7 Tips on how to improve your project team culture with affinity groups

by Jan Schiller

I just attended Colin Ellis’s keynote presentation, which provided wonderful advice on how to build the strongest project team. I took away several useful techniques, one of which was to positively change your team culture by having one team social event per month. I consider affinity groups to be a great social event and they can be an effective way to improve team culture and leverage the best thinking of my team. Here are 7 Tips on how to improve your team culture with affinity groups.

Culture has a huge impact on how people exposed to that culture behave. We have all heard that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Are you so action- and results-oriented that you no longer celebrate success or show (or feel) enthusiasm? Perhaps it is because your organization only cares how hard you work (and not how the results were produced or about the people that produced those results). Does your culture require that you leave work only after your boss does? Perhaps that is because your organization associates longer work hours with higher productivity.

Teams are more productive in a supportive culture. If you are still working towards that supportive culture, what can you do to affect a positive culture change?

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” One of the best ways to change your team culture is to be the change you want to see in your culture. Do you want a team environment based on trust? Then be trusting and trustworthy. Do you want the team to have strong relationships? Be a servant leader, lead by example, lead to encourage team discussion, and to enhance (instead of degrading) your team members’ well-being. Do you want your team to share ideas and challenges and issues with you? Then be open and transparent.

A very tactical and pragmatic yet effective way to instill the right culture with your project portfolio team is to create an affinity group, which is a group formed around a shared interest or common goal. If you have ever been part of a fraternity or sorority, or a club focused on an activity like skiing or cycling, or regularly meet the same group of friends for dinner, then you have been part of an affinity group. The affinity group I am speaking of is organized around a role or skill; around project management and all of its forms, composed of a team that is focused on a common interest (such as delivering value and strategic alignment).

Here is how I create and then leverage the power of affinity groups to create a sense of community and a positive team culture:

  1. Define your audience. Your communication and stakeholder management plans have the answers. When I managed a technology project management office, I realized that we did not know who was using the organization’s standard enterprise project management tool; therefore, we could not effectively communicate with those people when it came time to upgrade the tool. My team and I utilized a number of techniques, including self-nominations, to identify 150 customers of the project management office who were using that tool.
  2. Do not limit your audience. When your affinity group is successful and valuable, word will spread. Welcome, all who are interested.
  3. Pick a specific frequency, date, time, and location. I usually hold my affinity group meetings monthly and near the end of the day for one hour in a large conference room. If people find your affinity group discussion to be helpful and useful, be prepared to adjust the meeting location to accommodate more and more interested people.
  4. Establish the affinity group meeting as an optional meeting. This is important. Get the word out, but make attendance optional. Optional meetings are the easiest way to determine if your meetings add value.
  5. Establish basic ground rules for the group. Listening when another person is speaking and being open to differing points of view are two good places to start.
  6. Come prepared to discuss one topic. In the beginning, I did most of the talking. Attendance was sparse. After two months, I was amazed and pleased by the transformation of the affinity group dynamics to standing-room-only and to discussions initiated by and carried out by attendees.
  7. Do not underestimate the power of self-awareness. Be in touch with your own emotions and behaviors, so you have the ability to ensure they align with the team culture you intend to create. My litmus test for determining if a behavior is a good one: I ask, “what if everyone did it?” If the result is good, the behavior is good. Each and every one of us demonstrates behavior that influences culture and teaches other people how they should treat us.

What techniques have you used to create and sustain a team culture that builds a strong team?


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