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Building a healthy and happy team

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Dan and the praise wall for his team

Team health has become a passion of mine in the past few years and is at the heart of my objectives in my new role in PDS. Happy and healthy teams deliver at the peak of their capacity and capabilities and they can often be incredible things to be part of.

This blog post is written from the perspective of project/delivery teams, which is my area of experience, but I’m sure it could equally apply to operational teams. This is a tour of the approaches that I've used, and observed others using, when supporting teams to become happier and healthier, something all leaders should be striving for. I’ve also shared a technique that I use to measure the health of my teams.

Leadership and values

Get the foundations right. Happy and healthy teams (and a positive culture) need the right leaders if you're to succeed. My advice is to find people with three important qualities: strong emotional intelligence, a natural ability to collaborate, and brilliant communication skills.

You should then work with your leadership team to establish your values. It’s also important to think about the way your team members want to be supported as individuals, as one size doesn’t fit all.

This is the core skill set that I look for, not just in leaders, but in anyone I recruit. I've observed that technical skills or other skills needed for delivery can be taught while softer skills are much harder to teach.

Recruit for soft skills

I don’t believe that having badges or certificates is a guarantee that you’ll get a good project manager. Two years ago in PDS, I ripped up our previous model of recruiting for delivery people, which required project managers to have 'relevant' certification.

Since then, I’ve recruited lots of people who don't have project management qualifications. Instead, I went for people with a clear aptitude for getting things done, with strong emotional intelligence, collaboration and communication skills, and, crucially, the desire to learn and improve.

This means that you have to invest time and money in teaching people some of the skills they need to be a good project manager but we've noticed that they can quickly gain experience and learn from others around them.

Invest in people

You need to help people grow and become excellent. You don't need a massive training budget to achieve this either. I think that most of the training in project skills is average at best. Some courses are twice as long as they should be and very hard to fail. My recommendation here is to get a balance.

Your people will want their badges or qualifications for a number of reasons (personal satisfaction, professional recognition, career development), and part of building high-performing teams is adopting a continual learning approach, so I would still encourage people to do relevant courses.

Supplement these courses by developing in-house training which pulls together all the great stuff you see and present it within your own unique context (we did this with risk management, for example). This is vital for an organisation like Parliament, with such a rich history, a diverse range of people who work here, and a broad mix of skills and professional expertise.

Good line management is critical to all of this, so you should also make sure that you invest in your managers. People need to know how they’re doing and good managers should be able to show their team what performing well looks like.

Don't let methods get in the way of delivery

Methods are as good as they are bad. In the wrong hands, they can lead to evangelism. In the right hands, they can lead to mastery and creativity. I’ve heard people complain that waterfall is linear and constrained and that agile is a free-for-all. Both of these statements can be true if the methods are applied poorly.

I've seen the discovery, alpha, beta, live cycle be just as linear and constraining as any stage in PRINCE2, so models and methods need to adapt and evolve.

I’ve tried to create an environment where creativity and empowerment support each other. Of course, there are some things that must be followed like finance and procurement rules and regular reporting.

Beyond this, I encourage people to choose whatever method works for them to get the job done. Building this delivery ethos in your teams, in tandem with an 'it's okay to fail' culture can deliver amazing results. Every new starter to PDS that I meet I give these messages to.

Measure team health

Measuring and responding to team health should become a big part of your team’s performance data. I'd argue that it's equally important as any assessment of the classic project measures we've been taught: time, cost, quality or any of the new ones like velocity, engagement, and so on.

The survey I’ve developed is 11 questions which I feel demonstrate how healthy a team is. It tells me whether people have a clear objective, feel valued, overworked, supported, and proud. I assess the results and then talk to the team leaders to consider why their team may feel a certain way about something.

These are some of the statements that I ask teams to say how much they agree with:

  • We know exactly what our objective is and why we're delivering it
  • We know what success looks like and celebrate achievements
  • Stakeholders are happy with what and how we deliver
  • I have a normal work/life balance and start and finish work at a reasonable time
  • My teammates listen to me and take on board my suggestions
  • We learn from our mistakes to increase our knowledge
  • We deliver incrementally, quickly, and meet dependencies
  • Team has the right skill set and we're not missing any key skills
  • Everyone works together as a single team to deliver our goals
  • We take pride in how high quality the product we're delivering is
  • Our sponsor/board keep themselves informed about our progress and achievements, and support our delivery

I’m sure it could be improved further especially as the culture here is to continue to improve things as we go.

How you know you've got it right

This will take time. Lots of what I’ve described here is cultural change and tricky to get right. Don’t expect it to happen overnight. For me, it’s taken two years to get this far, and we’re by no means perfect.

The best teams are highly motivated, dynamic, and can become unstoppable. I’ve learnt that you have to watch that teams don’t burn out, as success breeds success, and people can become obsessive about delivery. I’ve worked with my project leaders to make sure they’re focusing on team health and specifically, work/life balance (one of my measures for a healthy team). It’s a fine line between getting the most out of teams and getting too much.

If you’d like to know more about what we’ve been doing in PDS to create happy and healthy teams, please leave a comment below.

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  1. Comment by Liam Taylor posted on

    Great stuff this Dan. Hope things are going well in the new role.,

  2. Comment by Laura Frey posted on

    Dan, I love your approach! I particularly like the questions you ask your team, mainly the fact that you ask them. I'm interested about how you respond to the results. In my old organisation I worked closely with our engagement and comms team to launch an organisation wide question set for all employees to answer about their manager. I think it made a huge difference in demonstrating the importance of the line manager role.

    • Replies to Laura Frey>

      Comment by Daniel Cook posted on

      Hi Laura - thanks for your feedback and question. We are about to assess the first set of results from the entire portfolio of 80 odd projects (as previously I had only used this approach with a smaller subset) so I'll let you know how we respond. My thinking is that if we observe that a team has a low score on a particular measure then we will discuss that with the relevant delivery lead and work together to understand why, and ascertain whether we need to do anything.

  3. Comment by Deborah Taylor posted on

    Hi Dan, this is wonderful, I hope others emulate your recipe.

  4. Comment by Susan posted on

    Dan, how do you evaluate the soft skills (aptitude for getting things done, strong emotional intelligence, collaboration and communication skills, and, the desire to learn and improve) when recruiting and selecting staff.

  5. Comment by Dan Cook posted on

    Hi Susan - thanks for getting in touch. There's a few ways that I try to do this. I have a number of questions when I interview that very directly focus on self-awareness, collaboration and communication styles. I'm very happy to share these over email. With regards to getting things done and a continual learning mentality, some of this is evident when candidates reflect on their previous challenges, some of this is also obtained by asking people to articulate how they have adapted their approach based on failings. Using behavioural questions really helps with this too. I spent some time working with an excellent third party to help me design these, with an intentional move away from competency based questioning.