Building the Project Team

What, then, are some actions that project managers can take to build teams that will help them be effective team leaders ?

Acquire a Solid Understanding of Team Dynamics by Taking a Systemic View of a Team

From that perspective, a team is a system consisting of elements and their interrelationships with one another and their surrounding environment. Teams, therefore, consist of objects or people, who interact with one another to pursue a common purpose.

There are several quantitative and qualitative factors to consider as well. Qualitative factors include skill, knowledge, experience, education, and grade. Quantitative factors include the number of people with applicable qualitative factors, e.g., the number of people with requisite skills.

Relationships among people also have qualitative and quantitative factors. Qualitative factors include being formal or informal, positive or negative, and direct or indirect. Quantitative factors include the number of interactions among specific stakeholders and the number of people reporting to a project manager to reflect span of control.

Of course, conditions can also affect project performance. Although too numerous to list completely, there are some salient ones that can impose constraints on a project team. These conditions include economic, e.g., availability of money to finance the project; political, e.g., support by upper management and the customer; and technical, e.g., maturity of the technology used on the project. Conditions can have positive, negative, and neutral impacts on a project.

There also are constraints placed on a team that can be overt or subtle. Some examples of overt constraints include monetary restrictions, policies and procedures, resource (e.g., people) availability and expertise, and mandatory dates in schedules. Subtle constraints are more difficult to ascertain, but their influence can be considerable. Examples of subtle constraints include norms and mores for conducting business, motivation of stakeholders, informal networks, learning curves, informal roles and responsibilities, perceptions of individuals and the team, and working and power relationships.

Another important action is for project managers to understand that building a team is not easy. A team has many opportunities for entropy and disintegration to occur unless project managers, as leaders, actively involve themselves in orchestrating a reversal.

In addition, project managers must appreciate and accept the reasons for building a team. Quite a few project managers do not look favorably on teams. Instead, they rely on select individuals because, they feel, it requires less time and is more efficient and effective. Efficient perhaps, but more effective?

That may be more a misperception. Building an effective team reflects less on the effectiveness of teaming per se and more on a lack of effectiveness by a project manager to function as a leader. For example, consider the "team traps" identified by Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile in The Systems Thinker and it becomes quite clear that most of them represent a failure in leadership. These traps include inability to reach closure, lack of mutual accountability, left out stakeholders, and uneven participation. [19]

Project managers must also recognize that as many different types of teams exist as do varieties of projects. For example, Katzenbach identifies three types of teams: those that provide recommendations, those that take action, and those that perform operations. [20] In the Team Members Survival Guide , Jill George and Jeannette Wilson also identify four categories of teams: cross-functional quality improvement, functional work team, multifunctional empowered, and virtual. [21]

Project managers need to match the type of team with the goals and objectives of their projects. Failure to recognize the type of team can result in the application of an inappropriate approach for leading a project, which may cause an "out of sync" condition between activities and goals and objectives of a project.

Finally, project teams are conflict prone (by their very nature) and project managers must prepare themselves to deal with it. Conflict can occur between two team members or throughout an entire team. Goleman, Boyatizis, and McKee note that failure to deal with conflict can have dire results. It is the team leader, say the authors, who build harmonious and collaborative teams. He or she must inculcate a sense of being positive and optimistic in personal and group behavior. [22]

To deal effectively with conflict, especially negative conflict, project managers must recognize its sources. These sources include unclear goals and objectives, ineffective resource distribution, different approaches and values, unreasonable expectations, and diversity in ethnicity and thinking.

Failure to recognize such sources can have severe consequences. Perhaps one of the best perspectives on the relationship of viewing a team as a system and the resulting conflicts that can arise is the article by Slobodnik and Wile. They identify four categories of team systems: closed, with a strong hierarchy; synchronous, with vision and values; random, with a degree of tolerance for individuality and autonomy; and open, with a degree of openness and collaboration. Each one can lead to conflict, manifested overtly or covertly. For example, a team that is synchronous might have conflict that is covert, e.g., not sharing information. A team that is open might have overt conflict, e.g., failure to reach a consensus. [23]

Understand That Like Human Beings, Teams Progress Through Phases

These phases are not, however, the same as the project life cycle phases.

The Tuchman Model is a popular perspective on building teams often taken by experts. The four phases through which a team progresses from start to finish are: Forming, Storming , Norming, and Performing.

The Forming phase occurs when team members get acquainted and gain familiarity with the team's purpose. The Storming phase is a time of "jockeying" for position and authority as well as resolving issues. The Norming phase occurs when the team acquires a sense of cooperation and organization. The Performing phase occurs when all efforts of a team are focused on the achievement of goals and objectives.

Project managers can help to "smooth out" the trials associated with each phase. For the Forming phase, they can encourage people to know each other better and identify ways for people to understand clearly the purpose of the team. For the Storming phase, they can clarify issues about roles and responsibilities and seek agreements and consensus over important issues. For the Norming phase, they can capitalize on people's strengths and compensate for their weaknesses. For the Performing phase, they can help a team to adjust to change in a manner that minimizes disruption in performance as well as protects it from red tape. Ideally, of course, project managers want to reduce the negative aspects of forming, e.g., exactly reforming, and lessen the impact of storming.

Another view of the phases of a team is the one by George and Wilson in the Team Member's Survival Guide : Pre-team, New, and Mature. The Pre-team phase occurs, of course, before forming a team and, like the Forming phase in the Tuchman Model, when an unclear purpose and roles exist. The New team phase occurs when a team clearly identifies its purpose, defines team members' roles, and encourages a sense of working together. The Mature team phase occurs when a team becomes essentially a going concern, having the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, e.g., additional responsibilities. [24] Naturally, project managers must involve themselves in all phases, but especially during the Pre-team and New phases because actions taken then affect the overall performance of the team through the remainder of the project life cycle.

Build Commitment Through Involvement

As mentioned earlier, commitment is extremely important, especially from a motivational standpoint. It can make the difference between mediocre and high performance. In The Wisdom of Teams , Katzenbach and Smith observe that high-performance teams are filled with commitment. They also tend to involve a limited number of people who have the requisite background. Of the two, commitment seems to have the biggest impact. [25]

Who is responsible for laying the groundwork for engendering commitment by all stakeholders to the project? The project manager, of course. The question is: How?

The key to garnering this commitment is to involve stakeholders, both physically and emotionally. This involvement is achievable through participation by team members during decision making by using tools like brainstorming and nominal group technique. They can determine performance measurement approaches and standards. They can encourage greater functional representation on the team. Without involvement, stakeholders will likely exhibit inadequate or unequal levels of commitment.

Of course, threats to obtaining and sustaining commitment will arise and project managers should always be cognizant of them. These threats include lack of focus, recognition, management support, and trust; insufficient resources; unrealistic milestone dates; extensive overtime due to poor workmanship; too much conflict; inappropriate managerial style; and no sharing of information. In the end, however, a team and its members can be highly committed even when facing such threats if the team and its members feel tied to the team. It is the team as a whole that must act decisively and feel in control. [26]

Inspire , Not Perspire, People

Use less command and control over people and encourage others to apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities to achieve goals and objectives. It also requires augmenting strengths and offsetting weaknesses.

To enable others through inspiration, a project manager acts as a steward or servant leader, similar to what Peter Block and Max De Pree describe. In that role, he or she acts more as a facilitator, coach, sponsor, or healer than someone directing and controlling. [27] The behavior exhibited by a project manager, therefore, includes one of trusting: candid , respectful, caring, and encouraging. [28] As Bennis and Biederman observe, leaders "encourage and enable." [29]

To enable others to perform their best, a leader capitalizes on what people do best and accounts for their weaknesses. In other words, a project manager seeks to inspire others to complement one another, involving a full spectrum of technical, functional, and interpersonal talents and skills. To have teams of people who complement each other, project managers must have a good knowledge about their talents and skills. That requires building a trusting relationship with them through greater involvement in identifying and directing work. This approach will not only engender a greater sense of ownership and accountability, but also meaningful involvement. Work becomes less of a "job" and more of a "responsibility" because people find it enjoyable and meaningful. Consequently, burn out and complacency become less of an issue.

Another side exists to this issue of enabling others to actualize by complementing each other. It is developing a diverse team rather than one that "parrots" a project manager's style. As Hersey and Blanchard note, having similar styles is not the key. The key is that everyone understands each other's roles, shares common goals and objectives, and complements each other. [30]

Provide Unity of Direction

One of the hardest challenges facing a project manager is to move a group of people towards a focused direction, especially if he or she lacks formal, functional control over people. Most project managers face this type of challenge.

Without appropriate leadership, a project team can move in many directions, especially one not originally intended. It becomes even more challenging when the people on a team are talented and independently minded. By virtue of their roles, project managers must have team members focus, especially when leading a high-performance team or a Great Group. As Bennis and Biederman note, it is not easy leading a Great Group. The key is to provide such a group with a meaningful sense of direction. [31]

A major ingredient to ensure that a team obtains and maintains focus is for project managers to provide clarity of purpose, that is, to define exactly what a project team must accomplish. Failure to do so can result in individuals and/ or the whole team performing inefficiently and ineffectively.

It is important, therefore, for project managers to set direction ” but not necessarily unilaterally. They need to involve key stakeholders to garner the commitment through their guidance. They play an instrumental role by ensuring direction in several ways: helping the team define its vision; identifying desired results, e.g., objectives; determining critical success factors; collecting performance data; and developing a plan. With a team's involvement, its members are more committed and, therefore, less inclined to deviate.

Foster Collaboration Through Cooperation to Achieve a Common Purpose

Collaboration, of course, does not often arise through happenstance. Many reasons stand in the way, e.g., limited availability of resources, poor communication, different values and beliefs, and conflicting policies and procedures.

"Subjective elements" especially make collaboration very difficult as they, but not their effects, are hard to detect. Perceptions and emotions are examples that have a dynamic impact on people and how they go about achieving results. [32]

Fortunately, some people are available who can lay the groundwork to surmount obstacles to collaboration. These people are project managers who function as social architects , according to Thamhain and Wilemon, who understand how behavioral and organizational considerations influence the degree of negative conflict that occurs. [33]

An important area that project managers must address is building in mutual accountability for results. This accountability is very important if project managers hope to avoid the "every man for himself" syndrome. In fact, no team can really call itself a team until mutual accountability exists.

Mutual accountability cannot, however, be commanded. It can only occur if project managers lay the groundwork through a well-defined vision and a path to get there. Katzenbach and Smith say that mutual accountability can be inculcated through trust and is a by-product of shared goals and approaches. [34]

Another important area is managing conflict. Failure to manage conflict constructively can result in stalemates, noncooperation, and, ultimately, poor performance.

In PM Network , Erik J. Van Slyke identifies several actions to tackle conflict on a team basis. These are very similar to those discussed about dealing with one-on-one conflict, but still deserve mentioning. These actions are: (1) preparing for interaction by taking a big picture perspective; (2) initiating exchange through confrontation, involvement, and problem solving; (3) facilitating relationships by being open and demonstrating trust; (4) understanding interests regarding why they feel the way that they do; (5) examining the solutions by determining options; and (6) reaching consensus so everyone can live with the result. [35]

Conflict is not all bad, of course, and the absence of it may indicate something. Consensus is not the absence of disagreement but because of it, a fact seldom recognized.

In today's project environment, two major challenges exist that project managers face when building a truly collaborative team; failure to address either one can add to conflict and destroy mutual accountability. These challenges are virtual teams and globalization.

Virtual teams are often geographically disperse teams, thanks to advances in technology. Under these circumstances, encouraging collaboration is difficult because of geography and time differences. The way to address this challenge is to develop a "real" team through a common vision and interdependence .

Globalization is the other challenge, and perhaps, the more difficult of the two. It involves bridging cultural differences to achieve a common vision. Each culture has a different perspective on how the world operates; this difference increases the opportunity to lose the chance to collaborate. The seriousness of this circumstance is clearly articulated by Karen Bemowski in Quality Progress , noting that what she calls "cultural archetypes," or cultural patterns, affect people's perceptions of a circumstance and how they react to it. She says that the best way to handle an archetype is to identify it and react accordingly . [36]

Perhaps the best way to overcome these two challenges, and others, is for project managers to set the norm for collaboration, right from the start. As Druskat and Wolff observe in Harvard Business Review , a team needs to adopt norms that establish and build trust and identity. By doing so, members, individually and as a group, get emotionally involved in the work. [37]

Liberate, Not Subjugate

A constant theme in this book is that project managers must do less controlling and more involving. Otherwise, they will execute their roles and responsibilities with great difficulty. The way to avoid that situation is for project managers to facilitate the work of others by reducing or eliminating constraints on performance.

Countless constraints on performance exist, formally and informally. Formal examples include policies, procedures, and accepted tools and techniques. Informal constraints include politics, senior management, influence, and expected managerial styles. Both formal and informal constraints can be very bureaucratic.

Whatever the constraint, however, project managers must mitigate or remove their impacts so individuals can effectively apply their talents and skills. Removing or mitigating the affects of constraints will enable people to team more effectively without feeling controlled or punished.

This ability of project managers to liberate team members and an entire team from constraints, especially external ones, is an important one by leaders of Great Groups. Such project managers provide considerable autonomy while they focus the entire team's energies on a goal. According to Bennis and Biederman in Organizing Genius , talent rises to the surface in a Great Group. [38]

Project managers can liberate individuals and their entire team in several ways. They can encourage open sharing of ideas and information, be "boundary busters," look for opportunities to encourage formal and informal interaction among stakeholders, invite different people with diverse insights to team meetings, regularly challenge the modus operandi, build an atmosphere of trust, communicate honestly, share power and delegate, emphasize teaming on tasks , promote team decision making, and reward and recognize creativity as an important ingredient for project success.

Through liberation, an additional benefit arises that is often overlooked: the ability to adapt to a changing environment. If constraints become too rigid and actions inflexible , a team will fail to adapt and that is an all too frequent occurrence. This inflexibility is quite evident when taking a systemic view; dysfunctional behavior and subsequent results manifest themselves clearly and repeatedly. [39]

Project managers need to release the potential energy that resides within a team. Too often that energy, both on individual and group bases, are wasted or applied in an unfocused way. As leaders, project managers must remove the barriers to release that energy and direct it in laser-like fashion toward the vision of their projects.

Create a Sense of High Drama

A major earmark of a high-performance team or Great Group is a sense of excitement that permeates an entire team. The intensity is so great that when these projects end, the members tend to have an emotional crash. [40]

If any problems are associated with high drama on a project, there are two main examples. Burn out is the first. Team members may be so enthusiastic about their project that they are willing to work long hours and endure grueling conditions to succeed. Conflict is the other potential problem. Due to the intensity, team members may be so consumed with emotion that they do not want to yield. Why? They have a high emotional relationship with the outcome, mixing personal best with team best.

Regardless, the benefits of high drama outweigh the problems, if managed properly. There are many ways to do so: have frequent milestones in the schedule, constantly and consistently collect and communicate status, give as much visibility as possible to intermediate results, meet frequently to discuss significant issues, recognize outstanding performance, emphasize the magnitude of the challenge repeatedly, and allow complacency to be the exception rather than the norm.

[19] Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile, Taking the teeth out of team traps, The Systems Thinker , 10(9), 1, 1999.

[20] Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams , Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1993, pp. 43 “46.

[21] Jill A. George and Jeannette M. Wilson, Team Members Survival Guide , McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997, p. 5.

[22] Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatizis, and Annie McKee, Primal Leadership , Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 2002, p. 184.

[23] Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile, Taking the teeth out of team traps, The Systems Thinker , 10(9), 5, 1999.

[24] Jill A. George and Jeannette M. Wilson, Team Members Survival Guide , McGraw-Hill, New York, 1997, pp. ii “iv.

[25] Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams , Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1993, p. 65.

[26] Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams , Harvard Business School Press, Boston, p. 132.

[27] Edward M. Marshall, Transforming the Way We Work , Amacom, New York, 1995, pp. 77 “78.

[28] Oren Harari, The dream team, Management Review , pp. 29 “31, October 1995.

[29] Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius , Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997, p. 26.

[30] Paul Hersey and Kenneth H. Blanchard, Management of Organizational Behavior , 6th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993, pp. 175 “176.

[31] Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius , Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997, p. 54.

[32] Alan Slobodnik and Kristina Wile, Taking the teeth out of team traps, The Systems Thinker , 10(9), 2, 1999.

[33] Hans J. Thamhain and David L. Wilemon, Anatomy of a high performing new product team, in Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Seminar/Symposium , October 8 “10, 1984, Philadelphia, PA, Project Management Institute, Newtown Square, PA, p. 149.

[34] Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams , Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1993, p. 43.

[35] Erik J. Van Slyke, Resolving team conflict, PM Network , pp. 85 “87, June 2000.

[36] Karen Bemoski, What makes American teams tick?, Quality Progress , p. 39, January 1995.

[37] Vanessa U. Druskat and Steven B. Wolff, Building the emotional intelligence of groups, Harvard Business Review , p. 82, March 2001.

[38] Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius , Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997, p. 30.

[39] Barry McGibbon, High performance through team building, Object Magazine , p. 57, November 1997.

[40] Warren Bennis and Patricia W. Biederman, Organizing Genius , Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1997, p. 109.

Leading High Performance Projects
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