PM Foundations–The Core Team

At the heart of most successful projects you will find an effective core team that is fully responsible for the day-to-day leadership of the project. This is not to be confused with the strategic level guidance that represents the key function of the project steering committee. The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the core team is effectively selected, on-boarded, and fully engaged throughout the project life cycle.

What is the purpose of the core team?

The practical answer is that the core team is responsible for monitoring the progress of each of the key deliverables and making decisions about course corrections should the project begin tracking behind schedule, over budget or if major scope changes occur.

What are the important elements of a good core team?

A good core team is comprised of the key stakeholders who are empowered to represent a segment of the overall project domain (the segment is generally defined based upon an organization or competency/function they represent). Representing this segment means that the core team member is responsible for providing knowledge from their area of expertise, and making/influencing decisions that impact this area of expertise. Several key factors influence the process of identifying the core team:

  • Diversity: Diversity is a key element of the core team, because it is critical that different perspectives about the project and the project deliverables are fairly represented on the core project leadership team. These perspectives should be represented from day one of the core team — many project managers are tempted to exclude groups from the core team until they are needed to perform specific project activities.
  • Inclusiveness vs. effectiveness: The core team is not the entire project team working on different project activities. Sizing the core team appropriately is critical to the successful management of the project. As the project manager you need to strike a balance between including the right people in the day-to-day management of the project, and creating a team that is too big to effectively make decisions. Based upon my experience the appropriate core team size is somewhere between 6-10 people.
  • Assessing the Organization: The type of organization you are working in significantly influences the manner in which the core team is formed (depicted in the chart below). In a functional organizational, it is generally the functional leads that represent their area/department on the core team. In a matrix and project organization, the core team is generally formed based upon the role of the people assigned to the project. The type of organization also impacts the project manager’s role and authority on the project (from limited in a functional organization, to full control in a project organization).

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Procuring the Core Team Members

The factors described above represent key considerations when performing the following steps to select the core team:

  1. Determine which roles should be included on the core team. I find the most effective method is to look for the roles on the RACI chart with the most significant R’s (Responsible).
  2. Decide what project team members can fulfill these roles, If the team has not been formed, the question becomes what people in the organization can fulfill these roles.
  3. Determine if the composition of the core team needs to be adjusted based upon disconnects between the roles on the core team and the names assigned to the team.

The following chart provides an example of assembling a core team, based upon ownership of the key project deliverables. Ownership does not necessarily represent the person that will complete or manage the deliverable, but rather the person that will be responsible for the deliverable. Responsible means that this is the role that will ensure that the quality, scope, timing and cost of the deliverable are satisfied based upon the expectations established in the baseline project plan. Key deliverables which do not have an explicit owner established on the core team generally represents a RED flag (project risk), because the project manager will likely be required to manage these deliverables outside of the project leadership team as a “one off” process.

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You will find that multiple people may be required to fulfill specific roles, if one person cannot adequately represent the full scope of the deliverable on the core team. In addition, specific roles may be filled by consultants or third party partners.

Getting stakeholders, functional managers and other resource managers to agree to loan you the right resources for your core team can be a challenge. Having a solid project management plan with high level milestones and roles/responsibilities, Project Sponsor support for the initiative, and clear definition of the deliverables (in the form of a WBS) to reference during the discussion with the resource managers makes this process much easier. When assembling the core team it is important to interact with the potential core team members to understand how well they understand the project – and how they feel about the business case (benefits, scope, target dates). It is a bonus to obtain resources that are passionate about some aspect of the initiative (benefits to their organization, learning opportunities for them, team dynamics).

On-boarding the core team

Prior to the overall project kick-off, the core team is assembled for a planning meeting (or series of planning meetings, depending on the complexity of the project). The planning meeting helps level set the core team on project planning efforts that have been completed to date (prior to them joining the team), and launching the efforts to complete the remaining planning activities/deliverables. The Project Manager facilitates the discussion on project planning deliverables completed to-date (project charter, milestones/target dates, scope statement, RACI, and the Project Management Plan). Making sure everyone is clear about what their role on the project is one of the essential topics at this point in forming the core team.

The Core Team planning meeting is best structured in the following manner:

Goals and objectives

  • Communicate information about the project using project artifacts created to-date
  • Establish a common understanding of roles and responsibilities
  • Begin the process of completing the remaining planning deliverables

Activities / Discussion Topics

  • Icebreakers and introductions (particularly important for new projects, with a diverse cross-functional team)
  • Review of project deliverables (best to provide access to these deliverables in advance of the meeting, so this time is spent productively covering questions and open issues)
  • Establish core team priorities and begin working on the remaining planning deliverables

Core Team Best Practices

The following summarizes the best practices associated with selecting, procuring, and on-boarding your core project team:

Purposefully select the core team

  • The team’s diversity in terms of backgrounds, perspectives and talents significantly improves project outcomes.
  • Right-size the team to accomplish the task at hand – manage the day-to-day project operations. Make sure the team can adequately “own” the project deliverables, but is not too large to effectively manage team dynamics.
  • The core team should be formed in a manner that is consistent with the organization that is driving the project.

Work with the right people to procure the right team members

  • Clearly communicate with resource managers (about the project and resource needs).
  • Use the project sponsor appropriately to gain support of the initiative.
  • Obtain buy-in of the potential core team members (to understand their commitment to the initiative, and comfort with their role).

Make the effort to adequately on-board and ramp-up the core team

  • Spend time “forming” the team.
  • Clearly communicate the plans completed to-date. You want the core team to “own” the plans, even if they were not involved in making all of the decisions or creating all of the planning deliverables.
  • Focus on getting immediate traction on the work ahead. Quickly align the core team with the project priorities, and ownership of next steps.
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About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

2 Responses to PM Foundations–The Core Team

  1. rival slots says:

    A well written article. I’m always looking for information like this.

  2. Andrea says:

    This was helpful to me as my organization did not have anything like this in place.

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