Developing superior project teams at NASA


Lawrence V. Suda

Palatine Group / Management Worlds, Inc.

Most team effectiveness models are derived from research on non-project teams, and we do not know to what extent a project environment with its focus on time, cost, and customer requirements leads to a different dimension in team formation and maturation. There is widespread belief that development of effective teams contributes to overall project success. However, for the most part, the information that is available has not been derived from empirical studies. While much project methodology is derived from experience and scrutiny, rigorous definition and analysis of human variables have often been lacking. This lack 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 well-designed team development strategy based on research and experience.

A larger number of texts and papers 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 (team cohesion, trust, communications, etc.) of project management to be the single most important determinant of project success. For examples of this consideration, read some of the success stories of project managers in Laufer and Hoffman's Project Management Success Stories: Lessons of Project Leaders

This paper is based on the team development approach and assessment tools used at NASA, and define the possibilities of a more project specific model of team development, as well as improved team leadership. The research model determined the characteristics associated with superior project teams, and identified specific task skills that are associated with leaders of successful project teams. In other words, when a project is starting up, what are the behaviors and actions that a project manager and other project leaders can take to promote effective team development? Another goal was to extend the research to serve as a catalyst to promote more study and exploration of the dimension of team in the broader context of project performance.

The research 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 Project and Engineering Leadership (APPEL).

Findings from the studies are being applied to modify NASA's project management development initiatives managed by APPEL. Training modules on project team development and leadership competencies have been introduced into the training curriculum. The NASA Project Team Development Assessment called TEAMMATES has been made available to all NASA projects. This tool along with other assessments provide projects with an empirically valid and statistically sound tool for assessing key variables in their project's development and performance. The team assessment tool included in NASA team coaching and performance supports initiatives that mentor and develop new project leaders and project start-ups.

Project Teams are an integral part of how work gets completed at NASA. Superior teams function in a spirit of collaboration with each team member empowered and authorized, to the maximum extent possible, to make commitments for the organization or the functional area they represent. Teams are composed of representatives from all appropriate functional and technical disciplines working together to build a successful project and enabling decision-makers to make the right decisions at the right time. Superior teams operate under the following broad principles:

  1. Open discussions with no secrets or hidden agendas;
  2. Competent, empowered team members;
  3. Consistent, success-oriented, active participation;
  4. Total communications including active listening;
  5. Reason disagreement and acceptance of differences; and
  6. Problems and issues raised and resolved early.

Some of the key factors noted in our experience in observing thousands of teams both in real project environments and in our project computer simulation workshops we conduct are:

  1. All teams are not alike. There is great variety in team norms and processes;
  2. Empowerment varies widely with the organization and with the individual team member;
  3. Timely information and the right technology are critical to success;
  4. Any new team is very sensitive to the quality of their communication and also dependent upon individual personalities and attitudes;
  5. Both the formal and the informal issue resolution work well; and
  6. Overall team members report that there is better communication within and across organizational boundaries.

The costs and benefits of developing teams depend on a number of factors. Some of the most influential are the nature and complexity of the team's project, the organizational environment surrounding the team (the enterprise), and the attitudes and personalities of the team leader and team members. Many of the potential benefits accrue to organizations and the individual team members as well as affecting each project's results.


An understanding of teams means knowing what makes them work well and why. With an understanding of how the basic principles, key characteristics for success, and team processes work together to influence team performance and product results, a team leader or team member will be able to apply this knowledge to their team's unique situation.

In understanding team performance, it is convenient to separate the characteristics of successful teams from the factors that create successful teams. While many characteristics describing successful teams (trust, commitment, camaraderie, etc.) reinforce performance, they do not necessarily cause that performance. Many of these characteristics are the result of teams working well and not the cause.

No One Right Answer

From a designer point of view, the important design parameters are the smallest set of factors that lead to high team performance. Separating cause and result is difficult at best, particularly in a team, which is a dynamic, complex system with many people, relationships, feedback loops, and modes of communication. As such, the precise description and prescription of any team is impossible. Any set of factors that explains teams must interact with each other, change with time, and have varying effects in different situations. There is no right answer.

The ten key characteristics have been selected through a combination of research, interviews, offsite facilitation, and years of working within the project management community. The current business system environment played a strong role in the development of these characteristics. Their purpose is to explain how teams work and provide insights into improving team performance.

Through training, development, and practice, a team can develop a capability in each area represented in these characteristics for project success. This means that it can perform well. To turn the capability into results, a team must be proficient in the four major processes—innovation, problem solving, decision making, and execution. It is through developing a competency to effectively implement each of these processes when needed that the team satisfies its customer and produces the desired product.

The ten key success factors, together with the four major processes are the foundation for effective teams.

A Systems View

Teams are systems within systems. The team represents one system. Its immediate environment is a second system. The enterprise is a third system, and so on. To appreciate the ecosystem of teams, it is useful to view their behavior in terms of systems thinking. It is the integrated set of relationships and individuals coupled with the team environment, boundary conditions, and specific tasks that offer the most productive perspective. Managers continually make decisions and take actions that require tradeoffs, balances, guesses about future events, and expected results from systems that are far too complex for logical analysis. A systems view helps look for, and recognize, the right things.

Create the Right Environment for Teams to Develop

The distinction between factors that create success and those characteristics of success is particularly important when building a high performance team. Trust, empowerment, dedication, and open communication cannot be legislated by a team leader. What senior managers and the team leader can do is create an environment in which team members develop these characteristics through team experiences. There are factors that mold the team's internal structure. Structure refers to the individual team members and their relationships with each other and with the environment. A basic tenet of systems thinking is that structure drives behavior. Team member behavior drives team behavior. Together, they drive team performance that determines project results.

Major Assumptions

  1. The performance level of a team depends primarily on the following:
    • The competency and cross-functional representation of team members.
    • The ten key characteristic factors that determine its capability to perform.
  2. The results achieved by a team depend on its performance, environment, and task.
  3. Looking at teams from a systems view, that is as one system (the team) embedded in a larger system (the enterprise), provides insight and understanding of what makes them perform well and what drives product results.
  4. The empowerment of team members will significantly improve performance.
  5. Members of the team community are competent, responsible professionals with integrity.
  6. Trust (like open communications) is an attribute of a relationship. As such, it can only be created over time, usually by consistency of words and actions, and a demonstrated value set of honesty, fairness, open-mindedness, and respect.

Some Guiding Principles for Team Development

The guiding principles listed below provide our foundation for understanding and implementing team development at NASA.

  1. To achieve stretch goals in a complex, dynamic, uncertain environment, many heads are almost always better than one—if they work together.
  2. There are two primary ways a project team add value: The first is by its products having the required performance, developed at an affordable cost and delivered on schedule. The second is its contribution to long-term organizational excellence.
  3. Skills are necessary for team performance, but they are not sufficient. Knowledge of how and why teams perform well allows project managers and team leaders to tailor their approach and to think through team problems and special situations.
  4. Some of the fundamental principles of management no longer apply in a team environment. Some do. Knowing the difference makes the difference.
  5. Being an effective team member is neither natural nor easy for many individuals. Everyone has something to learn about working effectively on teams improving team performance and achieving product results.
  6. Team performance tends to rise to its expected level of performance.
  7. Technology should be acquired and used to support the teams and its members in their cultural and organizational context.
  8. Since collaboration greatly improves team performance, teams should partner and collaborate with other teams, and with stakeholders throughout their enterprise, to improve enterprise performance.

The Characteristics of Superior NASA Project Teams

There is general agreement across projects about the characteristics that are associated with superior project teams. 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 e-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.
  • Empowerment—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.

Key team development tasks that project managers (and other leaders) typically perform

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

  • Provides Resources—Obtains the staff with the required skills and knowledge needed to accomplish the project goals and secures a budget and schedule adequate for the project objectives.
  • Shields—Protects project members from outside distractions that are not focused on the accomplishment of the projects primary goals.
  • 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 team 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.
  • 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.
  • Illustrates with Concrete Examples—Communicates key concepts and strategies through the use of stories that illustrate premises and 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 and Engineering Leadership (APPEL).

Findings from the combined studies are being applied to modify NASA's project management training and development initiatives managed by APPEL. A training module on project team development leadership functions has been introduced into the training curriculum. The NASA Project Team Development Survey has been made available to all NASA projects along with specific role based Project Leadership 360 assessments. This study into superior project team performance is considered a major 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 always needed to determine the nature of team development and group process within the unique and changing world. Most important these research results provide the basis for project management practitioners and researchers to take a closer look into the central importance of the team dimension for project success.

Laufer, A., & Hoffman, E. (2000). Project management success stories: Lessons of project leaders. New York: Wiley.

© 2015 Lawrence V. Suda, Palatine Group / Management Worlds, Inc.
Originally published as a part of the 2015 PMI Global Congress Proceedings –Orlando, Florida, USA



Related Content

  • Project Management Journal

    Work Outcomes of Job Crafting among the Different Ranks of Project Teams member content locked

    By Haffer, Rafal | Haffer, Joanna | Morrow, Donna Lynne This study examined the effects of job crafting on the work meaningfulness and work engagement of project participants of different ranks.

  • PM Network

    Office Redux member content open

    By Ali, Ambreen | Hendershot, Steve | Hermans, Amanda | Thomas, Jen | Wilkinson, Amy When COVID-19 rocked the global workforce, the reaction seemed obvious: send employees home, if possible. But a return to the office has been far more fitful. In China, real estate firm Cushman &…

  • PM Network

    Una nueva versión de oficina Equipos reimaginan los espacios de trabajo para lograr entornos libres de contagio member content open

    Cuando COVID-19 sacudió a la fuerza laboral global, la reacción pareció obvia: envíe a los empleados a casa, si es posible. Pero el regreso a la oficina ha sido mucho más irregular. En China, la…

  • PM Network

    Remote Support member content open

    By Vergini, Sante There's a gap for remote workers. I discovered it during a recent business process outsourcing implementation project I managed. Although more than 70 percent of the employees worked from home, none…

  • PM Network

    Natural Collaborators member content open

    Employees in the United States are on their own—at least, more than in other parts of the world. Latin America is the only region where workers spend more time working together than alone, according…