Straight Talk on Project Management

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Snakes on career ladders. What to do when individual ambition threatens IT project team harmony

When we posted the blog “How To Fail Well In IT Projects” on our LinkedIn Newsletter, reader Tom Brouillette asked a brilliant question in our comments section… “how do you deal with colleagues who profess to want to help when in reality they look for opportunities to make colleagues look ‘bad’ to enhance their own image?”

For some context, “How To Fail Well In IT Projects” is all about giving your IT teams the freedom to fail and hold their hands up when they feel that something isn’t right. The blog leans heavily into the ethos shared by Astro Teller (head of X, formerly Google X) in his “The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure” TED talk. Teller talks about how ‘failure’ is rewarded and says, “We work hard … to make it safe to fail.” There is power in those last five words – Make it safe to fail.

This is the crux of the issue LinkedIn reader Tom raises, all too often fessing up to a fail or a weakness gives ammunition to an opportunistic colleague who views your self-awareness and integrity as rungs on their career ladder. So, what do you do about these snakes (on career ladders) and how do you mitigate against having them in your team?


Firstly, it has to be leadership driven. Responsibility for ‘coaching’ team members who are (shall we say) unscrupulous in their drive for career progress lies entirely with the individual at the helm.

Sometimes though, for instance where there isn’t an effective project management office in place, inefficient governance of human resources and culture can lead to less than desirable behaviours not conducive to team cohesion. Stoneseed offer a complete Project Management Office (PMO) range of services from provision of single resources to a team of PMO experts even a full PMO service package via a Managed Service. We also offer PMO Consultancy and Technical Design Authority, if you have a PMO you wish to refine and improve.

Secondly, as already alluded to – it’s a cultural thing and trust has to be a pillar of that culture.

Have you ever managed a team of people who didn’t trust each other? Oh my, how exhausting, demanding, and all-consuming!!

Can a team with no trust even call itself a team? I think not, it’s a bunch of people who work together, in the loosest sense of the words. “Teams” with trust issues tend to not cooperate with each other, they might withhold information (treating it like a treasure to be buried for a rainy day rather than invested for the good of the team), they squabble over roles often blurring responsibilities, they hide mistakes rather than admit to and sort them.

In my experience, no matter how talented individuals are, they never make the same progress as a team of arguably “less capable” team players who trust each other and their leadership. In fact, I’ve never seen a team that doesn’t have trust reach its full potential – regardless of individuals’ talent!

So how do you to create mutual trust?

1 – It Has to Be Part Of Your Culture

Returning to the initial blog “How To Fail Well In IT Projects” – Have you actually made ‘failing forward’ part of your DNA?

How do your team members know how to act as part of your team?

One Project Leader friend has an actual written constitution for how the team will operate and much of it is built around this notion that “when we fail, we fail together, and we fix together”.

There are explicit, unambiguous directives about behaving in a way that is conducive to the evolution of an effective, close-knit team. When everyone is clear about what good conduct looks like it’s easier to call out behaviour that falls short of that.  

2 – Behaviour Contrary to The Team Effort Must Be Called Out

You don’t have to be like “Hey Bill, stop being a jerk!” – but actions that you consider contrary to how you want your team to behave to one another need calling out.

For instance, my friend with the written constitution will ask a team member how they feel they matched up to the agreed expectations – creating a space where the colleague can “assess and fess” their own shortcomings.

Another PM leader friend explains to the errant colleague how they have ‘let the side down’ but then asks if everything OK with them. This more supportive approach usually opens a space for the colleague to acknowledge their misstep and either share a problem they’re having at work or excuse their indiscretion by contextualising their behaviour with something that’s happening in their life. You address the issue affecting the team, and rather than ostracising the team member, you put an arm around them, underpinning and strengthening the team.         

Admittedly, others are more confrontational and just take the more direct “Hey Bill, stop being a jerk!” route.

However, you do it, great leaders nip this kind of thing in the bud.

Talking of which …

3 – Leaders Must Lead by Example.  

Leading by example may be the greatest single way to build trust in your team and create that “safe to fail” culture. Showing your team that you trust them, that you trust stakeholders, you trust colleagues, you trust your boss, etc is vital – 99 times out of 100 they will mirror it back in their behaviour.

Most importantly – when you mess up … fess up!

I’ve had countless conversations with project leaders who say “if I did that Bill would be straight in my boss’ ear after my job”- and I get that but think about it for a second and you can see how toxic a culture like this would potentially be. Flip it.

Your boss has to be part of the solution, if Bill comes in after your job, he needs to know that you’re going to get a call to join the meeting.  

Great teams with open lines of communication and a fail-forward attitude are happy to flag each other’s failings – in a constructive way. If Bill comes to you with a problem that he’s noticed with something Tim is working on, Bill has to know that you’re going to call Tim straight in to discuss it. In fact, Bill needs to know that your culture dictates that he should have flagged the issue with Tim and only bothered you if a leadership call needed to be made.

Turn up to meetings on time (especially virtual meetings – treat remote colleagues with the same respect you would real world meetings), never over promise and under deliver, and communicate openly!

4 – Develop Knowledge Of Each Other’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Drivers and Passions.

Imagine a culture where everyone genuinely has each other’s backs and everyone on the team knows each other’s key strengths and weaknesses – you start to anticipate problems before they occur.

Project leaders, when allocating roles, must be mindful of strengths, passions, and drivers. You can’t expect great performance from someone doing a task that you know they’re weak at or even just not passionate about.

A great example recently was a team of IT Project legends who were also given Business Analysis functions – they hated it! As a result, the analysis was shallow and unsophisticated, a rote performance allowing them to tick the right boxes. It didn’t enhance the business case, nor deliver against actual business need – didn’t even deliver a measurable return on investment. Now, give the same Business Analysis functions to a Business Analyst and the difference would be tangible. And it’s all down to passion!

Going back to Tom’s original question, by assigning tasks based on strength and passion you remove the risk of someone dropping the ball (and becoming canon fodder for the type prone to as Tom put it ‘make colleagues look ‘bad’ to enhance their own image’).

A culture that cheerleads strengths and compensates weaknesses again comes down to great leadership, and it organically creates a culture where everyone has each other’s backs!!

If you find that your team is lacking strengths in certain areas the Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) universe is a great place to go looking for them!! And on that …

5 – Skilled Up, Chilled Out

I saw “Skilled Up, Chilled Out” on a poster once, the headline was superimposed on a photo of a setting sun reflecting on a still lake or reservoir. The idea of the poster being that by creating an environment where every individual and the team as a collective has the skills they need to deliver, you create a calm that eliminates the need for one-upmanship.

The settled working environment that a replete team creates is a joy – if you need project professionals, resources and tools – get them, for the sake of harmony! Your future self will thank you.

The key thing here is when you assess this – and the clue is in that poster. That calm lake was reflecting the sun exactly as it actually was, had the wind been whipping up waves that day then the reflection would have been distorted – there may not have even been a reflection. Get good at taking in what your IT Project is reflecting back at you during moments of calm, many calls for PMaaS come to us in times of stress – that’s a distorted reflection.

With Stoneseed’s PMaaS, some good planning and a huge dose of self-awareness, calm moments are an amazing time to truly reflect on where you’re at and what you need.  

To answer Tom’s question succinctly. “How do you deal with colleagues who profess to want to help when in reality they look for opportunities to make colleagues look ‘bad’ to enhance their own image?” – with all means possible. And the buck stops with the outfit’s leadership.

Extending our idea of what the modern IT Project management team means, such as considering ‘aaS’ resources part of that team, can help shift the paradigm significantly when it comes to this notion of responsibility for cohesion.

Stoneseed’s team are experienced across multiple technology solutions, sectors, and industries, and we work on all types of projects and programmes such as Business Change, Transformation, Infrastructure, Digital and IT Project Delivery, onsite or remotely. Call us on 01623 723910 to find out how our team can bolster your team.