How to Create a Project Team Culture with Colin Ellis

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I recently did a Live Q&A with Colin Ellis in my Facebook group. Are you a member yet? Sign up for the Facebook Project Management Cafe and join in the discussion. We discussed creating a project team culture. You can watch the video or read the transcript below.

portrait of Colin Ellis
Colin Ellis

Elizabeth:  Hello everybody, it’s Elizabeth here, and welcome to today’s Facebook Live Q&A Session Office Hours that we tend to have on a Friday. Regular participants will know that we normally have these on a Friday afternoon, but because today’s special guest is Colin Ellis, and he’s based in Australia, the timezones just don’t work out for him in the afternoon, so we’re moving the conversation to this morning. I will get him to join the Facebook Live in just a moment.

What I wanted to – ah, maybe there is somebody watching. Swipe left to see my viewers, this is the first time that we’ve really done this. I think it just needs a second to catch up. A-ha, here we go, so now I can invite Colin to our conversation and he will, if I press the right button, and we will invite him to take part in the conversation too. While I’m waiting for Colin to click the button, or do whatever you have to do to get the Facebook magic to work at his end, I just wanted to welcome all the new people to the group this week. We seem to have had about 75 people join the group this week, so if you are new here, welcome.

Colin: Hello.

Elizabeth:  And welcome to Colin. Hello.

Colin: Hello, hello.

Elizabeth:  How are you?

Colin:  I’m really good. Let me just put some more lights on, it’s a bit dark in here. Hang on. There we go, that’s better.

Elizabeth:  Wonderful.

Colin:  Although I do look better in the dark, generally.

Elizabeth:  This week in the Project Management Cafe Facebook group we’ve been talking about team culture and various different bits and pieces, and I know this is something that you’re kind of an expert in, because you’ve been chipping in and answering the questions. How did you get into the whole area of working with teams on culture?

Colin:  It’s one of those things, when I first started out as a project manager I was hired because I was good with people and I could create good teams.

I guess we’ve all got a particular skill, and way back in ’97 when I first started project managing, that was mine. I don’t know what it was, I was just able to create good teams and I always participated in team sports as a kid, and just managed to translate that to work.

One of the things I noticed probably post 2004, when we all went a bit method crazy, was that it’s a bit of a dying art, this creating teams thing. We talk about culture, or as I call it the C-word, we talk about it a lot, but no one really knows. You know, part of the reason why I wrote The Conscious Project Leader was to give people a blueprint on how to create this thing called great teams and good team culture. There’s lots of stuff out there, but no one had ever put it into one place before.

There it is, there it is in all its glory. It’s one of those things that I constantly researched what good looks like, what good should look like, I’ve researched how you do it when you’ve got virtual teams and remote teams, I’ve managed to do that. I’ve done it with different cultures, both within the same country and in different countries, and then constantly evolved this thing called building culture. In a way I’m lucky, it’s just something I’m good at, but it’s just something I’ve researched and carried on being good at.

Elizabeth: Yeah, there’s an element of it fitting, project management as a whole and being able to lead a team, fitting someone’s natural personality, but it is something you can learn, isn’t it?

Colin: Yeah, totally.

Elizabeth:  You can improve. If you struggle to lead a team or to do all the team management stuff, what would you say is the top skill that someone who thinks, “Ooh, I’m not very good at this”, what would be the first thing that they could look at to do better?

Colin:  The first thing they should do is they should get the team of people together and they should talk about their own personality styles. We call this collaboration, but it’s just a group of people getting together and saying, “Hey, this is how I like to work. This is how I like to receive information, this is how I like to process information”, because really once you’ve that base understanding of each other’s personality, you really can start to work well together.

I’m a highly social person, so for me in project management, I was rubbish at planning, like rubbish at planning, when I first started out in project management. I had to shadow someone who was really good at planning to learn that, and so if you’re not good at building teams, maybe if you’re a little bit more introverted, then shadow someone who’s really good at building teams and see what they do.

It always starts with personality. I talk a lot about the fact that we’re in the relationship and communication business, and so everything is built on good relationships, so that’s where people should start, Elizabeth, definitely.

Elizabeth: That’s good. A good tip, yes. There was one question in the Facebook group that I wanted to call out to you, because I thought it was really interesting. It was this one, about, I don’t know if you can see that because it will probably be backwards, “If you could change one thing about teamwork, what would it be?” You’ve seen a lot of different teams, and you see a lot of different dysfunctional teams and very successful, good teams. Some of these people’s comments, the fact that information isn’t being shared within a team and they wish that there was more openness and transparency, and people were kinder to each other.

If you were able to sum up all the things that were wrong with teamwork – well, that would take forever – just pick one thing that’s wrong with our concepts of teamwork. Does that make sense?

Colin:  Yeah, it’s a great question, I’ve got a 45 minute answer for you. What’s wrong with teamwork right now is when we go into teams, we go into teams thinking about ourselves. The one thing that I would change is that everybody going into a team, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a project manager, project coordinator, BA, love you BAs, it doesn’t matter who you are but you should go in with a growth mindset, with a real open mindset in order to discover some things about other people.

Elizabeth, too often what we go in, is we go in with, “This is me, this is what I’m about, this is what’s in it for me”, rather than being really, really open and go, “Okay, I’m really looking forward to this experience, to meeting other people, finding out what works for them, finding out what ticks, and creating this unique thing called culture that we could, if we get it right, talk about forever.”

Elizabeth: Yes, okay. That’s really interesting. I think some of the best projects I’ve worked on haven’t been good because of the actual, you know, the deliverables. One of the top teams that I think of often, we put in some new software and team was amazing, we all knew our roles and carried them out and we got on really well, did all of the good communication stuff and we supported each other, but we had plenty of mishaps.

Not planning properly or having to reschedule things, or overspending here, or missing out something. The deliverables and the project activity were no better or worse than any other projects, we got it done on budget, it was fine, but the team, I think it was the people that made that project so enjoyable.

It lasted a couple of years and it was very repetitive, because it was doing the same thing in lots of different offices, so there’s a sense that actually it could have become quite boring because as project managers we love the new things, don’t we, we love working on new projects, you do something and you deliver it and then you go on and do something else, but it didn’t get boring because I enjoyed working with the people. If you get the right people on the team, it makes a difference, doesn’t it?

Colin: Yeah.

Elizabeth:  How do you get the right people?

Colin:  Well, the best teams, Elizabeth, contain a mix of personalities. Quite often, and I certainly saw this when I was working in technology, is they tend to create teams who’ve got the same personality and you get these real cliques and divisions in the teams.

What you should look to do, organizations talk a lot about hiring for cultural fit, and a project manager has a unique opportunity to create a culture like nothing else before, and you should try and plug the gaps with the personalities that you need.

If you’re highly extroverted, you’re going to need some highly introverted people to make sure that you’re really good on the detail. If you’re highly introverted, you’ll need some highly extroverted people to get the mix right with passion and inspiration and fun.

It’s really then creating something where you can learn from each other and rub off each other, and create an environment which is just fun and you’re not having to tell them it’s fun. Some of the worst teams I’ve ever been on is where the leader said, “This is going to be fun”, and as soon as they say that, inside I’m going, oh my God, this is going to be no fun at all.

Elizabeth:  So not going to be fun, yes. Often we’re in jobs where we just get told, “You need someone and you can have this person, here’s ten resources. Oh, you can’t have her because she’s working on something else, even though she’s the better person for the job, you can have that one.” You don’t always get the chance to dictate who comes into the team.

Colin: No, you don’t, but this is where reputation is built. I’ve been over in Perth in Western Australia this week, and I got asked that very question yesterday.

One guy said, “What happens when you get a team full of people that no one else wants?” “I’m sure that’s not the case”, I obviously had a little bit of a joke about it, but I said, “Getting a team of people that no one else wants is your chance to be great, is to really shine”, because typically what you find in those environments is no one’s ever built the right team where they can flourish.

No one’s been honest with them right at the very start to say, “Here’s what I know about you, but I’m giving you a chance to prove yourself and to be different”, and really build bonds between each other. Do as much as you can to develop a level of understanding, but then really work yourself and the team really, really hard in a positive way in line with their personality.

You know, I had one of those teams once, Elizabeth, and I was dreading it, and yet we did it. I mean, the team did the job, all the credit to them, but they came together and did a great job. It’s a chance for people to really shine in those environments.

Elizabeth: One of the things that you said there was honesty, and to be able to say to people, “Look, this is what I expect, this is what I believe you are capable of, this is how I could help you,” and all the rest of it. I think there’s not enough transparency in the way we talk to people at work, I don’t know why that is.

Colin:  Yeah, it’s not something we’re encouraged to do, and there aren’t enough role models in our business, Elizabeth, for us to look at and go, “The way they do things is the right way to do things.” I’ve been very fortunate in my 30 years of work, and I’ve probably worked with six, about five or six people, who I can recall in my mind and go, “Oh my God, the way that they did these three of four things.”

I think we’ve become so process dominated over the last ten, fifteen years, that every time you see somebody like that it’s like a one in a million. You’re like, “Wow, where did they come from?” And invariably, they don’t stay with the organization because they get quashed by the way we do things around here, and then they go off and consult or go contracting, because they can earn more money or they can have a greater impact doing it that way.

There just aren’t enough role models, and in all of the talks and the training that I do, I encourage people to be role models for other people when it comes to leadership, choosing to be different and also creating teams and environments in which anyone can flourish. We just need more role models.

Elizabeth: I’m feeling inspired already, I’ve only been talking to you ten minutes. What would it be like if I was in one of your all day workshops?

Colin:  Ears are bleeding and everything, yeah.

Elizabeth: Excellent, okay. I think there’s a lot of truth in that, the fact that we have the power to be different, we have the power to lead, and somehow we just assume that actually we don’t have the authority or the influence, or the importance or whatever, to actually do it, so we just do what we’ve always done, which is just churn out the same old paperwork and don’t step up.

But actually, there’s no reason why we couldn’t.

Colin: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a choice, this thing called leadership is a choice, and you can be 18 or 80 and choose to be a leader. I had a fairly robust discussion with someone on Twitter once, saying, “At 18 you can’t be a leader, because you haven’t had the experience”, which is absolute garbage.

It really, really is, because that 18 year old can come in and challenge the status quo in a really positive way, choose to be the person who’s honest, build a team that wants to work for each other, develop a vision, agree some behaviors. It’s little things like that, Elizabeth. You know, I talk a lot about the fact that project managers have three jobs; to build a team, build the plan, deliver the project.

Actually, if you start now as a project manager with just building the team, you’re way ahead of everybody else, because no one does it that way.

Jules Deacon on Facebook said, “Oh, we get consultants to come in and build cultures, is this the right thing?” That’s some of the work that I do, is it right? Probably not, but we’ve kind of got to the point where people don’t know how to do it.

Elizabeth: Yes, we have to bring in a expert.

Colin:  We have to kind of almost go back to basics and show them how to do it, like, “This is how you do it.”

Elizabeth: It’s something that we see quite a lot in project management I think, where you want to do something new or introduce a new methodology and bring in someone who can help you do it, not necessarily because you don’t have the skills within the team to do it, but just because we’re all so busy, and we’re all so siloed or blinkered about the way that we do things around here that having a fresh pair of eyes can be really good.

The fact that we’re paying for that fresh pair of eyes kind of makes us take the outcome more seriously than if someone had just said to you in the corridor, “Why don’t we start looking at this in a different way?” I don’t know, I think when there’s money associated to it, we commit more. It’s different for me.

Colin:  You know, Elizabeth, that’s so true. For the last three years I was working in New Zealand, I worked as a contractor, and I had way more influence as a contractor than I ever did as a permanent employee.

Not in every organization, there was certainly one where we just got it right as a senior team, but generally I was given free reign to do things, and actually possibly I had more courage as well because I was able to say, “Well, hey, I know this works, and if you don’t want me to do it, cool, I’ll get another role.” Whereas as a permanent employee, I would never have said that probably, you know?

Elizabeth:  Yeah.

Colin: Then when I emigrated here to Australia, I’m like, no I’m going to have the courage to do some things different, and project managers out there, all you need to do is do your meetings really, really well for a month and people will be like, “Who’s that person? Why are they doing it in that way? Why do they always have chocolate biscuits?” You know, secret sauce of getting believed in.

Elizabeth:  I want to be in your meeting. Apart from chocolate biscuits, what else is your top tip for meetings, then, to make them more memorable?

Colin:  Don’t start on the hour, and don’t finish on the half hour or on the hour. Everyone has just got lazy, because they use Outlook, they can’t be bothered to click twice to change the meetings. I think you should master the 20 minute meeting, start at 5 past, finish at 25 past.

If there are actions, make sure you do those first, or do your priorities first, and never, ever, ever, ever let people be late to your meetings. As soon as they are, you talk to them afterwards and say, “Hey, everyone else was here on time, I want to see you on time.” Never let anybody disengage. “Hey, I’d appreciate if you didn’t look at your phone”, that’s a little bit of courage that we need to do that, as soon as you do it once or twice, people don’t do it.

I worked with a senior team in Western Australia this week, and I gave them a quick liquid in, liquid out break, and I said, “Okay, you’ve got ten minutes. I’ll start again at 11 o’clock.”

Elizabeth: Liquid in, liquid out?

Colin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sorry.

Elizabeth: What’s with that?

Colin: They like to call it morning tea, Elizabeth, I’m just being slightly different. It’s memorable, right? Anyway, I said I’d start at ten past eleven, and at ten past eleven half the room wasn’t back, so I just started.

Everybody who came in was made to feel so awkward, and the general manager, I said, “Hey Richard, I said we’d be back at ten past.” He was like, “Oh, the lift was really slow.” I was like, “Oh, so you’re really poor at risk management, then?” It’s making those little points. No one was late back after that, not a single minute past the time.

Elizabeth: Be brave, I think is the summary of that.

Colin:  Yeah, have a little bit of courage, and do it in the right way. You don’t have to be an idiot about it, and if people are late, don’t jump back and go, “Oh, what you missed was …” Yeah, don’t do that.

Elizabeth: Okay, strict but nice about it.

Colin:  Strict but nice, yeah. I should put that on my business card – Colin D. Ellis, Strict But Nice. That could be the title of my next book. Strict but nice, I love it.

Elizabeth: On the subject of your book, I felt that as we normally do a book of the week, here we go, The Conscious Project Leader. Our book of the week is Colin’s book.

Colin:  Thank you.

Elizabeth: Tell people how they can get hold of it.

Colin:  You can get it on Amazon, you can get it as a Kindle book, you can order it on Amazon. If you want to go onto my website you can get it on the website, and if you’re a real glutton for punishment and you don’t mind a soft Scouse Liverpool accent, you can get it on audiobook as well.

Although, I have to say, apparently you’re supposed to read the book exactly, yeah, no, I adlibbed many, many times. I turned into Liam Gallagher of Oasis half way through and sang ‘Rock and Roll Star’, just a bunch of stuff. If audiobooks are your thing, yeah, do that. You might find it mildly amusing.

Elizabeth:  Great. Okay, I know that we only have you for 20 minutes, so is there anything else that you wanted to add just before we wrap up?

Colin:  I want to say the thing that I talk about all the time is the best project is a result of the person that leads it, or the environment they create. That’s you, as project managers, making the choice to do some things differently and then getting the team involved in creating this thing called culture, and-,

Elizabeth:  Oh, we’ve frozen on Colin’s end.

Colin: Oh, sorry, I had a call come through. No one ever phones me at this time of night. Yeah, sorry about that everybody. This thing called culture, get everybody involved and create something that people talk about for years, you have that choice.

Elizabeth: Okay, fantastic. Well, thank you so much for chipping into the Facebook group and answering people’s questions.

Colin:  My pleasure.

Elizabeth: And talking about it has been so interesting. I think this whole idea of team culture is something we should be able to do, it’s totally within our power to be able to create the culture for the team, whatever level, whatever size of project that we’re working on.

Colin: Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more.

Elizabeth:  Okay, well thanks everybody for watching, and I’ll see you in next week’s video. Look forward to talking to you then. Thanks, bye.

Colin:  Thanks, bye.