The Importance of Cooperation and Collaboration in Project Teams

As a young professional I was interviewed for a secondment role to join a client delivery team as project manager.  After about 10 minutes of general chit chat, I thought the interviewer would start asking the difficult questions; instead he stated that he had just wanted to check that I didn’t have “two heads or something” and that he had heard and seen enough — could I start the following week?

Later, I realised the purpose of the interview was (of course) to confirm I could do the job, (presumably) to make sure I was fairly ‘normal’, but most importantly (and surprisingly to me at the time) assess how well I would fit in with the existing team.

I read a book by historian Yuval Noah Harrari over the Christmas break titled: Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow. One of the many interesting hypotheses he explores is how we humans advanced to become the dominant lifeform on the planet today. Now, you might think that it’s due to our superior intelligence — thanks to a larger brain size — and tool marking abilities. However Harrari argues that, while these may have helped, it was actually our ability to cooperate flexibly, with a large number of strangers working together to realise a common goal that clinched it.

The parallels between Harrari’s hypothesis about our rise to the top of the food chain and project development and delivery struck me immediately. After all, what is a project if not a piece of work that requires effective team and stakeholder collaboration and cooperation to solve a problem or deliver a benefit?

The best performing projects I have been involved with and (not coincidentally) the ones I have enjoyed the most, are those where there was a real sense of ‘team’ and where team members collaborated and cooperated to achieve the project goals.

The best performing projects I have been involved with are those where team members have collaborated and cooperated to achieve the project goals.

On paper it doesn’t sound like much, but stop and think about the different backgrounds and expertise of individuals working on large projects, each with different priorities and views as to how the project outcome should be achieved. The diversity of opinions and beliefs need to be harnessed and influenced, and it is only through discussion, negotiation and teamwork that they will come to agreement on how the team will attain success. It is those who have empathy and good interpersonal skills (i.e. team players) who can contribute most to that success.

A real-life example of this was the management of the Sydney Swans AFL team under Coach Paul Roos in the 2000’s. Roos implemented a “no dickheads” policy whereby it didn’t matter how much talent a player possessed; if they didn’t or couldn’t fit in with the team and the culture they were fostering then they weren’t welcome. Many have attributed the Swan’s premiership win in 2005 and grand final showing in 2006 at least in part to Roos’ approach.

As my career has progressed, I have come to the conclusion that team fit is critical for successful delivery of projects and including team fit criteria as part of the recruitment process gives a project a strong start and the best chance of success.

Project delivery requires technical know-how and, more importantly, the ability to manage people and their individual quirks and belief systems. Fantastic technical skills, general intelligence or specific personality traits will only get you so far. It is individuals with the ability to work in teams who will deliver solid progress and great outcomes for everyone involved.

Warwick Allanson is a highly skilled project manager and estimator with over 20 years’ experience and he leads our Darwin team.