The story is told of a pig and a chicken who decided to go into business together and open a restaurant, says Ty Kiisel Manager of Social Outreach from AtTask. The chicken suggested, 'We could do a breakfast menu and serve bacon and eggs.'

The pig wasn’t too excited about the idea. He said, 'That’s all fine and dandy for you. All you have to do is make an occasional contribution while I have to be totally committed.'

Although most members of the project team don’t have to be as committed as the pig, one of the biggest challenges we face as project leaders is creating and atmosphere where everyone is engaged and feels a sense of ownership relating to the projects they work on. I think it’s important that everyone on the team has a little skin in the game.

Most of the projects I work on are usually completed during the course of a calendar quarter. Depending on the team’s ability to plan and execute on those quarterly initiatives, there’s some kind of bonus associated with success - we have skin in the game. As a result, I’m often asking myself as distractions come up, 'How much of my bonus do I want to bet on this?' What’s more, I'm expected to ask those questions.

Whether or not your team is monetarily compensated for exceptional performance, which I believe they should be, there are other ways to foster an environment where everyone has a sense of skin in the game. I was once hired as the creative director in a small advertising firm. I joined a team that was already in place and had been working together for a while.

In the week or two before my first day, I spoke with agency management to get a feel for where we were and who was on the team. There was one writer I was told that I could let go before I came aboard if I chose. I had briefly met him and felt like I could work with whatever problems he was having. I decided to keep him for the time being.

The agency may have been unhappy with him, but he was just as unhappy. In situations like this, I’ve come to appreciate that it is usually a communication problem. It was in this case. He felt out of the loop. He felt like his opinion didn’t matter and that he was just a cog in the machine cranking out content and messages of which he had no ownership. Nobody likes being in the dark.

Visibility and transparency

Business leaders want visibility into what’s happening with the team (regardless of the type of team it is). Timely and accurate status information is critical for making decisions about new work and capacity.

Without accurate information, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to really get a handle on what’s happening within the organisation. I think we all can appreciate that. However, do we give enough attention to the need for transparency?

I’ve discovered that most of the team members I know have a real desire to contribute to something greater than themselves. They are passionate about what they do and are driven to do more than simply show up and fill a seat.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve spoken with a team member who can explain why they did something a certain way. A transparent environment allows them to have a better understanding as to the motivations behind the projects they’re working on so they can take ownership and create their best work, meaningful work.

November is too late

I once worked in an organisation that provides a great example of how not doing this holds them back. In a late November meeting with a number of executives, during the course of discussion the corporate objectives for the year were brought up. With the exception of those on the executive team, nobody else in the room had heard of them before. We were all in the dark.

With less than eight weeks before the end of the year, it was unrealistic to assume there was anything we could do as members of the team to meaningfully impact those objectives. In contrast to this situation, when my team and I sat down to set our team’s goals and establish some objectives for this quarter, the overarching goals of the organisation are transparent to us.

Thus, aside from the various projects we will work on over the next couple of months as part of the department, our personal goals and team objectives can align with corporate initiatives. Without that transparency, there’s no way for any team to feel a sense of skin in the game, regardless of how they are compensated.

The fatal flaw with how most organisations manage projects

It really doesn’t matter what type of project it is, most of the tools we use are either designed for business leaders to see into projects to follow progress and make decisions but don’t provide value to individuals on project teams or they are simple collaboration tools that are designed to help the team better communicate, but do nothing to push accurate information up. Something gets lost in the middle.

In my opinion, regardless of the tools you use to create an environment where everyone has some skin in the game, it should include the following:

  1. A way for leadership to see into project progress and understand status;
  2. A transparent view from the trenches into the reasons behind why the team is working on any particular project.

I know of one organisation that identifies the strategic value of every initiative on every template within its project management solution. It wants to make sure that everyone knows, every time they open their management software, the value to the organisation of what they’re doing. What’s more, if a strategic objective couldn’t be identified for a project or initiative, it wasn’t executed.

Providing value to team members and skin in the game

We all know that individuals on a project team are where the rubber hits the road for most initiatives, yet most of the tools or techniques we use ignore their needs. If we really want the team to take ownership of their tasks and the project as a whole, we need to create an environment where they can:

  1. Have a voice in timelines and deliverables;
  2. Make decisions about how they do their work and who they do it with;
  3. Have visibility into the strategic value of what they’re doing;
  4. Access an easy and straightforward solution for collaborating with other members of the team;
  5. Get recognised for exceptional work.

When these conditions exist, the work becomes personal; it comes alive for the team. They have skin in the game. You might be interested to know that this type of environment not only saved the career of that young writer within the agency I mentioned earlier, it eventually led to a promotion, making him a peer of mine in another department.

People want to perform at their best. Sometimes I wonder if what holds them back is not their talent or their motivation, but how we lead the team and the tools we use to help us do it. Ask yourself, 'does my team have skin in the game?'