You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink …. unless you salt his oats.

I love horses, and always have. I’m not so sure that my horses love me, though. Maybe they never have. Likewise, I love teams and working with teams especially high performing ones. However, I’m not so sure all my teams have loved working with me!

My quarter-horse, “Dusty” is what we call a “pasture ornament” now. She developed degenerative knee disease and will have to eventually be put to sleep once the time comes where she won’t be able to move effectively. It is the way with horses, and when that day comes I will be – naturally – very sad. My wife’s horse is a Tennessee Walker, probably more suited to riding at my age, and she has graciously allowed me to take her horse out for trail riding in order to satisfy my passion for riding. Dusty and I have made many good memories in trail riding as well as competing in local horse shows for barrels and pole benders. She was fast – under 20 seconds on barrels and under 30 in pole benders for our best times. Considering what she was carrying that’s a good horse – high performing as we would say in project management terms.

There are several things you learn when working with horses. There are lots of training approaches, some heavy handed and some that we often refer to as like a “horse whisperer”. What I can tell you about horses is that they don’t do anything they don’t want to do. Dusty would only perform well in the horse shows if she wanted to or cross a stream on a trail if there was a reason for her to do just that. People use the phrase “stubborn as a mule” but I’m certain it’s the horse part of the mule that makes them so stubborn.

What does that have to do with teams, or more specifically, team members?In my experiences as a project manager, team members don’t do anything they don’t want to do. In previous articles in this series we’ve discussed how project managers have to be able to get work accomplished, deliverables delivered, and meet high expectations with a team with which you typically don’t have a lot of authority.And to be quite plain about the matter, truth is you don’t have authority over a horse either. But there are several things you learn about how to get the desired behaviors out of a horse that can be applied in getting the same out of a team. That is the subject of this among the 10 things I’ve learned as a Project Manager.

Horses are social animals – people more so. When my wife and I are driving through the countryside and pass a place with a single horse in a patch of a pasture we just cringe. Horses are very social animals, pack animals technically speaking. When you observe a herd of horses for a period of time you will see relationships build and fall apart, allegiances and alliances develop, and, yes, domination by a male and female. It is actually very fluid.

Teams are social entities. People need relationships to thrive, it is not good for a man to be alone as it is written. There is a social fabric to a team that naturally evolves, for good and for bad. Like with all social entities, allegiances and alliances develop and there is a tendency for domination to arise. We allow and disallow thoughts, ideas, concepts and communications based largely on those social relationships. A stratification within these relationships is a natural outcome of the team’s interactions, the question for the project manager is – how do we ensure the stratification will support the performance of the team.

For clarification purposes, I’m not referring to the social fabric of the team as to whether they are good friends, all align to a contemporary way of thinking or feel like the planet needs to be saved. Whether that’s true or not, the focus is on how we, as a social entity, work together to achieve the project objectives and deliver quality project products. Most likely that is best achieved with a diversity of people from all walks of life, because each of those bring a unique perspective to the team. It all resides in two things, respect of the person and leaving your personal passions at the door. We all have our personal convictions, religious perspective, political affiliations – I know I do – but that is not the basis for our team’s social relationships. It is, instead, the work that is the focus of how we interact as a team.

The Team Charter, whether formal or informal, is one of the primary tools you have as a PM to help guide the team to a positive social experience. Establishing norms that drive the team’s focus on the work to be done and the team’s agreements on how they will interact to do the things they are on the hook to do.

If you get them to do the thing you’re asking – then stop.In one of the first significant project management roles I was asked to take on I was leading a team that started to fray significantly. There came a point where some interactions between me and team members got escalated and the senior leadership felt compelled to hold a team meeting to get to the root of the problem. During that session one of the team members spoke directly to me and said, “you’re getting what you want, what’s the problem?”.

In truth, I was the root of the problem. As a relatively inexperienced but well-educated project manager I was full of best practice ideas and process efficiency expectations that the team wasn’t as interested in as I felt was required. But the team members statement was a realization that regardless of how closely the team would follow my directive path the deliverables were still being accepted with the appropriate level of quality. My preoccupation with practices and process obscured my vision that the control objectives were being met, the team was tackling the work and the more I tried to push my agenda the more it disrupted the social fabric of the team. I recognized the truth in his words and committed to keeping my focus on doing the right thing by both the team and the process. And to ignore the dart board in the team room with a printout of my face pinned to it.

This is true in training horses. The goal of a training session may be to teach one new thing. Once they do that one thing you stop. They may forget that one thing by the next session, so it will require reinforcement at various times.

There are very many different “best practices”. One of the concepts I like about Disciplined Agile is the recognition that there is no one best practice that a project needs to follow. It is all about choices the team makes in how they want to work, with the project manager or leader ensuring the control objectives are met.

When leading teams that are considering choices on how they are going to do the work, choosing between practices and processes, I like to follow the rule that there are any number of ways of getting your deliverables accomplished, but controls are not optional. I have defined controls as “doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way”. It is the “right way” part of that phrase that can cause some confusion. The “right way” in my understanding has more to do with ensuring we have used our resources appropriately to deliver the right thing at the right time, not whether we have followed a standardized process. Let the team have the flexibility to socialize on the best use of their time and talents to bring deliverables for review and acceptance.

Horses need space – people need a home.To expand on the social fabric of the team, I’d like to dive a little deeper into the concept of the project team being a “safe space”. This term is being used quite often and I’m not sure that there is a common understanding of what the term means or how it’s applied. To me this isn’t a physical space, but rather an environment.

The general rule of thumb for horses is the first horse needs two acres, and one acre of pasture for every other horse. We had six acres for our two horses and that was plenty of space for them to do what is natural for them to do. What is natural for them to do? Well, it’s graze, rest and poop. Sorry, don’t mean to sound crass but that’s pretty much what horses do when they’re not interacting with us humans in riding or training. Horses sleep very little compared to us, maybe a handful of hours in a day. Other than that they are grazing, resting and laying out good old horse “piles”.

The point is they need that space to have the freedom to do what it is they naturally do. That, to me, is the concept I think of when I hear the term “safe space”. Not a place to hide, but a place where our best talents, skills and abilities can thrive. This can take on many different forms, and people are amazingly creative when it comes to creating spaces for themselves to do what is natural for them. The project manager’s role in this is can be to help team members find their place on the team. This may take all our tricks on engaging people in the team interactions to accomplish, but each team member should feel comfortable in their team “space”.

The deliverables for a project team may be highly collaborative in nature, or they may more be dependent on individual work and contribution to accomplish. That’s also a good topic of discussion with our team norms, and how we can best use our time based on the demands of the deliverables. This also can cut both ways, some team members are more inclined to socialize regularly, others less so. Regardless, we owe it to the team to help guide them into the right distribution of their time and at the minimum prevent disruptions that don’t add value to the team makeup, contribution to the deliverables or infringe on the respect of the members themselves.

When there’s a lot of “new” – go slow with change. If I’m taking a horse on a trail they haven’t ridden before, it’s the wrong time to introduce anything else new to their experience. For example, if I want to introduce them to a new tack item, such as a different bridle or saddle blanket, I will want to introduce them to that change in a familiar place where they are comfortable. This is even more true when trying out a new bit, this can get “interesting”, shall we say, in any environment.

Rarely do “big bang” project rollouts achieve success. Often taking on a lot of change in a sudden explosion of “new” to the user or customer will draw on all our project reserves to manage effectively. It will likely result in a lot of resistance to the change if nothing more than it’s tough for the user or customer to take it all in. I have come to learn that in planning implementations for major new functionality or systems is to take our time, and figure out how best to “break up” the deliverables in a staged roll-out with a healthy contribution towards managing the change and letting the end users gain experience and confidence in what they are receiving.

In order to accomplish this, we can effectively engage the users at every step in the process. We are taught as project managers that stakeholder influence should decrease as time progresses on a project. That is true for both traditional as well as agile types of delivery methodologies, the team should be more familiar with the needs and expectations of the stakeholders as they deliver through whatever phases or sprints or whatever we want to call it. However, I don’t necessarily think this is as true as it relates to managing the change they will be going through. As the stakeholders become more familiar with the deliverables, then they should have greater influence over the project’s change plans and rollout pacing.

There are situations where “big bang” project rollouts are a necessity, mergers and acquisitions are one business scenario that comes to mind. “Day 1” is when all work necessary to create the new organization has to be in place, this is dominated by legal and human resources deliverables in order to ensure all employees are incorporated into the combined entity. There is no other option, you must take all the changes at once when each communication must also be carefully crafted to ensure no unwanted information is also shared. The same concept will apply, the more the stakeholders know and the sooner they know it, assuming accuracy, the more acceptable the change will be to them. Rapid iterations of deliverables being reviewed by the change management team for planning is a necessity.

People will do those things that they know there’s something in it for them.Horse’s digestive systems require movement, the biggest risk of losing a horse is that they “colic” or lose that movement through dehydration, stress or some other reason. That is why water is so key to a horse’s health as well as grazing and the frustration one can have when a horse won’t take drink for whatever reason. Put salt in their feed if you want to incent them to drink. In other words, make sure there’s something in it for them to drink in order to prevent colic, especially in hot weather. At a minimum, we always like to keep their salt lick next to the water trough to encourage drinking deeply.

There is a motivational theory called “expectancy theory”, which proposes the premise that people will behave desirably when they see there is a positive personal outcome from doing so. I call this the “duh” theory. Of course! People will do the things that they understand have benefit to them – the horse with salted feed understands the benefit, then, of satisfying their thirst.

Regardless of the “duh” factor, this concept is something that we, as project managers, should always be considering. What is in it for our project team members? Why should they contribute, or more specifically, behave in a way that contributes as part of the collective team? In fact, as project managers without bonuses or promotions authority in our leadership toolkit, how can we get our team members’ full contribution? It is in always looking for the way to communicate the benefit of that contribution.

Some horses need to be guided by spurs, some do not. Some horses need a bit with a long shank, some with no shank (the longer the shank, the more leverage you have on the bit in their mouth). Every horse is different, but all need your relationship. They are social animals –that is why people that are “horse people” as we like to say have such a bond with their horses. Even though Dusty, my “pasture ornament” hasn’t been ridden now for almost two years, she still recognizes me and typically toys with my emotions by playing keep away until she’s ready to come up and greet me.

She has maintained that look of familiarity, and I believe I can see her sense of loss that we aren’t on the trail together. But, if we were riding, you would see my spurs attached to the heel of my boots and she also has a relatively long shank to her bit. It is how we became comfortable riding together and she could take on any new trail that we wanted to blaze together.

I’m not suggesting we need to “spur” people or apply leverage like with a bit, but the idea is the same in my mind. We encourage people to see the benefits of being together, in a social fabric called “project team”, in a safe place where we can focus on our objectives and deliverables with each one seeing the value of what they bring as well as knowing they will also receive something from the experience. The value of their contribution, the value of their experience and the value of what they are collaborating to deliver are communicated regularly and effectively. This is the value of project management in my mind.

If you want to know more about building high-performing teams, there is a 2.5 hour video on demand training course on “Tuckman’s Ladder” – Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning – which you can purchase from our learning platform. In that training we provide some practical tips and tricks on how to apply these concepts in the team setting.

Look for our next blog in the series “10 Things I’ve Learned as a Project Manager” coming soon!

Dan Barringer