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Every project manager will need to inspire a project team at some point in their career. The reasons may range from having an over-challenging project to being appointed to recover a failing project. Or, the reasons may be less daunting, and things are just business as usual.

Whatever the circumstances, as a project manager you’ll need to apply a wide range of leadership and communications skills to inspire a team. Unfortunately, these skills aren’t readily learned from a book. They come through experience and, quite frankly, sometimes failing to rally the people.

Burning Platforms Versus Believing in Something Larger

Inspiration comes from either a burning platform—a failing project or a legitimate crisis situation—or the belief that you are part of something larger than yourself. Having worked on project teams inspired by both situations several times, the mechanics of inspiring a project team is roughly the same. The difference is the underlying factors, which the project manager needs to understand.

In burning platform projects, people are inspired because they perceive there’s a binary outcome: catastrophic failure or success. Nothing inspires a person more than the belief that their livelihood, their employment, and perhaps their reputation will be adversely affected by a project failing. When your personal equity is at stake, you tend to get inspired pretty quickly. The project manager’s role in these situations is not only to set a vision and direction to avert disaster but to keep the project team members from panic.

Believing in something larger than oneself requires a project manager who can paint the picture of the hero’s journey. This is the typical story of the individual or team who ventures off into the hinterland on a call to action where they learn about themselves, survive adversity, and transform to achieve great things. A little hyperbole here, but in most projects—especially large, transformative ones—there’s more than a hint of truth.

To inspire the belief within your team that a project is a larger-than-life endeavor takes a project manager with a strong ability to discern why the project is being implemented in order to craft the messages and create the values, beliefs, cultures, and messages to sustain a project team’s inspiration.

The Mechanics of Inspiring a Project Team

You inspire a project team by applying some or all of the following five elements. Which ones, and to what extent, requires you to, first, determine what type of project you have (i.e., a burning platform or larger-than-life project) and, second, understand to which of these elements your project team will respond.

1. Establish a vision.

In training youth leaders in Boy Scouts, I teach that a vision is what future success looks like. This is a simple definition that avoids the high-level business speak and baggage that typically accompanies the word “vision.” Your role as the project manager is to understand the why of a project and then articulate this in a simple statement. For example, let’s say your project team is working a project to reduce check-in wait times at a regional airport. Which of the following vision statements is more inspiring?

  1. This project will achieve a 15-percent reduction in time for passengers at check-in.
  2. Project Cronus will enhance the passenger experience by giving time back to every individual.

Those familiar with Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why, will understand that when you can articulate why something is being done, it becomes a lot easier to sort out what needs to occur and how it will happen. Too often, we go at projects from the other direction, starting with how the project will be accomplished and what we will do before finally arrive at why we are doing it.

That’s not particularly inspiring.

2. Develop KPIs and reports that reinforce the vision.

Both of these monitoring and controlling artifacts are standard fare for projects. To make them inspire your project team, you need to craft them to reinforce the vision. While it’s assumed you’ll have key performance indicators and reports that capture data on a project’s scope, cost, schedule, and quality, begin looking at other measures that reinforce the vision you’re attempting to get after.

For example, if your vision is to enhance the passenger experience by giving them time back by streamlining the check-in process, develop a KPI that tracks the time savings in relation to the final goal. The goal is to hit on KPIs and structure reports in such a fashion that project team members have a tangible measure of how their efforts are collectively contributing to achieving the vision.

3. Create a recognition program.

Depending on the size and complexity of the project team, another way to generate inspiration is through a bespoke recognition program. The main goal ties the recognition to the vision for the project and the KPIs, so there’s a clear connection between delivering the goods and good things happening. By recognizing project team members for their contributions toward achieving the vision, you reinforce the values, beliefs, and culture of the project while inspiring others to strive for the recognition as well. Most people like to be recognized for their performance, and some among us thrive on recognition. What better way to inspire project team members than by recognizing key performers?

4. Establish a shared identity.

Another way you can inspire your project team is to develop a shared identity. Some of the ways I’ve achieved this on projects is to use these tangible items:

  • A project name and motto. For example, on the program I’m directing at the moment, we’ve given it the name Project Olympus and the motto Aut Viam Inveniam Aut Faciam, or “I will find a way or make one.” Quite appropriate for project managers!
  • A project logo, which you can put on documents and other artifacts, coffee mugs, shirts, etc.
  • Social events for the project team that also include their family members.
  • A project charter that is based on the key values required for success on the project.

The goal here is to create a culture within the project team that reinforces the vision and inspire project team members to achieve the project’s success.

5. Generate an information campaign.

Inspiring people outside the project team can be a great way for inspiriting people within the project team. The greater external stakeholder community is a great resource for generating inspiration and motivation for a project team. This requires you to craft an information campaign, aka marketing, of your project team’s journey. Posting to social media, uploading photo imagery, maintaining a blog, and providing ‘open project days’ are all great ways to draw inspiration from outside the project team to generate inspiration within the project team.

Inspiring your project team requires a number of skills, chief among them the ability to know your people and knowing how to establish a project vision. Knowledge of your team will help you in selecting the actions you’ll need to take for establishing the values, beliefs, and team culture that will sustain your project team’s inspiration through project completion.

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