Developing superior project teams

a study of the characteristics of high performance in project teams


Project management is an approach being used by practitioners in a large variety of professions. The recent expansion in the project management method has led to an increased focus on project tools and techniques. The central importance of the team dimension has often been given minimal attention. This paper explores the relationship between project success and team development. It relates the findings of a NASA study on project teams and identifies the characteristics of superior project teams. The paper also indicates the behaviors associated with project managers of high performing teams.

Research Background

Although there is a plethora of general information about team formation, team development, and team performance, there is very little information that has been derived from the study of team development in projects. What is more, the information that is available has, for the most part, not been derived from empirical studies. In 1998, a research study commenced to explore the relationship between team development and project performance. Specifically, the research was initiated to accomplish a few objectives.

First, while there is widespread belief that effective teaming contributes to overall project success there is very little research in the project literature about this issue. Second, most team effectiveness models are derived from research on non-project teams. We do not know to what extent a project environment (focused on time, cost and customer requirements) leads to a different dimension in team formation and maturation. This study was intended to define the possibilities of a more project specific model of team development. Third, the research has been intended to determine the characteristics associated with superior project teams. While much project methodology is derived from experience and scrutiny, rigor on the behavioral side has often been ignored. This has created a tendency to approach teams from a “guru of the month” philosophy. Often the latest trend is applied to a project team, as opposed to a thought out teaming strategy based on research and experience. Finally, the study has attempted to identify the characteristics associated with leader behavior. In other words, when a project manager is at project start-up, what are the behaviors and actions he or she can take to promote effective teaming.

A fundamental goal of the research was to serve as a catalyst to promote more research and exploration of the dimension of team in the broader context of project performance. Many project management texts ignore the issue of project teams. A larger number of texts cover the topic by relying on traditional group dynamics theory originally based on functional work units. This is a mistake when we realize that many practitioners identify the human aspect (teaming, trust, communications, etc.) of project management to be the single most important determinant of project success. (Read some of the success stories of project managers in Laufer and Hoffman, 2000, Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders, Wiley for examples of this consideration.)

Literature Review

Prior to the formal research study, a literature review was conducted. The review concentrated on publications from 1994 through 1998. Despite this time frame, materials published earlier were also reviewed if they were particularly relevant to our interest.

Two conclusions became obvious about team development in projects. First, there is not a large body of published information that is concerned with team development in projects. Second, the books published on the general subject of project management give little space and attention to the subject of team development. When they do address the subject, they make small use of the information that is available on the subject. A typical example is Harold Kerzner's book, Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling. This book is widely used and regularly revised and reprinted. The fifth edition of this book has 1,126 pages of text, and is one of the most comprehensive books published on project management. A total of five pages are devoted to team development. There are 284 entries in the bibliography of this fifth edition of the book. Of this number, two entries deal with team development in projects. One is from 1971 and the other is from 1974.

Although there is a lack of published information on team development in projects and not much space given to the subject by authors of books on project management, we cannot interpret this to mean that there is a lack of belief that team development in projects is important. Most papers and books on the general subject of project management typically acknowledge the importance of developing the project team and note that the project manager should give attention to this development (Baker & Baker, 1992; Kerzner, 1995; Kezsbom, 1989; Lock, 1996).

Some authors have drawn attention to possible dangers and limitations of teams, but no one has suggested that team development is not a desirable characteristic of projects and the groups within projects (Fleming & Koppleman, 1997; Williams, 1997). But most information reported about projects generally supports the notion that the better the project develops itself as a team, the better will be the performance of the project.

This position is fully congruent with the information reported generally about team development in organizations, i.e., that organizations which go to a team-centered structure improve their performance (Kerzner, 1995; Rosenau & Moran, 1993; Frame, 1995). The success of production teams, process improvement teams, marketing teams, sales teams, research teams, cross-functional teams, supplier-customer teams, self-managed teams, and a host of other kinds of teams has been incontrovertibly established. There are no traditional functions like planning, research, product development, design, production, marketing, and selling that are not being done more and more by teams (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Kinlaw, 1998).

Much has been written about the benefits of teams for improving performance. An analysis of the role that teams have in continuous improvement (Frangos, 1993; Katzenbach & Smith, 1993; Kinlaw, 1998; Romig, 1996; Wellins, et al., 1994) has underscored the potential power of teaming approaches. Teams have been cited as being the best resource for creating new knowledge and ideas, fully utilizing the competencies of people, ensuring broad influence of the most competent people, building commitment and managing uncertainty and change.

Song, Souder, and Dyer (1997) studied 65 Japanese projects and found that team skills in a project were a predictor of the technical proficiency demonstrated in the project. Larson (1997) examined 291 construction projects and found that partnering (i.e., creating customer-supplier teams) had a positive affect on meeting schedule, controlling costs, technical performance, meeting customer needs, avoiding litigation, and overall results. McMichael (1994) described the dramatic results achieved by partnering and the creation of Boeing's Spares Distribution Center as a world-class facility.

Teams are also the organizing principle for improvement. Work is done through systems or processes that cannot be understood or improved so long as people are encouraged to think that they perform independent functions. The traditional “wire diagram” of organizations does not describe how work is accomplished. The growth of the use of cross-functional teams in projects is a clear testimony to this fact (Fleming & Koppleman, 1997; Hauptman & Hirji, 1996; Kezsbom, 1989). Furthermore, continuous improvement in organizations as well as in projects is best supported when customers partner with suppliers and form teams (Catledge & Potts, 1996; Larson, 1997).

There is without question, a clear belief in the importance of teams and team development. There is however ambiguity about the specifics of exactly what team and team development means. Of greater concern, there are few specific guidelines or references for project managers to use when forming a project. The majority of team models are borrowed from traditional organizations without any modification for project structures. In addition, there is little research to determine how to optimize performance in project teams.

Most writers use the term “project team” in reference to the group of people assigned to a project (Catledge & Potts, 1996; Kerzner, 1995; Kinney & Panko, 1996; Lock, 1996). Rosenau and Moran (1993) define the project team in this sense: “The project team is people who work on the project and report administratively to the project manager.” We found no cases in which the project as a team was differentiated from the project as a group. The qualitative differences that exist between groups, teams, and superior teams were not addressed (Kinlaw, 1981, 1989). We can conclude that the term, project team, is used almost wholly to denote collectively the people in a project and not to denote the qualitative aspects of a project group.

Team as a term is rarely defined in the literature on project management. The case might be that there already exists a consensus among its users about what it means and, therefore, it does not need to be defined further. A more likely possibility is that the full importance of defining the specific characteristics of a team has not been realized.

There are few research studies that try to identify the characteristics of successful teams in projects.Various authors list characteristics that they associate with superior teams. However, one of the problems in defining the characteristics of successful teams is that most authors do not make a clear distinction between team development and team performance. Having clear goals and understanding priorities is regularly identified as a characteristic of successful teams in and out of projects. But, is having clear goals a result of other conditions that exist in a team, and should having clear goals be considered a characteristic of performance or a characteristic of team development? It is of course probably true that having clear goals and priorities can be used to measure both team development and team performance. However, the greater clarity that we can bring to the meaning of team development and its characteristics, the greater precision we can have in defining how teams develop and what can be done to develop them.

Study Methodology and Data Collection

The research was conducted in two phases. The first phase consisted of the pilot study. During this phase the intent was to determine the viability of the original research hypotheses and to establish an initial set of characteristics associated with superior project team performance. During this phase the primary data collection consisted of interviews with the key management personnel of six projects located at three NASA field centers. Using information from the interviews, literature review and from a factor analysis of 2,012 respondents to the Superior Team Development Inventory, the Project Team Development Survey was designed and used to survey members of the project teams. This stage of the research primarily consisted of 54 interviews and 53 project members responding to the Project Team Development Survey.

The second phase of the research study was modified somewhat and data collection was expanded to an additional 11 project teams, all located at NASA field centers. The interview protocol was modified to test the validity of the characteristics of the best performing project teams and to obtain more concrete information about the characteristics of the most valued project team leaders and leadership functions developed in the pilot study. Based on the findings from the pilot phase, the team survey instrument was modified and renamed the NASA Project Team Development Survey (NPTDS). Phase II findings were fully congruent with the findings from Phase I and added additional support to these findings.

Data was collected in the combined studies by:

1. Structured interviews that were taped and transcribed

2. Group structured interviews that were taped and transcribed

3. Survey of project members and leaders (using a survey that was modified after the pilot phase)

4. Assessment of project team effectiveness based on customer perceptions and independent analysis

5. Structured observation of project meetings.

Protocols for conducting the structured interviews and for conducting the structured observation of meetings are found in the Handbook for Study Field Representatives. Data collection from the sixteen projects resulted from conducting 129 interviews and surveying 397 members of the 16 projects (188 NASA and 209 contractor members).

Protocols were developed for the content analysis of the interviews from the combined studies. The study researchers independently abstracted all statements from interviewees that denoted the characteristic of a best or superior project team. A working list of team characteristics was developed. All statements were next placed on cards and sent to two independent experts on project management and team development. These researchers were asked to place the cards in logical categories. The research team resolved the few differences that resulted from the sorts.

The data was analyzed using statistical methods based on analysis of variance, multiple regression analysis, correlation analysis, discriminant analysis and factor analysis.

Summary of Key Findings

The findings briefly described below are arranged around seven questions that formed the basic purpose of the study. For each of the findings described there is more supporting evidence from the study than is included in this summary.

Question 1. How do project leaders and members understand team development?

Findings: Team development and project performance are often so closely associated and not conceptualized as separate processes that project managers and members often do not identify actions that focus on team development.

Discussion: Several interview questions produced responses that gave clear indications of how project leaders and members conceptualize and understand team development. Team development is not conceptualized as a process that starts on one level and proceeds to a higher level. Team development for leaders and members largely means putting groups of people to work on some common task. Interviewees demonstrated little or no awareness of the qualitative meaning of team development. They did not, for instance, describe any actions taken to strengthen the characteristics that they associated with the best or superior project teams, e.g., interdependence, cohesion, or commitment.

Question 2. In what ways, if any, is team development related to project performance?

Findings: Measured perceptions of team development variables predict measured perceptions of project performance.

Discussion: The Project Team Development Survey has two sections. The first section (items 1–25) measures perceptions of team development. The second section (items 26–29) measures perceptions of project performance. Three statistics were used to compare responses to the team development items with responses to the performance items: regression analysis, step-wise regression analysis, and discriminant analysis. All three statistics produced strong indications that, if we know the way team members perceive team development, we can predict the way they will perceive project performance, i.e., the more positive they are about one, the more positive they will be about the other and the more negative they are about the one the more negative they will be about the other. For example, if we know how a person responds to an item like, “In my project we make sure that no member fails, we can predict better than 74% of the time how that person will respond to. In my project we will meet all technical requirements within our budget baseline.” A complete description of the statistics related to this and all other findings from the studies will be available in a final study report.

Question 3. How do the perceptions of project members and leaders about a project's performance compare to the perceptions of key project stakeholders?

Findings: The assessment of project performance by customers and external evaluators are positively correlated with the perceptions of the project team.

Discussion: In the pilot study, project members were asked to rate the performance of their projects using a fever chart. Four variables were included on these charts: requirements, cost, schedule, and customer satisfaction. Interviewees were requested to rate each variable as follows:

•  Green means the project is in good shape.

•  Yellow means that you have concerns, but that these will be resolved within budget/schedule baseline.

•  Red means there are concerns, and you are not sure that these will be resolved within budget/schedule baseline.

Numerical values of 3 for green, 2 for yellow, and 1 for red were assigned to responses and responses were compared by a two-way analysis of variance. Using a .05 level of significance, no differences were found to exist between the way project members, project managers, and project stakeholders and external evaluators perceived project performance. The data indicate that we can obtain reliable information about how well a project is doing by asking its members. Their candid assessments appear to be as objective as those of project stakeholders, e.g., principle investigators and external evaluators.

Question 4. What is the role of project managers in team development?

Findings: There is almost total agreement among the project members and leaders interviewed that the role of the PM (and similarly placed leaders) determines how well projects develop as teams. In additional there is a direct relationship between the number of team development actions that interviewees associated with their project leaders, and the average rating given to the items on the Project Team Development Survey that measured team development.

Discussion: Interviewees were asked the following question that yielded information about the specific team development actions undertaken by project leaders: “What are the most important things that the project manager has done to help your project become a team?” In addition, the mean response for items 1—25 was computed for each of the projects in the Pilot Study. The average number of team development actions mentioned by project members that were taken by their project manager were computed for each project and these means were placed in rank order. A Spearman Rank Order Correlation was computed. At the confidence level of .05 we can affirm that the number of project team development actions taken by project leaders correlates well with how project members perceive the developed of their project teams.

Question 5. What are the characteristics of the best or superior project teams?

Findings: There is general agreement across projects about the characteristics that are associated with superior project teams.

Discussion: Protocols were developed for content analysis of the interviews from the combined studies. A working list of team characteristics was developed. All statements were next placed on cards and sent to two independent experts on project management and team development. These researchers were tasked to place the cards in logical categories. The primary researchers resolved the few differences that resulted from the sorts. The key characteristics of the best or superior project teams are:

Team focus—Members see beyond their individual wants to what the project needs. Problems are worked with a clear understanding of the project's requirements. Members stay clear about the difference between “nice to have” and “must have” and focus on what constitutes project success.

Communication—Everyone, from top to bottom is committed to sharing information that may be preliminary, but is always honest and open.

Empowered—Members can influence everything that goes on in a project. Influence is balanced with competence. Empowered team members are members who influence through competence and who have the freedom to influence through competence. Continuous learning is stressed.

Competence—Members have the knowledge and skill to perform technical tasks; the willingness or motivation to perform; and the ability to fit their own competency into the larger needs of the project.

Interdependence—Members make full use of each other's competencies, understand how what they do affects the work of others, are fully confident that other members will do what they say they will do, and believe the information given by other members.

Cohesion—Members exhibit strong team identity. Members typically enjoy each other's company and socialize. They exhibit intense loyalty to the and to each other. There is a strong sense of inclusion and there are no second-class citizens.

Commitment—Problems are worked until they are solved. People refuse to fail. They put the project first and make personal sacrifices to ensure the success of each project task.

Diversity—Teams are characterized by diversity of gender, culture and age. Members represent a broad range of experience and technical competence. Differences are accepted and made powerful positive assets.

Structure—Individuals and teams know the boundaries of their jobs and how jobs are connected. Know the process for making changes that affect schedules, requirements and interfaces. Their team focus, however, keeps them from becoming rigid. Responsibilities are fixed, but the work of the project is everyone's work. People have complete freedom in contacting any person or team within the project when they need help. The only important distinctions have to do with competence and not position.

Recognition—Project assumes responsibility to recognize its own success and the contributions of individuals and teams within the project. A portion of most meetings is used to draw attention to the achievements and contributions of members. Best project teams celebrate with project outings and social events.

Question 6. What are the key team development functions that project managers (and other leaders) typically perform?

Findings: There is general agreement across projects about the key specific functions performed by project leaders in developing the project into a superior team.

Discussion: The same process described above was followed in identifying the key team development functions that project managers (and other leaders) perform. The most valued team development functions performed by project managers and leaders are:

Plans Team Development—Develops expectations for team development. Allocates time and resources for planning team development.

Initiates Team Development—Communicates team development expectations/vision for project. Involves team in developing team development and performance requirements and strategies.

Integrates Project Team Development and Project Performance—Involves team in all key project tasks. Supports key team development practices like making decision by consensus. Includes team development as variable in project reviews.

Models Team Work—Through personal behavior the leader models use of feedback from team members on personal team performance. Stimulates shared learning. Demonstrates openness and trust.

Builds Cohesion—Includes everyone in the project as equal members of the team. Supports and encourages efforts of members. Consistently shows respect in interactions with members. Demonstrates concern for team members—on and off the job. Encourages team social activities.

Builds Commitment—Ensures clarity regarding norms, tasks, responsibilities and relationships. Involves members in setting performance expectations and schedules. Stimulates developing new competencies. Rewards and celebrates individual and team successes.

Coaches—Practices high level of interpersonal competency. Responds to problems. Plays the role of a teacher, coach and mentor. Challenges members to higher and higher levels of performance.

Storyteller—Communicates key concepts and strategies through the use of stories that illustrate premises. Can effectively lead through stories that reinforce project management guidelines and demonstrate personal experience and tacit knowledge.

Applications and Next Steps

The findings have many applications for improving project performance and for initiatives designed to develop project management competencies. A number of these applications are already being made to the various undertakings of NASA's Academy of Program and Project Leadership (APPL).

Findings from the combined studies are being applied to modify various project management training and development initiatives managed by APPL. A training module on project team development leadership functions has been introduced into the training curriculum. The NASA Project Team Development Survey will be made available to all NASA projects through a web site (http// This will provide projects with an empirically valid and statistically sound tool for assessing key variables in their project's development and performance. The Project Team Development Web Page will also provide real time access via e-mail by project leaders and members to expert information and guidance on any team development subject or issue they may face.

This study into superior project team performance is considered an initial step in placing a far greater spotlight into the importance of the team variable. Future studies are needed to generalize these findings to other project disciplines and environments. Further study is needed to determine the nature of team development and group process within the unique and changing world of a project. Most important, project management practitioners and researchers need to take a closer look into the importance and centrality of the team dimension in impacting project success.

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Proceedings of PMI Research Conference 2000



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