by Henry J. Lindborg
APROJECT TEAM LEADER in the computer industry says of her team: “Something was wrong with that group, everyone was smart and well trained in project management, but many days we didn’t know why we were there. We got the job done, but it was uphill. We felt drained.”
She was speaking of a team that depleted energy, produced marginal results, and left its members frustrated. I’ve seen such teams in health care, publishing, higher education, manufacturing, and other industries. Their stories sound alike. Teams often yield a low return on personal and corporate investment to the degree they perform tasks without vision. At worst, lack of vision wastes time and money, with leaders willing to sponsor projects without articulating clear purpose or measures and team members expecting to work without commitment.
To improve team performance, I’ll share some prescriptions on visioning I’ve drawn from my experience and from the wisdom of colleagues.
Link Vision to Service. What is vision? It’s a picture that connects personal and corporate energy and values to a project. We measure project performance by speed or efficiency, or quality standards, but personally we feel energized or depleted. We understand our values as centers of energy that draw us to invest time and develop skills. From consultations with hundreds of team members, I know that most have experienced teams (often outside of work) that draw out their best, direct their energy to a common purpose, and enable them to achieve beyond expectation. Barry Heermann, founder of the Expanded Learning Institute, Del Mar, Calif., agrees. He’s built a system of team development (Team Spirit) around how we best experience that energy. “Project management is very important,” he says. “It’s about claiming roles and exercising competence. But it can’t stand by itself to create a spirited team.” What else is needed? Heermann says it’s a shift in values to service to customers and to others who join or sponsor our projects. Underlying our tasks is a desire to serve, a powerful motivator from within.
Understand Phases of Team Development. Most of us have been exposed to the model that tracks teams from forming (“getting to know you”) through performing. Heermann’s is different. He has identified five “phases” that help teams meet requirements of service: initiating, which creates a context for ongoing relationships; visioning, developing a common sense of purpose and making visible the intended results of service; claiming, defining roles and responsibilities in project planning; celebrating, providing recognition for individual and team accomplishments; and letting go, giving constructive feedback on changes needed for ongoing service.
A straight line toward high performance doesn’t describe the model. It’s a spiral, with phases recurring. For example, as new members enter the team, initiation needs again to be practiced. As the team learns and circumstances change, re-visioning may be required. No phase can be neglected, beginning with initiating and visioning. “Without relationships—the initiating work—folks can be stopped dead in their tracks, no matter how thorough the PM work,” Heermann says. “If they’re not inspired through visioning, they are unaware of all they can make happen.”
Visioning is not a mysterious process. It is identification of the difference we’ll make if we accomplish our service, picturing that to ourselves, and buying in. It demands understanding of our present capabilities and values, as well as of the obstacles we face. For the project team, it should include an exploration of the full meaning and demands of the team charter. Sometimes this looks like scenario planning, preparing the team for the forking paths in a journey toward a desired destination. The outcome is an articulation of the team’s purpose in the language of its culture, arising from its sense of competence and service. Sometimes it’s a single sentence that captures what is to be, in language that’s memorable—Mary Kay’s “unlimited opportunity for women,” for example. Sometimes it’s an image, like the picture of a sailboat a management team used to symbolize a new venture, capturing their sense of constancy of purpose while taking advantage of the winds of change.
Time in visioning is well spent. Project teams work in situations that are messy—full of ambiguity and competing values: Maintain control, but empower. Produce results, but take care of people. Satisfy stakeholders, but expend few resources. Such value conflicts are especially felt in teams formed to replace vanishing infrastructure. In organizations where competitive advantage dictates that projects, networks, and alliances replace traditional managerial structures, a team vision can keep us on track and personally invested. Where trust was once invested in institutions, it’s now placed in individuals or in teams and network relationships. Where relationships, vision, roles and values seem most chaotic, project teams need to give them attention to interpret or to create meaning in their work. Failure to do so—sometimes in the interests of “just getting the job done” (premature “claiming”)—is a frequent and costly mistake.
Reader Service Number 057
Recently I’ve asked leaders in quality, project management, and organizational learning why teams fail. Many of their answers provide additional cues for improved visioning.
Provide Clear Leadership Direction. David McKee, principal of McKee Associates, consultants to healthcare worldwide, observes that project management can experience failure at many points. “Because it involves complex processes, there are many potential weak links. These include poor problem identification, organizational barriers, personal agendas, lack of resources, and lack of consensus on solutions, but the most damaging is lack of goal clarity.”
Phil Crosby, a founder of the quality movement, tells me, “The reason projects go astray is found in an old saying: ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’ Leadership does not flourish when there is a search for consensus.” He adds that, “‘quality based’ criteria only work when the definition of ‘quality’ is ‘conformance to requirements.’” Doug Parr of Plexus Corporation, St. Paul, Minn., believes that “lack of consensus about the purpose of the project is a principal root cause of failure.” He has found that teams with clear purpose can “go way beyond what we might expect.” He notes that it’s from purpose that roles are claimed. The stronger the intuitive sense of what needs to be done that arises from visioning, the more prepared members are to plan the project. “Detailed planning is still needed, but there is less of it later in the project, where it’s sometimes done with recriminations.”
David McClaskey, head of the American Society for Quality’s Professional Development Council, finds “failure to get an agreed upon, documented team charter” leads to teams working “without a complete, clearly defined set of deliverables or good measures.” He points out that when charters are inadequate, it’s often because they are poorly forged at another level of the organization. Projects are delegated to teams without agreement on objectives or effective mechanisms to get team feedback. So teams march to their fate, with-holding full commitment and awaiting blame.
“We have capable people using resources to solve the wrong problems,” says McClaskey. “They go forward without a clear understanding of why the project is important or how it fits into corporate objectives. [Stephen] Covey might say they ‘have the ladder against the wrong wall.’” Too many team leaders “accept accountability without authority.” In the absence of a clear charter or clear project scope, team leaders are victims of scope creep and “take a share of failure out of proportion to their authority.” They have little power to obtain resources on their own or to enforce consequences on indifferent team members, especially in cross-functional teams with multiple reporting relationships. In other words, they’re unable to claim meaningful roles.
Overall, projects are tests of the leaders who sponsor them. For teams, visioning is about understanding purpose, not about inventing it for divided or distracted management.
Connect Projects With Learning. Cathi Balboa, managing partner of Intuitive Information Inc., of Orlando, Fla., links visioning with values of accountability, trust, and learning. She’s observed teams in the telecommunications industry move rapidly from a brief explanation of the task at hand to tactics. With complex issues and longer time horizons, she says, “One half hour up front doesn’t do it.” Projects by their nature are unique. In many cases, teams begin with few examples of what’s been done before, and they require a vision to serve as a guide while they learn.
Balboa provides an example of a European strategy team in the early ’90s. With a time horizon of years, intellectual complexity in its tasks, and rapidly changing technology, the team depended upon a clear goal statement and “four or five criteria for judgment” to provide direction. They knew where they wanted to go, but chose alternative paths like pioneers moving “generally westward.” Their success depended upon trust, and they made it a principle to “communicate what we know.” “We all have a certain amount of energy,” she says. “If things are being withheld … we’ll use our energy on making sure we’re OK.”
Richard Justus, principal of Quality Services 9000, a Milwaukee consulting firm, believes that one of the most important resources management can provide “is a knowledge base that contributes to learning and change. There’s an energy that builds when all the information needed for a project is readily available and open to new interpretations as the team learns.”
Connecting learning and vision is powerful in two ways: It can create a personal connection with the project for individual learners, and it can enhance outcomes within the project and beyond.
Career paths have changed. More workers seek success, as they themselves define it, independent of their organization. Repeated surveys of satisfaction at work have found that the two most desired elements are challenging work and learning. In the present environment, workers also enhance their futures by learning, seeing projects as ways of developing new competencies to be applied in new circumstances—often at different firms. Less learning may now be going on in training programs than in projects and through peer assistance. A natural consequence is that visioning is more powerful when it connects with the learning objectives of individuals. We cannot begin to make this connection, however, unless we know team members’ learning needs. This reinforces Heermann’s point that initiation precedes visioning.
A particular challenge in connecting vision and learning is found in virtual teams. For the past five years, Cathi Balboa has formed virtual teams. One was a team of 35 persons at five different locations, working in a global network with clients they never saw. The team itself met face to face only once in five years. Under such conditions, not knowing the orientations and abilities of members can pose a large risk to projects. There is danger of what she calls the “out of sight, out of mind syndrome.” She countered this by strong initiation, with new members contacted not only by the team leader but also by members on important issues as well as for in-depth discussions of tools and techniques used by the group. New members were first paired with mentors inside their facility and later with others at a distance. This encouraged thinking outside of established relationships and encouraged crossing functional, regional, and national boundaries in new team formation.
Balboa calls virtual teams a “totally different way of working together. I can’t run down the hall to check on someone’s work. I need to know members’ strengths and weaknesses. On the Internet a person can become a projection of our own needs or of their own image of themselves. We can’t afford this for projects. High tech demands high touch. We need to know one another.” Regular calls and conferences supplement e-mail. “We don’t realize how costly any erosion of accountability can be,” she says, “particularly in a virtual environment.” How does she motivate at the outset of projects? “I ask, ‘What do you want to learn?’ This makes a connection between personal goals and the project.”
When the project is completed, lessons learned can be captured, not only for individuals and the team but also for future teams embarking on similar activities. This is especially helpful for teams that often need to vision without a road map. With mechanisms for organizational learning, a team’s success can contribute to the vision of others. In her forthcoming book [Common Knowledge: How Companies Thrive By Sharing What They Know, Harvard Business School Press], Nancy M. Dixon of George Washington University cites many examples of how teams are assisted by peers in learning to enhance routine and nonroutine work, such as projects. Companies such as British Petroleum invest in making expertise available, creating an understanding that teams don’t work in isolation, have common corporate bonds, and can ask for help.
WE SOMETIMES ASSOCIATE VISION with feel-good seminars and poetry, or we read that “transformational” leaders provide direction through vision. These leaders, we are told, present a future that’s possible, desired, and open for participation. Since I’ve known leaders who do this, I understand it’s more than theory. But for this kind of leadership to be effective, each level of management has to establish specific means for realizing purposes linked to a corporate vision, often in charters deployed to project teams that claim their roles after visioning their own connections to the task. Depending upon their priorities and their health, organizations are less or more successful in creating an environment for good team visioning; however, it’s always an important step in project management.
Project management demands interpersonal and systems skills at a high level. While the discipline is rigorous, it’s not mechanical. It requires adaptability, flexibility, and personal accountability in practice. Practitioners face the paradox that while they may have deep experience, by definition projects are unique and require a phase of visioning to get off the ground. Successful visioning requires commitment to service; understanding that we can’t ask for buy-in unless we know our people and what they hope to gain from participation; patience with the process, committing enough time for thorough understanding of the meaning of the project and articulation of that meaning in terms understood by all; resistance to the impulse to claim roles and solve problems before defining what those roles and problems may be; ongoing communication with management, not only about tasks but also about charter and underlying purpose; and, finally, exploration of opportunities for individuals, the team, and the organization to learn. ■
Henry (Hank) Lindborg, Ph.D., executive director of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, Fond du Lac, Wis., conducts surveys of leadership and quality, and consults on corporate values and strategy. He is past chair of the Education Division of the American Society for Quality and serves as a member of its Education and Training board. He also teaches leadership, strategic planning, and quality courses at the college graduate level. He is author of The Basics of Cross Functional Teams [Quality Resources Press, 1997].
Reader Service Number 029
March 2000 PM Network