Motivation is a concept well-covered in project management resources, and is required constantly for project success.

Intensity is the level of focus by a project team on a particular activity. Without taking deliberate steps, intensity tends to naturally slide. Maximum intensity is not appropriate to maintain at all times, as it could lead to burnout. However, at key points throughout the project you will need to turn the intensity up to its highest level.

The graph below shows a healthy intensity fluctuation over peaks and troughs.

area chart - intensity over time

The most effective ways to control project team intensity are:

Project Manager Energy. As the project manager (PM), you are responsible for getting yourself pumped for a critical juncture on a project, so that you can spread the enthusiasm to your team. You can’t expect the team to do it on their own.

Anticipation of Outcomes. The resulting benefits of the project to customers, partners, the organization, the community, and whoever else may stand to gain something, are important for inspiring to the team to sharpen its focus.

Team Spirit. Like a sports team, a project team can rally around the idea of winning together.

Breaks. Easing off the intensity is important to avoid burnout and ensure there are enough stores of energy for the rest of the project.

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Simple enough in the abstract, but how does the PM go about pulling each of these levers to affect intensity?

1. Raise Intensity by Amplifying the PM’s Energy

Leading by example is essential. When it is time to shift the team into a higher gear, the PM must get a head start by stepping up their own game.

Just like for athletes, some of it is mental and some of it is visible. Here are a few tips:

  • Spend time thinking about what this project means for the organization and for the team.
  • Fire yourself up by thinking of all the bad things that could happen if this next phase of the project doesn’t go well.
  • Come up with a way you will reward yourself if this phase of the project is successful.
  • Spend extended hours in the office.
  • Upgrade your attire to a more professional level.

2. Raise Intensity by Revisiting Project Benefits

When you are immersed in a project pressure-cooker it is easy to forget the whole purpose of the exercise. Yet, purpose is what motivates people.

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When PMs need to influence the team to pick up the pace, they reemphasize the importance of the expected benefits, especially ones dependent on the upcoming activities.

Benefits can be found for a range of segments:

  • Customers and partners
  • Community
  • Organization overall
  • Departments represented on the team
  • Project team members

3. Raise Intensity by Rallying the Team

There is a steady decline in the criticality of each phase as the project proceeds. Earlier stages of the project, such as requirements definition or design, are way more critical than later stages, such as testing or training.

In other words, every phase of the project is the most important of the remaining timeline. This is a simple framework for project managers to use to rally the troops in a pep talk:

  • In earlier phases, help the team realize that the rest of the project will be a waste if this phase doesn’t achieve its objectives.
  • In later phases, reiterate how much success the team has had so far and how sad it would be if all that great work was for nothing.

In addition:

  • Ask a top executive to show support for the effort by showing up or sending an appreciation email to the team.
  • Reduce potential distractions in advance.
  • Praise team members that made sacrifices or concessions for the sake of the project.
  • Plan a celebratory event for the completion of the phase.

4. Allow for Recovery Time

When a sports team wins a big game, the coach will give everyone a day off or sponsor a fun team activity to relieve stress. A good PM will find a way to give the team as a whole or individual players a break, which is important for ensuring the next high-intensity phase is as productive as possible:

  • Plan an offsite team activity such as a wine tasting, a dinner and a show, or a contest
  • Insist that folks take days off when they have an opportunity
  • If people are working through weekends try to compensate with time off during business hours
  • Make people laugh (i.e. do something silly for losing a bet with another department leader, etc.)

There are plenty of other morale-boosting and team-building tactics that involve humor, friendly competition, focus on non-work-related topics, or PR for the project. These activities can correlate to periods of lesser intensity on the project, so as not to send mixed messages.

Manage Team Intensity to Get Through Difficult Project Junctures

No project requires a steady level of intensity throughout. People are not capable of maintaining a high intensity in their work for prolonged periods of time. Good project managers know when to shift the team into a higher gear, and when to loosen the grip. A few tips in this post may help you generate your own ideas for how to do it.