Project Teams: Collaboration vs. Distraction

Project management consulting teams often require a high level of collaboration to achieve their objectives, with team members relying heavily on interactions among the group in addition to partnerships with outside players. While this type of environment can be conducive to innovation and cross-pollination of ideas, it has the potential to lead to reduced productivity if distractions aren’t closely managed. A few basic principles will help you to reap the many benefits of a successful collaborative environment.

Set objectives for every meeting. Your project management team’s structure and personality will tell you if every gathering requires a formal agenda, but every meeting should at least have a clearly stated objective. This open framework will allow team members the opportunity for freeform brainstorming (which is often not compatible with rigid agendas), while still defining a measurable, expected result. Even if the objective is simply to produce additional ideas for discussion at the next meeting, everyone involved knows the expectations, and will understand the need to stay on-target.

Use meeting facilitators. If possible, employ the use of a meeting facilitator for events that are likely to wander off-topic. Facilitators must have a keen understanding of the meeting’s objectives, and shouldn’t interrupt discussions that are slightly tangential but still relevant. Nudging the project management team back toward the meeting’s central focus should occur only when the discussion becomes unproductive. It’s a fine line to walk, but leveraging the skills of a knowledgeable facilitator can help increase meeting productivity tremendously.

Monitor individual performance. Collaboration does not equal a lack of individual accountability. It’s not uncommon for project leaders to focus solely on their project’s overall performance, and realize much too late that particular individuals are distracting other team members, or aren’t contributing sufficiently to the project’s success. By closely monitoring individual performance, you’re more likely to spot—and successfully correct—trouble behaviors such as excessive chatting, inattention to critical details, and lack of progress on tasks. The rest of your team will quickly see that they’re taking up the slack for less productive members, and your efforts to address and resolve individual performance problems will help you avoid energy-sapping morale issues later.

Allow time for socializing. Make peace with the fact that employees will engage in some level of non-work-related socialization. If your team’s dynamic is one of strong collaboration, then discouraging this type of behavior is setting yourself—and your team—up for failure. Realize that successful collaboration is built on a foundation of trust and understanding. Each team member must understand the perspectives of others in the group, and trust their coworkers enough to give full consideration to their ideas, as well feel comfortable sharing some of their own.

Consider proactively providing activities that encourage folks to mingle, while also building subtle limits on distractions. Thoughtfully implemented, the following activities offer socialization opportunities without detracting from the team’s productivity.

Brown bag gatherings allow employees to engage in a bit of lunchtime chatting while gaining new information. These typically work best for visually intensive seminars or presentations, where munching employees won’t interrupt other attendees. Not recommended for highly interactive meetings, as employees could feel they must choose between eating and participating.

Late afternoon parties give employees time to blow off a little steam, and knowing they’ll have a chance to socialize later may help them maintain better focus earlier in the day. Good for combining groups with infrequent face-to-face contact, such as remote team members or faraway business partners. Parties are particularly successful when held after a team meeting, as employees often choose to continue informal discussions of work issues if there are unresolved points or new action items.

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