The type, scope, and scale of a project will dictate the membership required of an effective team. The array of technical knowledge that may be required is incredibly vast, but common themes run through projects of many different types. Design, quality, maintenance, safety, integration, and validation are key project elements and are nearly universal.
All projects require a competent team to ensure successful execution. Characteristics critical to a team’s success extend beyond technical expertise, however. Collaboration, communication, conflict resolution, time management, and other “soft” skills are discussed in many outlets; they will not be treated in detail here.
Instead, we will discuss two traditional project roles and the spectrum of a personality trait that members of a project team should span.
Traditional Project Roles
Two roles that provide support and guidance to a project team are universally critical to its success. Randy Black, Chair of PMI’s Strategy Oversight Committee, describes a project as “a collaborative undertaking between two factions – those who value a business outcome and those who can deliver that outcome.”  Valuing a business outcome does not require technical expertise; delivering that outcome does.
Those that value the business outcome are represented by the Project Sponsor. The sponsor must be an individual of sufficient rank in the organization to secure and commit the necessary resources to the project. It is the responsibility of the sponsor to define the objectives of the project such that an appropriate plan can be developed. As problems arise, or conditions on which the plan is based otherwise change, the sponsor must make timely strategic decisions that become the basis for adjustments made by the project team. Success requires flexibility; flexibility requires engagement. According to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession®, active engagement of the executive sponsor is “the top driver of project success.”  Without an engaged sponsor, a project team lacks the direction and support required to succeed.
Those that can deliver the desired business outcome are represented by the Project Manager. The PM uses information provided by the sponsor to develop a project plan, coordinate the activities of team members, and provide progress reports to the sponsor. The PM is responsible for managing changes, meeting deadlines, verifying deliverables, and tracking all project metrics. Acting as a liaison between executive management, team members, and all other stakeholders, the PM allows individual contributors to focus on their primary responsibilities related to project execution, increasing the efficiency of execution and probability of success.
For small projects, the PM may also be an individual contributor. As projects grow in scope, this arrangement quickly becomes infeasible. A sponsor could also be an individual contributor to a project, though this is uncommon, typically occurring only in very small, narrowly focused organizations.
The Optimism Spectrum
Diversity in personality traits can be advantageous in a project team. Some managers want a team full of optimists, expecting a “can do” attitude to pull them through challenging assignments. Unfortunately, it doesn’t usually happen that way. A group full of pessimists will be constantly demoralized, unmotivated, and perpetually ineffective.
Optimists and pessimists are both assets, but neither should be allowed to dominate the team. An eternal optimist can inject much-needed energy and positivity during difficult times, boosting morale and inspiring creative problem-solving. However, they also tend to underestimate risks of events that could jeopardize project delivery.
Your project’s resident pessimist may express excessive “doom and gloom,” but should not be ignored. It is likely that some of this person’s apocalyptic scenarios are realistic, identifying legitimate risk that should be addressed promptly. Proclivity for identifying potential negative outcomes makes the pessimist a particularly valuable resource during testing and validation phases of a project. If the team’s creation can fail, your resident pessimist will show you how! Pessimism drives validation procedures to become more thorough and robust, reducing long-term risk.
While the optimists and pessimists debate what can be achieved, on what schedule, at what cost, and so on, the realists – the majority of the team, ideally – filter the input from both to develop realistic expectations and action plans. The realists create balance in the team, optimizing performance, by exploiting the positive aspects of the optimists’ and pessimists’ tendencies, while mitigating the potential detriments.
When staffing a project, go beyond typical assessments of technical skills and interpersonal dynamics. Not all conflict is damaging; it can also strengthen a team. Optimists and pessimists are clearly in conflict; however, engaging both in a team can improve overall performance.
Contributions to team performance and achievement of objectives should take precedence over “checking the boxes” of common employee assessments that are often biased against true performers in favor of those that are “easy to manage” because they raise no questions. Questions have value; when you value the questioner, they, too, are easy to manage. And, they are some of the most important members of your project team.
 Black, Randall T., “The Top Driver of Project Success,” PMI Today, April 2018.
 “Executive Sponsor Engagement: Top Driver of Project and Program Success,” PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Report, October 2014.
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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