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Leading Project Teams: Much Like Herding Cats
By Jan Pridgen

Several years ago, there was a commercial on during the Super Bowl with rough and tough cowboys on horseback herding many cats across a large open field and across a river. The commercial then cuts over to various cat herder cowboys who provide testimonials on how tough herding cats can be, but very rewarding. This commercial made me laugh. I decided that I had to have that commercial to show in my team building classes. It perfectly depicted how difficult it is to get people to come together as a team and move in the same direction toward a common goal.

So let’s take a minute to think about just what is involved in cat herding.

According to one dictionary definition, cat herding is defined as persuading a group of independently-minded people to go in the same direction. If you are lucky enough to be owned by a cat, or several cats as in my case, then you completely understand how this description came about. Cats are independently minded and usually have their own goals and their own plans of how to accomplish those goals. The goal usually involves getting to more and better food or finding the best place to sleep for the next 12 to 20 hours. Cats also will use whatever means they can to achieve their goals, usually without much regard for the impact on the person they own or the other animals in the house. Does any of this sound familiar in regard to dealing with project teams?

A project team is often a cross-functional, diverse group of people who must come together quickly as a true team and move in the same focused direction to achieve a common goal. I can certainly equate this to cat herding. So just how do we effectively and efficiently pull together successful project teams…or in other words…herd those cats?

  • Provide a clear, compelling goal. If a moth makes the fatal mistake of flying into my house, the cats quickly have their focused goal of getting the moth. They move together as a group in synchronized movements in their attempts to get the moth. Does you project team have a clearly defined goal that everyone on the team understands and has a drive to achieve?
  • Try luring them with fish. For project team members, the fish may actually be the WIIFM or What’s In It For Me. Each team member must make the connection of how the work of the team will impact, hopefully for the better, him or her as an individual. As a project leader, you are creating a sense of interdependence in which everyone on the team understands how their individual actions impact the team and vice versa as they work toward their goal.

  • Create a trusting and open environment. New project teams that are thrown together may be guarded and distrustful of others until proven otherwise over time…which can be very cat-like. It is essential for the team to create a comfortable environment where team members can share ideas without feeling vulnerable or that they are yielding to someone. You don’t see the true personality, or talents, of a cat until it feels comfortable in its environment.

  • Understand the cats that you are herding and define roles. Cats can be very territorial and as a result engage in power struggles and negative conflict…hissing, spitting, and just plan nasty behavior. These behaviors can all be avoided on project teams if roles are clearly defined based on the talents and expertise of the team members. And, team members understand the value and impact of their individual roles.

  • Have a process for resolving cat fights. If you have ever observed cats in conflict, you notice that they can be very direct and often vocal. Once the disagreement is over, you may see them cuddled together later for an afternoon nap. Whenever a group of people are pulled together there is a potential for conflict. Having an agreed upon process for getting issues on the table, discussing them, reaching resolution, and then moving on will help direct the team toward healthy debates versus dysfunctional cat fights.

The next time your are leading a project team and you feel like you are herding cats, try a few of these tips and see if you have more successful project teams… or at least become more proficient in your cat herding skills.

Jan Pridgen is an extension specialist at North Carolina State University – IES. You can read more articles from Jan and her peers on the NC State of Business blog.

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