People in projects: How to create a team driven by a unity of purpose

Eagle. Houston. You are ‘go’ for landing.’  It is July 20th, 1969. Nasa’s archive recording of Charlie Duke, Mission Control flight controller, captures the moment Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are authorised to proceed to landing onto the Moon surface. Listening to the spellbinding BBC World Service podcast ‘13 Minutes to the Moon’[1] as it brings to live the Apollo 11 mission, ‘the momentous touchdown, the tireless work of the men and women, scientists, engineers, programmers, in the Moon programme, their bravery and dedication, the failures and frustrations, the feats of engineering and technology which came together to achieve that historic moment’, I see the parallels with my own earthly ventures (I am not self-aggrandising! We all relate and translate what we know of the big world to our own circumscript one…), those projects of business transformation where, too, the ‘go’ to launch is the coronation of months, years of effort by people, by teams. ‘Go’, you are ready to launch, you are ready to land the change. ‘No Go’: you are not ready and must go back to the launch pad.

In Part 4 of this series of articles on ‘How to fail quickly (and quickly get it right)’, aimed at the identification of the drivers of success in projects of transformation, I invite you to consider the element of people in projects and to reflect that without the right people, their ability to collaborate and unite behind the project goal, governance will remain ineffective, the ‘mechanism of the delivery’ malfunctioning, the change elusive. This aspect, the people aspect, you must quickly get right.

As a leader, what are you to do?

To support people achieve collaboration and a unity of purpose, you need to understand what drives people and be able to harness their traits and characteristics, the messiness and gloriousness of human nature, to the benefit of the project. To understand these traits you need the power of human empathy, to harness them, you need the power of leadership.

We are about to do something that nobody has ever done, we trained for this all [y]our life, we are going to do it but no matter how this turns out, when we walk out of this room, we walk out as a team, not as individuals’.

With these words, Gene Krantz, Apollo 11 flight director, delivers the address to motivate the Mission Control team throughout the many hours and days of tension and suspense, from lift off to the safe return of the astronauts to Earth.

The power of leadership lies in inspiring people to collaborate and give their utmost. For this to be possible, as a leader, it is crucial to know your people. Gene Krantz knew the systems to some degree but, more importantly, knew the people under him to a better degree and ‘a slight change in intonation from anyone in the team would make him understand something was wrong’.

Getting to yes

This article is not about the cultural interventions advocated by change management theories. No, this is about the people that populate projects of transformation, the roles found in all projects contexts and that manifest, through time and space, such reliably consistent characteristics to become recognisable archetypes. It is about understanding those characteristics so that you, as a leader, can harness their dynamics and strengths. The aim is to create a team that collaborates and is driven by a unity of purpose on the understanding that, as project people, ‘we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.[2].

I set out three such ‘archetypes’ – there are infinitely more – and suggest ways of engagement to bring about the collaboration that leads to ‘go’.  Mine are tactics about ‘getting to yes’ to ‘build a working relationship independent of agreement or disagreement’[3]. What matters are the relationships, the ease of communication, the degree of trust and reliability and mutual understanding, that are developed within a project team, with the strength and direction of a good leader.

Archetype 1: The subject matter expert. Listen. Do not patronise.

Meet her: supremely knowledgeable, she understands intimately, and operates successfully, the processes and practices that support the function she is responsible for. She knows the history, the difficult customers, the myriad convoluted procedures, the underlying policies of all she does – and has known for a long time. She deeply cares about her work and the organisation. The project’s analysts need her for her expertise, for the gap analysis that a new target operating model or technology will instigate, they need her for testing, training, sign off launch, they need her to be supportive of the change.

Tensions might arise in this relationship, understandably, at times, as, protective of her work, she feels that the project team, deadline pressures overwhelming, does not regard detail as carefully as she does. She might declare herself tired of repeating the same thing to the project team, ‘they never listen and when they do, they do not understand’, and readily evidences prior failed transformations. Do not let such a situation emerge.

Know that nothing would please a subject matter expert more than to be consulted so that her knowledge and perspective are built into the transformation. Your strategy of engagement? Establish a relationship of trust. Engage her in ‘business acceptance group’ governance practices. Give her a voice, give her accountability: it is the duty of the business analyst to listen but it is her duty to explain clearly and to accept when the change, in alignment with strategic direction, will come to impact her function. Negotiate with her the ‘business readiness criteria’ and when these are met, ask her to support the ‘go’. In a top 10 FTSE organisation, I turned the subject matter experts into a real asset for the project and the organisation, creating a powerful and effective ‘business acceptance group’ through the change tools and practices I advocated. These ways of working then will remain embedded in the structure of learning of the organisation and bring about lasting transformational thinking.

Archetype 2: The solution architect. Apply logic.

Projects of transformation are multi-headed creatures where legendary complexity (of new target operating model, new technology, organisational redesign) and the knowledge of its disparate aspects is distributed across many professionals: the technologist understands how the system supports a business process, a subject matter expert understands how a process articulates itself across the operations and the solution architect… understands it all! You have met him: self-assured, confident, articulate, I deeply admire – with not a little envy! – his intellectual prowess and mastery of logic and detail.

His expertise and resourcefulness find elegant solutions to wicked problems. At times, beholden to the simplicity of out-of-the-box technology and convinced that only preserving it will deliver the change, he spends hours and days debating points of principle, seemingly unencumbered by the pressure of delivery timelines. At times, his solutions are resisted by the subject matter experts entailing, as they do, a deeper level of change. At times, this brings about an unnecessary tension amongst these teams.

Like the subject matter expert, the solution architect is key to success. What to do to drive collaboration and a unity of purpose? Engage him. Do so by involving him in the project governance where subject matter experts, analysts, project leaders meet to track progress, remove blockers and analyse architectural and business topics, within a context in which a strong and respected leader will provide the ‘fair standard, independent to the will of either side’ and bring about alignment on strategy, tactics and operational detail. In turn, it is this alignment that will give rise to respect and collaboration and bring about the ‘go’. Should you fail to reach alignment, develop your ‘best alternative to a negotiated agreement’[3], a way to move forward where an agreement is reached that, detached from emotions, allows for progress. Engage him through the tool he loves the most: logic. He will recognise that creating an impasse is not his intention and will accept collaboration and alignment as the most logical way to succeed.

Archetype 3: The programme leader. Win friends. Do not alienate people.

‘I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth’. It is May 25th, 1961. Thus John F Kennedy, young US President addresses Congress, communicating a vision infused with a sense of urgency and destiny.

Whilst leaders of JFK calibre are not to be found, liberally, in nature, I have met many extraordinary leaders in projects, directors, managers, work-stream leads, in whom competence, ability to lead, extraordinary articulacy meet. You have met her: able to articulate the critical path and progress so distinctly and confidently she always gains the trust and support of steering boards and the organisational leadership. This articulacy can sustain the life of the project for a very long time and it is the clever thing to do: as everyone in the project pulls hard to keep to timelines, it is politic and clever to portray a world of functioning smoothness as, with a good team and a confident leader, catch up is possible and delivery is likely.

At times, her preoccupation with progress and the pressure of strict, seemingly impossible deadlines, lead her to an unintended remoteness, a closeness to anyone who does not sit at her ‘table’, those analysts, architects, subject matter experts, junior people without whose hard work delivery is impossible and that, when ignored, will feel less valued. The risk? Demotivation takes hold.

What to do? Help her to see the importance of nourishing a team with genuine encouragement and approval, gestures that go a long way in motivating the team, providing the fuel on which the team can run for many delivery miles. Encourage her to meet the team, often, however informally, and communicate the vision, make them part of the vision, so that the team finds meaning in their work. Encourage her in setting up, above and beyond established governance practices, encounters, town hall meetings, once-a-months plenary ‘all hands’ meetings, one-to-ones, after-work drinks, all are acceptable and welcome. Convince her that it is about establishing those relationships whose strength will sustain her in the long term when the times will require heroic commitments.


There is more I could write about. More roles and their glorious archetypes; business analysts, system analysts, process owners, data managers, work-stream leads, project managers, business acceptance groups, their bravery and dedication aimed at bringing a project to ‘go’.  All are in need to be engaged within structures, contexts and just sheer enlightened and fun ways of working that, uniquely, create collaboration and a unity of purpose. But you ought to see the point of the need for genuine engagement of everyone in a project team now.

One more word on the Steering Board.

In Part 2 of this article (‘How to get governance right’), I have written about the steering board in the context of an effective governance. In this article on ‘people in projects’, a final word on this extraordinarily effective body of people, senior, experienced, clever. Direction, support for risk and issues' mitigating actions, removal of emerging roadblocks: the sum of these accountabilities is of immense value to a project knee-deep in operational issues and in need of a guiding hand.

Yet, when I look back at the performance of the governance boards on the projects of change I have led, I have also seen an inability to ask the right questions, an inability possibly rooted in organisational politics, rather than in a lack of investigative skills, given experience and smartness quotient. You have met them: often rivals within the organisation, misaligned with the organisation's own board when it comes to the transformation, the steering board members push their own positions, rather than collaborate to support delivery.

From your own leader role perspective, do not be discouraged: continue to present, truthfully, the tools and the key indicators of progress: a plan, its critical path, a budget, its judicious use, a set of risk and issues and their truthful articulation. A steering board raising questions around these topics will keep the project away from failure. Pre-empt the short, sharp, concrete questions that an effective steering board ought to ask. Questions on how safe is the critical path, questions on tracking against plans, on budget, risk, issues, resources. Pre-empt them. Bring well-substantiated answers to the steering board. You will convince them of your determination to make the project a success and will sweep them along the project journey too.

In the final analysis… it is power to the people!

‘We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard’. It is September 12th, 1962. We are at Rice University, Houston, Texas, where John F Kennedy, young visionary US President delivers one of the most memorable addresses of the 20th century, a vision infused with a sense of urgency and destiny. A powerful vision that, in the words of Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins:

"He [Kennedy] had made our task as simple as possible, it was a very difficult task but he had pinpointed it by saying what you are going to do is land a man on the Moon by the end of the decade and returning him safely to the Earth"

As a leader, it is your fundamental duty to motivate people, create collaboration and a unity of purpose. Without people collaborating and being united behind the project purpose, there is no ‘go’ to launch and there is no adoption.

Gene Krantz: ‘no matter how this turns out, when we walk out of this room, we walk out as a team, not as individuals’, John F Kennedy: ‘we choose to go to the Moon’, are powerful leadership interventions, providing people with a vision and a unity of purpose. But the messiness – and gloriousness – of human nature, the people that populate projects, their uniqueness, traits and characteristics need to be understood, empathised with and, ultimately, genuinely, harnessed to the benefit of the project.

I have set out those ‘archetypes’ for you to relate to, as I have met them, as you have met them, and invite you to think about strategies of engagement with the purpose of bringing about the collaboration a project needs to get to ‘go’. I have suggested a few tactics that have worked with me, again and again. I conclude Part 4 of this article on ‘How to fail quickly (and quickly get it right)’ on the power of people and teams, wishing you many happy ‘go’ and many safe landings.

Double collaborations – a favourite business recipe

Hydra is delighted to collaborate with Francesca Valli. Francesca is a change expert backed by experience and results in transforming organisations. Francesca has managed multi-million £ programmes and delivered trackable change that’s aligned with today’s technology. The end result? Solid results when it comes to return on investment. Her past experience in finance and system analysis gives her an edge in understanding and creating change at the organisational level.

Learn more about Francesca & Chrys Online.


[1] 13 Minutes to the Moon. As told by Kevin Fong (broadcaster, doctor, space scientist). Published by the BBC World Service. Summer 2019. For all Apollo 11 quotes in this article, I am indebted to this splendid podcast.

[2] Jo Cox, a Labour MP who worked tirelessly for a fairer, kinder and more tolerant world. From her ‘maiden speech’ at the House of Commons. Jun 2015.

[3] Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Roger Fisher & William Ury. First published by Penguin in 1981.


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