How to Lead a Team Project (Or, Please Check Your Assumptions at the Door)

Think back to a recent sales project that you sponsored – from readying your sales and marketing teams for customer line reviews, to rolling out a new web portal for your sales teams. Did the project flow smoothly from start to finish? Or did hidden assumptions create unnecessary obstacles?

When I was in business school, a group of us all trudged out to the wilderness on the second day of orientation for an 8-hour team-building session. During one exercise, I was named “director” of one of two teams tasked with creating a structure out of rope. I was given step-by-step instructions and goals, and I started to read them aloud to my team. Meanwhile, my counterpart did the same with his team. Quickly it became clear that something was wrong — both teams were following a plan, but in no way were they working toward the same goal. It dawned on me that my counterpart and I had been given two completely different sets of instructions, which meant that our teams were barking up two entirely different trees. We all jumped in to the projects assuming our goals were the same.

Had we stopped to level-set our goals before tackling the actual work, we would have saved time and effort, and been more effective leaders. Ever since, that lesson has stuck in my head: At the start of any project, reveal and challenge your assumptions. Here are five steps you can take to make that happen.

Step 1: Call a meeting of your project sponsors and other senior-level executives.

The goal is to get all the leaders on the same page, so that each team will have clear direction. (A conference call will do, but an in-person meeting would cut through the static better.) During the meeting, answer these five questions.

  1. What is the goal of this project?
  2. Why are we pursuing this project now?
  3. What are the steps and plans involved in executing the project?
  4. What resources will you need?
  5. Which departments will need to be involved, and which personnel?

Step 2: Engage in an honest conversation.

Is each person on board with the overall goal of the project? If the answer is “no,” talk through what you’re shooting for. Get to the “guts” of the initiative.

Step 3: Work through resource assignments, deadlines, and reporting frequency.

Sounds easy, right? Not if your head of marketing thinks only 30% of his people are working on the project, when it really needs half of his team. And how do execs want to be apprised of progress? Weekly emails? Hm, little chance for two-way dialogue there. Weekly emails, plus in-person, 20-minute meetings twice a month? Better.

Step 4: Scribe the meeting.

Circulate the notes via email shortly after the meeting closes, with the goal, timeline, deadline, and stakeholders summarized at top.

Step 5: Use a kickoff meeting to align the team on the project.

Your project manager’s job here is to relay the hashed-out, agreed-upon goals that leadership has set, and then describe how the team will get there. This ensures that your teams will spend energy and time on the right activities. Walk through the timeline with the whole team; and acknowledge who will do what, and by when. Discuss any concerns about accountability and due dates now, so that the execution is as close to auto-pilot as possible.

Although email is easy, it’s not always the most effective way to communicate. If your team doesn’t work remotely, encourage them to visit each other’s desks when questions come up for face-to-face conversations. A strong project management tool can also be your best friend when it comes to effective collaboration.

Are you currently struggling with a sales project? Email me at to set up a free 10-minute brainstorming session by phone.

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