How to Keep Your Team on Track When They Threaten to Veer Off-Course

by Jan Richards

“How do you make sure people on your team are working on the group’s goal, and haven’t veered off track to work on their own?”

That was the surprising question a long-term client asked me in a planning meeting recently.

She sees this as a common problem for project managers…the drift of a team, which can happen for various reasons.

I listened, and smiled in recognition.

It reminded me of a question a software developer asked me at a well-known high tech company a few years ago.

I was part of a team introducing a division-wide self-assessment project that was based on the Baldrige National Quality Award criteria.

Our work with the software development team followed successful division self-assessments throughout most of the rest of the company.

“Does this mean we can’t do our own thing anymore?!” the developer asked, seeming a bit put out, a bit perturbed by this prospect, and this project.

“Maybe!” I said with a bit of a laugh.

I had the impression that he felt almost completely untethered, unburdened and unbound by any goals for his work other than his own.

This occurred at a time when the company was experiencing multiple rounds of layoffs, and still had several more rounds to go before clearing the chasm of perhaps going out of business.

This company has since rebounded – quite spectacularly, in fact – and did so only after they figured out how to turn the innovation process into a productive flow of highly successful, highly profitable new products.

If your team drifts…or you fear it might…how can you make sure it stays focused, dedicated, and working together on the group’s goals?

Here are several things to try:

– Create a one-page project summary

Write an easy-to-read-and-use one-page project summary, if your team is likely to prefer a written document.

Summarize the project, purpose, customers, primary goals and key milestones, and team members, among other things you might want to include in a high-level project summary.

If your team is more visual, you may find a graphic version of a project summary is more successful for them.

I have used both approaches successfully –
written one-pagers and graphic portrayals of a project and goals – with client teams and other teams that I’ve led.

– Review goals and progress regularly

Post the project goals and your team’s progress in a place where people will see the status regularly.

Discuss the one-pager and team status regularly in a simple, consistent, but substantial problem-solving (as need be) and progress-reinforcing way.

– Take real or virtual field trips

Sometimes the best way to unify, energize, improve, integrate, activate and inspire a team fully is to look outside your own borders, and to learn together from others.

Visit customers to learn how well your product or service meets customers’ needs in actual use, and how it could do so even more fully in the future.

Visit or research and report on benchmark companies to learn how to do things better, and to be inspired by high standards and achievement.

– Tell stories

Build a reservoir of stories about the challenges you’ve faced and met, and the purpose and positive impact of your work together.

Share stories after field trips to customers or benchmark companies.

Share stories after meeting key milestones, or facing down and meeting big challenges.

Pause to do the same when challenges not-yet-met seem overwhelming. By realizing you’re in the same boat, you can reinforce the fact that none of you is alone in a very challenging pursuit.

– Create personal connections between team members and team goals

Have each person take a bit of time to reflect in a simple, relaxed way about why this project and team are important to them…if they are (and if they aren’t, that’s the problem you need to address in some way).

Take the time to periodically pause, notice, and record or share team members’ experiences with the project. Discuss, as well, at some point the learning that each will take with them when the project is done.

– Put the right measures in place and use them

Create customer-focused project performance measures to focus action and direct the use of limited resources.

Use measures that tie the work of individuals to that of the team, and the company, as well.

The six ideas I’ve shared with you here are just a few of the ways you can get your team back on track if it veers off-course.

You can also use these ideas and tools to prevent team drift from happening if you use them right from the start of your work together.

Keeping a team together, and working well, is not always easy.

And it’s not always fun…far from it on some days.

A few well-chosen tools, well-implemented, can do much to get the job done…and as enjoyably as possible.

About the author

Jan Richards mentors and provides online training for leaders and teams who want to change or improve, but the desired change hasn’t happened yet, for any of many reasons. An experienced entrepreneur and business consultant, Jan has led many teams and businesses through major change and improvement projects. She is based in the always-rapidly changing Silicon Valley and San Francisco Bay area. Her clients include large and small companies, primarily in tech, biotech, financial services, and telecommunications. She has an MBA from UC Berkeley and a BS in journalism from Iowa State. She was a national examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award for five years. Prior to starting her consulting business, Jan worked for seven years at Apple Computer where she worked on and led teams that improved key business processes in product development, manufacturing, distribution, finance and administration, and sales and marketing. To learn more, visit her website at