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Sunday, October 13, 2013

Have YOU Exploited your Project Team Today?

Let me ask you an important question:

Have you Exploited your Project Team Today?

Wait a minute, Exploit your Project Team? You are probably thinking - He can't be serious. That's a horrible, evil thing to do, right?

You probably also have visions of unfair wages, an evil boss, overworked and under-appreciated staff, things like that. Unfortunately, that does happen - but it is not what I am talking about.

You really should exploit your team - and a trip to the toy store made me come to view this as a viable management approach. 

Wisdom from the Toy Store

While shopping for a birthday present for one of my children, I came across the following toy that you first assemble, and then play with:

"Exploiter"? My initial reaction was to take offense at the words on the box. My second reaction was to take a photo. Translated instructions from a foreign country are often quite humorous, but it is less common to have the label or name of a product be so obviously "wrong". It was one of those you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it moments.

I paced around the store, agitated, thinking about what a poor message this was giving to our children - nobody wants to be exploited, and if you exploit someone, you are obviously a bad person - right?

When I came back around to that shelf, I saw that there was more wording on the box, so I pulled out my phone and took another photo:

Well, now wait a minute - "As a Team, We Can Accomplish Anything"? That does not sound particularly evil. In fact, it sounds like a good Leadership message. Maybe I wouldn't complain to the store manager just yet.

I left the store empty-handed but with my head full of questions. How could there be such a disconnect on the product packaging? What was going on? How could we reconcile the negative and positive messages?

I looked up the definition for this troublesome word, one that is most often used in a particularly negative light.


Pronunciation: /ɪkˈsplɔɪt, ɛk-/
[with object]

    1 make full use of and derive benefit from (a resource):500 companies sprang up to exploit this new technology

    2 make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand:the company was exploiting a legal loophole
    benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying them:women are exploited in the workplace

This was not a problem of definition or even interpretation - the manufacturer most likely looked up the word in the dictionary, saw the positive English definition (Make full use of and derive benefit from a resource), and decided it was a great name to use for their product. Maximize benefits? Make full use of resources? Great lessons to teach our children, without a doubt.

Did they miss the mark on appreciating the common (negative) usage of the word in English-speaking countries? Absolutely.

Some words just get a bad rap - they are neither good, nor bad, and they can sometimes be both. What is important is how they are used. 

So - not really an evil toy, then.

But how does this apply to projects and managing teams? Should we exploit our teams?

The answer is yes - not only should we, but we must, in order to have successful project outcomes. We just need to stick to the positive definitions.

On your projects, you should definitely make full use of and derive benefit from your resources, starting with your Project Team. Your project team is critical to your project success; they have the skills and expertise to get the job done. 

However, you should steer well clear of the negative definitions - make use of (a situation) in a way considered unfair or underhand, or benefit unfairly from the work of (someone), typically by overworking or underpaying them. You should, instead, always treat people fairly and respectfully, and show them they are valued.

Remember also that your project team actually extends out beyond the dedicated core group you have assigned to your project; your extended project team includes your stakeholders, customers, and other subject matter experts - essentially, anyone that has some involvement with your project can be considered part of the project team, and someone you can look to for help, decisions or advice.

If you are scratching your head on a problem that you and your immediate project team do not know the answer to, make sure to exploit the extended project team to get your questions answered so that you can move on to the next challenge. Make effective use of your available resources to help you reach the goals of the project.

"Big deal", you say - "I am already using my project team to get the work done".

True, you are certainly using your team to deliver your project deliverables, and work with vendors or customers. But you may not actually be exploiting them fully, in order to achieve the maximum benefit from their efforts and abilities.

There is nothing draconian about this; in the end it comes down to good leadership, and getting to know your team - their behaviours, strengths, skills - and desires.

How to EXPLOIT Your Team

How will you know if you are properly exploiting your team (and yourself)? Here are some key tips to make sure you are doing it properly - i.e. with the positive usage of the word EXPLOIT:
  • (E)nergy: Do your team members have passion for what they are doing? It is a good idea to understand what tasks they are really interested in and care about. They may not yet have the full set of skills, but if they have the drive they can learn those fairly quickly. In addition, they will often produce a better outcome than a dis-interested person who has the required skills out-of-the-box.

    Tip> Assign people to tasks that they have energy and passion for, and they will usually exceed your expectations.
  • E(X)perience:  Do your team members have the necessary experience to understand all the ins-and-outs of that particular area? If no-one has much experience in that particular area, does their other experience or skills make them the best fit for their particular role on the project? Can you bring someone (even on a short term basis) to help fill in that experience gap as your team ramps up? Remember that projects generally introduce new ideas to an organization, so you can't expect to start your project with a full set of experts in all areas.

    Tip> Try to ensure you have the necessary experience within your team in order to competently approach the project tasks; if there are gaps, work to fill them as best you can.
  • (P)lanning: Are you scheduling and coordinating  their assignments effectively - i.e. are you, as the Project Manager, doing your best to optimize the planning of the project, including maintaining full awareness of dependencies as you sequence activities for the short and long term? Are your team members following the plan?

    Tip> While you are planning, engage all available members of the team for their input. You need their expertise and wisdom to create a realistic, effective plan - and you also need their buy-in to the plan. Building it together with them helps accomplish that.
  • (L)everaging Resources: Are you and your team appropriately utilizing the other "experts" on the project (i.e. the extended project team)? This includes involving your Stakeholders and other key groups as needed in order to support the project. 

    Tip> Look to the wider team to help you solve some of the bigger problems. You may not be able to get much of their time, but they can often help you by providing guidance, sharing wisdom and helping you make decisions.
  • (O)pen to Change: Are you adapting to changing conditions, or are you "sticking to the original plan, no matter what?" At the beginning of your project, your planning would have been primarily high-level, and based on a number of assumptions. Along the way, additional details and complexity emerge that will need to be dealt with - either by adapting the plan, or figuring out how to work around them. Some changes may end up altering your project significantly, while others may take you on a different path to the same destination. However, if your map is no longer current, you may no longer know how to get "there" from where you are now.

    Tip> Check your plan on a regular basis, and update the details for the next stage (or the next several months) as you go along. Detail day-to-day and week-to-week planning will of course be more tactically focused, but always keep the strategic goals of the overall plan in mind.
  • (I)nform: Keep your team up to date and in the loop of what is happening on in the wider project and when things come up that will affect their area. Of course, you need to keep your stakeholders and Sponsor regularly informed as well. One of the most important aspects of every successful project is  open, honest communication. A well-informed team is more confident, has higher levels of trust, and produces better results.

    Tip> Communicate widely, and communicate often. You will need to tailor  communication to be appropriate for your audience, of course - but communicate you must, for the full duration of your project. Failure to communicate can attract unwanted dragons to your project.
  • (T)rust: Do you trust your team members to do their best, with the interests of the project at heart? Do you have the trust of your team? Do your stakeholders and the sponsor trust your ability to get the job done, and complete the project successfully? If the answer to any of the above is "no", you have a long, steep road ahead of you. Trust is an essential element of working together effectively. Without it, your team may feel you are exploiting them - with all of the full negative implications of the word.

    Tip> Do everything you can to build trust within your team, as early as possible within the project. Of course, you will need to earn (and continue to earn) their trust, which starts by being authentic (do as you say you will do), and communicating openly and honestly. You also need to show that you trust them by letting them do the tasks you assign them - without second-guessing or micro-managing them. They will make mistakes, yes - but provide guidance and support instead of judgement, and you will earn their respect and begin to develop a good team with healthy levels of trust.


Exploiting the project team and other resources in a positive way is what most successful Project Managers already do. We usually call it by other names - good leadership, good planning, and good project management.  

Don't be afraid to use the word, and educate the masses about its other use. Exploitation is neither good, nor bad - it is the intention behind it that makes the difference.

One final definition: 
Pronunciation: /ˈɛksplɔɪt/

    1 a striking or notable deed; feat; spirited or heroic act: Against all odds, the project team delivered the project successfully, on time and within budget. The Project Sponsor shared stories of the team's exploits, and they became famous throughout the land.

Well, we can all dream, right? :-)

Good luck with your projects, and remember to fully exploit your project teams (to everyone's benefit) each and every day.

Gary Nelson, PMP

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed the post Gary,

    I think the trick is to exploit your team in a way that doesn't leave them feeling exploited. The world is a very nuanced place.