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Optimal project teams with beavers, bears and eagles

Experienced project managers know what it takes to make projects successful. It needs a clear mission. It needs support and timely decisions by the management. And it needs resources as well as a suitable project team. Most of these requirements can be well described and some can be quantified. It is, however, not so easy to create a suitable project team. Experts are usually the first choice when deciding who is essential for a team. After all, only they know the answers to technical questions in the project. So this sounds like a logical approach. But why do pure expert teams fail so often, especially when the project has to deal with more obstacles than usual, when the plan needs to be changed from scratch or when conflicts arise? This observation leads to a couple more questions: How does a project team look like that can handle complex and sometimes chaotic projects? What skills do they need?

The easiest way to illustrate this is with a small fable.

A beaver, a bear and an eagle

A beaver lives near a mountain stream. The dam, which he has built, heaps up the water of the mountain stream. Thus, the entrance to his beaver home is under water and his children are protected from fox attacks. One day, the water level begins to drop in the beaver’s reservoir. The reason is quickly found. There is much less water flowing than usual. The beaver searches for the cause, wanders a bit upstream, but does not find anything within his limited radius of action.

So the beaver does what needs to be done. He applies all of his beaver knowledge and makes the dam higher and stronger while also sealing it. And lo and behold, it helps. The water level stabilizes. But the next day the beaver sees that a better dam does not solve the problem, the water level is dropping slowly and steadily. One night and no longer – then the fox will be able to reach the entrance of the beaver home on dry foot. The beaver thinks of his three new-born children, small, soft fur-balls and completely defenseless.

A little bit up the hill, a bear is looking for honey and makes an discovery: the tree with one of his favorite bee nests has fallen. Worse, the tree has fallen into the stream, redirecting the river. The bee nest is destroyed, there is nothing to get here.

High up an eagle is circling. At one glance, he recognizes that the beaver’s distress and the bear’s concerns are interlinked.

The bear is a good-natured fellow who gets along with all animals. On his way down the river, he made a big haul, he ate well and he still has a fish in his mouth as he is passing the beaver’s reservoir. The bear sits down for a rest at the lake and gives the beaver half of his fish. The beaver tells him of his distress and the bear is listening attentively. The eagle is also attracted by the smell of fish. The bear willingly leaves him the other half of the fish. Now, the eagle tells the two other animals about the tree that blocks the stream and redirects it. Now the bear also sees what the fallen tree has caused. The three discuss what to do. The path to the tree trunk is far, too far for the beaver who cannot walk far. So the bear takes the beaver on his arm and carries him up the river. When they arrive, the beaver immediately starts to work and gnaws the fallen tree into two. The water is flowing back into the old streambed. The water level in the beaver’s dam rises, the beaver’s family is saved. The problem of the beaver is solved.

Project teams with beavers, bears and eagles

Project teams with beavers, bears and eagles

Beaver competence, bear competence, eagle competence

Projects are dealing with large and minor problems and they rarely concern fallen tree trunks. There is, however, one thing common between the described beaver problem and our problems in projects. It is that it usually takes all three fields of competence that the beaver, the eagle and the bear stand for to solve a problem. It takes professional competence to adequately solve the concrete problem, in our example the beaver. It takes social competence to bring all those who can contribute to the solution of the problem together, in our example the bear. And it takes problem-solving and methodological competence to ask the right questions, change perspectives, and give direction – in our example the eagle. If you take advantage of all competences in the problem-solving process, then you can quickly and efficiently find effective solutions. This is the ideal state.

Focus on professional competence and the consequences

However, I have observed something else in many projects that I have been able to accompany in recent years. When creating the team, the focus is often on professional competence. Then the whole project team consists of experts, most of them very beaver-like. In such projects, two things happen quite often in my experience:

One thing is: a team is never fully a team. People work individually very well but there is never any kind of team spirit, a feeling of togetherness. The project team members work a lot and also work a lot together but they keep their distance on a personal level; they know nothing of each other that goes beyond their profession and they are also not particularly interested in it. In meetings, discussions are focused on the subject from second one. There is no honest friendly greeting, no short small talk. And most importantly: there is no noticeable, mutual appreciation. The mood is strangely impersonal.

These are projects that lack bears since bears are social fillers. Such projects will then be in trouble if they cannot focus on the subject anymore, if unforeseen events occur, if conflicts arise. Such projects are always in trouble since unforeseen events always occur in complex projects. A frequent question is then how this could have happened. All experts were on board.

The other thing that frequently happens in such projects is that the project drifts off. With drifting off I mean that the direction of the project gradually changes but no one is actively responsible for this change. New requirements emerge and more and more of these requirements are being worked on over time. Problems arise because problems always arise and as time goes on, these problems become the focus of the work instead of the original project goal. Most resources go into solving specific questions that are highly interesting. And most of the time, experts are very invested into solving these questions as they can apply and even expand their entire expert know-how. But if you look at it from a broader perspective, too many work goes into details and the project goal itself does little progress.

Such projects feel very good in contrast to the projects that lack bears. Work is being done, things are moving forward and the mood is good. It is noticeable that a team is working. For such projects, however, the surprise comes at the end or in the interim report to the management. These meetings are often very unpleasant and sometimes unfriendly where the project manager or the whole project team is given a piece of the management’s mind. Because no management will understand a project team that has a set project goal and then goes into a completely different direction. These are projects that lack eagles. Complex or large projects often have this problem.

In successful projects, on the other hand, a good mix of different personality types can be observed. This means that there are always people who are experts in their field and solve the questions and problems as best as possible (beaver). There are always people who ensure that everyone involved is working well together (bears), who are responsible for communication and the good spirit, and recognize and deal with conflicts at an early stage. And finally, there are always people who are good at changing the perspectives, i.e., they see a problem not only in detail but also from the management’s point of view, they question decisions, they demand and ensure structure and they frequently ask whether they are working on the right issues that give the project direction (eagle).

Are you a beaver, a bear or an eagle?

The results of the individual members of the project team can then be summarized to a team result. It is important that you have one or more persons with a very high degree in each competence dimension.

What is your personal profile and that of your team? Are you well positioned in all dimensions? Are there white spots? If they are serious, it may be necessary to replace a team member. Often, however, the team is already aware of the deficit. If it is transparent that a team is lacking bears, then the team can also agree on bear rituals to compensate for this. The same applies for the lack of eagles. Take a look at how well you are doing! But be warned – you might be surprised …

After finishing high school and his apprenticeship, Georg Jocham studied structural engineering and business management. Then he worked in the strategy consulting and industry fields for several years. Over the past decade until today, his work concerned the questions how to solve problems and how to be a better problem solver within an organization. Georg Jocham will gladly help you if you want to become a better problem solver or improve your organization’s skills in solving customer issues.

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