while this team was being punished with the old stuff…we desperately needed some creative engagement so that the team felt challenged and energized.”

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the “cool” projects don’t just appeal to engineers because they promise creative engagement — they’re also the higher status projects. A developer might never admit this out loud, but they care about their projects’ status because it reflects on their own status. Developers who work on legacy products are often taken for granted, and they know it. If you want to motivate them, you have to change that.

  2. I am loving this “dare to inspire” series of yours. Keep writing such motivating posts, it really helps when one is down and need a tonic booster!

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