There are secret experts with hidden knowledge on every project management team. So why aren’t they speaking up?
Every member of a project management team brings with them different strengths and experiences that can improve a team’s performance. For many years, my assumption was that team members will fully utilize and share their strengths and preferences to add value to the team’s goals. Strengths-Based Leadership is a model where leaders thrive by utilizing their strengths, the attributes or qualities that account for successful performance (Northouse, 2018 p. 48). After deploying projects for over 10 years, I am often shocked and surprised to learn that there are secret experts with helpful information or knowledge, hidden on every team.
What it looks like is this: As a Project Manager, at the end of each project I walk through all the risks and issues that were experienced along the way. The core team goes into detail about what happened, what it caused, and what we can learn from these instances to prevent future issues from occurring. Common questions that are asked are: “Could this have been avoided? Was there another way we could have gone?” It is after this question where these secret experts begin to reveal themselves. Phrases like, “There are better options than what we chose,” or “I knew by doing this, we would sacrifice quality or have some problems.”
How did this happen? These core team members knew all along that we could have prevented some risks and issues and said nothing? While it is easy to blame them, the more relevant question is: “What team environment was I creating where expert members are choosing not to voice their concerns?” As the leader, I realized there are things I can do to bring these experts out of hiding.
Bringing the Experts Out of Hiding
It seems that my initial assumption was wrong. It turns out, not every team member is willing to share their strengths, ideas or suggestions unless you create an environment where you invite and allow this to happen. I rely on strength theory to share my experience and strengths with my core team. I then invite the entire team to do the same.
Strength theory states that, “Telling others about our strengths is important because it lets them know how we can be most useful when working or collaborating together, clarifying the unique contributions we can make to others and their work” (Northouse, 2018, p. 60). I take it a step further; I also share my preferences and my weaknesses and allow the team to do the same. While this may seem like a strange choice from a leader, I have found the following benefits by doing this:
- When teams share their past experiences, you get glimpse of what they have done so you can reference this if needed.
- When teams share their strengths, they are making clear where they can add value.
- When teams share preferences, they identify what roles and tasks they want and will thrive at. By doing this, they are also sharing what they don’t want.
- When teams share weaknesses, they are allowing for others on the team to fill that gap and need while setting realistic expectations.
Having done this many times, I have found that team members will share after the leader does. Additionally, by creating an environment where everyone can speak up, you eliminate those silent experts because they become active and engaged team members. So how does one do it? It’s quite simple.
First, you have to meet certain requirements:
- Your leadership must agree to the prioritization of the project;
- You must know who are the critical core team members and they must be assigned and dedicated to your project;
- You must know what the goal/objective is for the team;
- You must know what the expected timeline is to complete your goal/objective.
Once you have all of this, you can have Project Kick Off where introductions take place. The first meeting is to get acquainted and to discuss the four requirements listed above and get alignment and buy in from the core team members. This is the same meeting where you will discuss your team communication plan. To end this meeting, you will say that the next meeting will consist of walking through roles and responsibilities where the team will also share strengths, weakness, preferences and experience (as it applies to the current project). This is important because some people need time to provide this information.
As the leader, you need to be prepared for the next meeting. Most team members will share based on the quality of what the leader does. Additionally, as the leader, you should document this information as it comes in. I recommend moving through the topics one at a time, so that everyone shares strengths before moving on to experiences.
Here is a 4-step process for finding hidden experts on project management teams, through strengths based leadership:
- Introduce yourself and the strengths you bring to the project. Allow the team to do the same.
- Share your experience as it pertains to this project. Allow the team to do the same.
- Share your preferences regarding roles and responsibilities, tasks, etc. as it pertains to this project. Are there things you prefer not to do? Allow the team to do the same.
- Share your weaknesses, specifically asking “where can I use help?” Allow the team to do the same.
Once you have gone through this exercise (and documented it), the team will build the plan and schedule for the project. You can reference this document throughout the project lifecycle. As the team encounters tasks, dependencies, risks and issues, you can be cognizant of where your team members’ strengths and weaknesses are, and where they prefer to be. If there is a task that no one on the team prefers to do, this becomes a team conversation where you acknowledge that there is not a person who wants this, but the team can work together to find the strongest person(s) to complete the task.
Creating an environment where teams can share in their strengths, weaknesses, preferences and experience and have honest and open dialog, yields two very important benefits: you eliminate the secret expert on your project, and you have less risks/issues reported in the project overall.
As a Project Manager, the goal is to deploy projects while mitigating and controlling risks and issues. If you can achieve this by simply sharing openly and honestly and allowing others to share in the same safe environment, isn’t it worthwhile?
This method can be helpful in the work setting on projects and programs but feel free to be creative and use it any time you have a team dynamic.
Lucie T. is an Enterprise Project Manager/Process Engineer with SurveyGizmo, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Benedictine University’s Values-Driven Leadership Program.