Moving from project management to project leadership

advanced techniques for leading high performing teams and virtual groups


In this global economy of outsourcing, rightsizing, downsizing, and readjusting we, in the project management community, have more and more trouble getting our ever-increasing workloads done with fewer and fewer resources. Because of these uncertainties and ever-shifting requirements, corporations have lost one of their fundamental building blocks of developing and nurturing teams.

Teams have always been an essential part of a corporate structure. In the past, teams were developed over time, with an eye toward success over the long run. The advent of instantaneous information and communications around the world, and at near zero cost through the Internet have changed this. When matched with a 24 hour year-round availability of news and information at our fingertips, it has forced organizations to move from a long-term priming strategy to a short-term reaction strategy, focusing on stock prices at the minute and not in the long-term. Stockholders have moved from looking at long-term gains to looking for short-term windfalls. Groups of individuals who have little or no history between them, and who are not even in the same geographic area are now thrown together with multiple masters who expect them to deliver using different requirements, in different time zones, and with different levels of quality and grade.

With continuing regularity, organizations will put together small groups of people with the intention of using them as “strike teams.” These individuals need to focus on one specific area, deal with it, and then move on to the next. This comes out of the mass media infatuation with special teams and elite groups of people who seem to abound in movies and TV programs. The problem with this scenario is that any one of those special-teams described on the movie and TV are not individuals that are thrown together for one quick assignment. These individuals have trained with each other for years in order for them to be that efficient.

Developing a team is a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor, with most corporations who consider the next quarter as long-term planning. This is a diametrically opposed understanding to what most organizations want to view. Developing high performing teams, if done correctly, can produce benefits and productivity far beyond the expectations of most corporate organizations.

The word “teamwork” has included such a catchall of overused phrases that is almost started to lose its meaning. There are several myths about teamwork that we should address before moving on.

Myth number one—Teams can be thrown together quickly and dispersed equally. As we've already stated, this is a fallacy. Teams require time, energy, and close proximity to each other in order to develop the required bonds for their productivity.

Myth number two—High performing teams can be virtual teams. With the advent of Internet-based communication systems, we have been able to extend the day and our reach nearly infinitely around the world. These communication systems work well as groups of people start to leverage the advantages of time and cost distribution across the world. These groups of people may work well together, but to develop a high performing team, individuals need to be in close proximity with one another on a regular basis. High performing teams are able to read and know exactly how people are going to react in specific situations. This is practically impossible to do using virtual meeting software or the video tools available on most collaborative communication devices. Nothing replaces the ability for us to absorb all of the communication modes through visual recognition of individuals’ body language and expressions to truly understand what this individual is feeling, thinking and doing even if they are unable to communicate it in a verbal form.

Myth number three—High performing teams are motivated by greater financial remuneration or potential financial gain. Most high performing teams are not motivated by financial implications, but are instead motivated by the work as well as the support of the other individuals within the team. In many ways the financial remuneration is a way in which they keep themselves going so that they can support the team more.

If an organization decides to develop a series of high performing teams, it is not a short-term process. It requires a long and in-depth commitment by the organization. If they have the commitment and follow-through, a high performing team can produce results far beyond the expectations of the organization. To prove this point I will submit the following two stories:

  1. During the late 70s and early 80s the Israeli Air Force took possession of their latest fighter aircraft McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing Co.) F 15 fighter aircraft and changed the name from F-15 Eagle to the Baz (translates to falcon). For a small country, the stunningly expensive airplanes were a great prize. When the first one was shot down by a surface-to-air missile it was of great concern both in and outside of the Israeli government. A small team of engineers worked around the clock, not for a paycheck, but for the belief that they needed to defend their country in less than a month's time. They developed a radar detection device that was installed on every plane. From then on, they did not lose another plane to the surface-to-air missile system. At the same time, the United States was developing its own tactical system that was deployed nearly four years later at an astronomical cost, and with less success. A small group of engineers working not for the glory, but for a specific cause, isolated themselves from all the rest and created a solution that the most technologically advanced country in the world took nearly four more years to create. To this day, these planes are highly guarded and kept in a shroud of secrecy. Even the individual who built the planes is no longer allowed to get in them owing to the fact the Israelis have redesigned so much of the equipment.
  2. To look at another example of high performing teams and the solutions that they create we have to look back to the space race. During this time when the U.S. was trying to strive to go beyond our earthly bounds; and send a human being into a completely hostile environment and bring them back safely, two competing groups of intellectuals worked diligently to make sure this was a success.

    On the spacecraft Molly Brown, also known as Gemini Titan 3, a controversy arose in the newspaper when it was announced that NASA was sending up two mechanical pencils costing $128.84 apiece and that NASA had spent nearly $4,382.50 to purchase 34 pencils. This started the rumor of the infamous space pen costing millions of dollars. The punch line of the story is that the U.S. spent millions of dollars to develop a space pen and the Russians used a pencil. But as usual, reality is much more interesting. It turned out that there was a major investigation into contraband that these astronauts had taken aboard without permission. One of the contraband items was four pencils costing a total of $.49. This high performing team recognized the importance of backup thousands of miles away from the nearest store and brought their own (Day, 2006).

Both of these stories depict a group of individuals who were working in a high performing capacity, and who were undistracted by additional requirements. They are fully focused on the mission at hand and both came up with excellent solutions for long-term and serious consequences. The advantage is that if we are willing to truly commit to developing high performing teams, we can expect the same success as defined in these two stories.

New research has come about that recognizes the fact that we are all interconnected. The social networks that we are connected to have a greater influence on our well-being, and our productivity in ways that we never thought possible. New evidence is being discovered that there are three degrees of influence in our network. In other words, not only are we influenced by our friends, we are also influenced by our friends’ friends. This influence permeates the entire network to include things like political views productivity and even obesity. This new research allows us to understand that in the development of a high performing team we must integrate all of the individuals into a cohesive group and have them recognize that high performing team as some of their closest friends. Because we then know that if they are in a high performing team with people who are their closest friends, they will influence each other to a greater degree than if they are close friends and are not in the same mindset and organization.

Additional work is being done in organizations, and has shown that a group of five people acting in a cohesive and similar way can influence an entire organization. There have been studies that show that even larger groups of people do not have substantially more influence than five people working in a cohesive structure. Recognizing that we all work in networks and that it is important to have our high performing team in our network is 3° of influence. Understanding that just five people can influence an entire organization means we do not have to develop vast numbers of high performing teams. We can have small groups of people that can create a high performing organization and therefore influence the entire corporation. This paper is not to encourage organizations to develop hundreds of high performing teams; but rather, to develop specific high performing teams that they would like to use on a regular basis; not only to implement the requirements of the work, but also to change the culture of the organization by using these small high performing teams (Christakis, 2009).

We know now that the project management community has an excellent opportunity to be able to help develop these high performing teams not only to get our work done better, but also more efficiently and more creatively than ever. Regretfully most project managers get lost in the details when dealing with specific issues involving politics and problems. They do not look at the higher cause for developing high performing team individuals which is that, given the opportunity; they would be motivated by their interest in supporting the group and the work involved, instead of the financial remuneration.

Regretfully, we look for the silver bullet of the past way of integrating people to make them highly efficient without giving the time, money, and expense necessary. There are many organizations that will claim that they can develop high performing teams by coming in and providing certain tools or expertise. In reality, this is a long-term process that an individual organization needs to commit to and hold a steady line. This means that teams need to be integrated for periods of time up and over a year. They need to be given work that is not only recognizable and rewarding, but work in which they can be creative and have a safe environment to work in. What results is far more than what is put in. Regretfully most organizations do not have a long-term view to be able to do this.

This is not as impossible a task as it may seem. It is important to understand that even if you do not develop a high performing team using these techniques, it will actually help all of your team members to become better more integrated and more interested. As project managers, we must start looking the expectations we are setting for ourselves as well as the rest of our team. Many project managers that you talk to will be looking for the team to be active. I would like to change that definition and really start looking for people to become engaged in the process. If you are just active you are moving ahead; however, an engaged individual is an individual who is not only interested in the success of the team, but also in doing it with the understanding that the success of the project and of him or herself. So, the first part of moving from a project management process to a high performing team and project leader is an individual who can motivate and strive to have the team engage, not just be active. This continuum is very important, not only to change the way you think about the process, but also how you think about your role in the process. Below, I have enclosed a continuum that shows the relative place of “active” compared to “engaged” in the same process.

Leadership Continuum

Exhibit 1: Leadership Continuum

Once you, as a project manager, have decided that a high performing team is something that you would like to strive for, it is important to understand just what a high performing team looks like and how you can facilitate that process.

First, a high performing team is a group of people who work together over a period of time; it is not a team that can be thrown together in a short-time frame. Individuals must learn each other's habits, preferences, and dislikes; and become somewhat of a family. This cannot happen in a few meetings or with a quick retreat. It is a process that has to happen over time. Teams will start to get to know each other, understand how others do things, and be able to anticipate preferences, conversations, and challenges. All teams must go through the storming, forming, norming, and performing processes. These teams will stay in the performing or high performing stages longer if they are allowed to work through their issues together and to be supported by both management and project leaders who understand that in this process, we move from “active” to “engaged.”

These teams will start to not only take on the responsibility for themselves, but they will also self correct and encourage individuals. They will start developing their own shorthand or verbiage within the team and terminology and expressions will start to develop that are exclusive to that team. They will start integrating not only their work but also their play into the process. One of the first signs of a team becoming cohesive is that they are allowed to play during stressful situations whereby it's acceptable to show more than the business side of things as they move through difficult times.

These teams will start to take on a true zeal for the mission; not necessarily getting bogged down in the details, but understanding the higher requirements that are necessary to achieve the final outcome. They will start encouraging differing views and use those views not as a point of contention, but as a point to continue to improve the entire team for the long run. They will also develop strategies to understand how decisions are made and what the pecking order within the group is. There will be individuals to take leadership roles at different times and different places, owing to the requirements necessary. In many ways other team members will play supporting roles or backup roles so that if an individual is not available they have the knowledge and ability to support the team even though one member is not around. There is absolutely a clearly defined set of roles and responsibilities that are developed internally to the organization, but recognize that it is important to share the information and not hoard it, in order to make sure the entire group is able to support issues as they come up.

As the group matures, a culture of blame is dropped in favor of a culture used to improve the entire organization for introspection and a clear integration of knowledge and future outcomes. These conversations move from blame to one where they look for indications and triggers that they can watch out for to make sure that issues like this do not crop up again and when they do they will have a plan of action to actually solve those issues. The team takes a proactive stance on a regular basis that is not directed by the project leader, but directed by the entire team; owing to the fact that they have absorbed the mission, and they want to have a successful outcome.

High performing teams will regularly recognize specific individuals for their accomplishments. The majority of the time the project leader will not be recognized. The individual team members will be continually recognized owing to the fact that the team recognizes that each individual is special and a rotation of recognition begins whereby each individual team member is recognized in answer to his contribution not his title. This in no way means that there is not a clear leadership and decision hierarchy. Individuals are recognized more often than the leaders are because of the way the team dynamic works.

A project manager has a truly different way of looking at your project team. It allows a lot of your project team to expand organically and integrate their skills and techniques into a much more cohesive organization. Accepting that the group is moving from group mentality to a high performing team mentality means that a new project manager is going to have to subvert his or her ego and allow the team to expand. Most project managers have trouble doing this the first time, because they think they are losing control or they are not going to be needed. This is actually the opposite of the truth. High-performing teams need project leaders to integrate their activities into the rest of the world. The project leader must serve as a buffer between all of the politics and requirements in order for the team to get work done.

A project leader also needs to set the expectation that teams have a tendency to grow and continue to expand. The project leaders’ responsibility at that point serves more as a coach than anything else. He or she is the individual who will start developing the written history, recognize the individuals, and provide them opportunities to succeed as well as point out the successes that they have had. In so doing the project leader continues to foster a high performing team, protecting it from the rest of the organization so they can focus on what's going on by integrating the work that needs to be done into the mission and helping them see what the vision of the entire processes is. Less and less a project manager will deal with the day-to-day activity list and check list. More and more that will be driven down to the actual team to give the project managers time for more strategic work, with the team and with the entire organization. This moves many project managers out of their comfort level into a more managerial role. Many individuals being forced into this roll will rebel and insist on moving back to the comfort level of tasks, task delegation, and broke work therefore stifling the team and restricting the success not only of the project but also the project manager.

Many organizations define a team as groups of people working together. Most of these are individuals assigned to yet another activity with some verbiage wrapped around it to make up for the lack of team integration. These buzzwords can be things like strike team, call management unit, leadership team, and the like. These words are designed to inspire individuals who do not know each other and have not worked well together in the past. Most of them do not know what agendas other people are bringing to the table and therefore provide active participation knowing that the team will soon dissolve. This is further complicated by the advent of virtual groups.

In this paper, a virtual group will be defined as individuals who are not co-located within the same metropolitan area. This means that individuals have to use alternate forms of media to communicate on a regular basis and do not regularly attend face-to-face meetings with the entire team. Virtual groups have become a necessity due to the increased cost of travel and decreased budgets within organizations. This is a contingency that we must accept. We cannot expect a high performing team to be developed if they do not have regular contact with each other. There are many virtual groups that do a good job and that actively participate and get work done. There is no question that this business model is a functional model. However, it does not allow for some of the fundamental motivating success criteria of a high performing team.

A high performing team by definition is engaged in the mission is excited and does not want to let the other team members down. Not for any intellectual reason but for a visceral reason these people become family—team members who know exactly what they're thinking and when they are thinking. This is very difficult to achieve in a virtual environment where it's difficult to read by language over the phone and more difficult to feel connected individuals we've actually never met. This of course does not deal with the issue of time zone changes and integrating individuals who are working when you are asleep.

Virtual groups work well on dispersed projects, in which each individual can take specific items of work and deal with them in their geographic location. This is the reality of today's business and can be managed by a project leader but one should not have the expectation that you will be able to deliver a high performing team given the barriers of virtual environment creates. There will be certain individuals that work better alone, but overall, we are social animals designed to work in small cohesive units. Our brains are not designed to deal with more than about 150 people at a time.

With the new realities of our working world it is more and more of a struggle to develop high performing teams. It requires time, energy, effort, and money over a prolonged period of time. This is not necessarily conducive to the quixotic market and requirements of stakeholders. However, if a project leader is able to create a high performing team they will able to create levels of productivity not seen in standard corporate America. As we have seen from the examples, they are able to develop solutions at a much more rapid rate, and with higher degrees of success than groups of people would normally be expected to do.

It is still possible to develop high performing teams. They must develop trust and confidence with each other in body and in team missions. They will motivate themselves by a visceral understanding of the requirements and by the entire team. They display loyalty to the team and to the project, encouraging different points of view and developing a consensus to actually achieve higher levels of productivity. They cross train to make sure that everyone understands the processes. They encourage constructive criticism and use errors to improve, not blame. They have strong leadership that must be delivered on a regular basis but also recognize the individuals contributing the most to the project. A project leader in this situation must be more dynamic and sure of him or herself, and willing to let go of some of the day-to-day operations to give the high performing team an opportunity to grow. If a project manager decides that he or she wishes to revert back to what they are comfortable with, a high performing team becomes stifled and ineffective.

Project managers have the opportunity to take the best in breed people and integrate them into high performing teams not only to achieve their success and project success, which ultimately the project leader will achieve in the long run. This is not an easy or a straightforward process. It is an ability to truly make a difference in your team's lives, your corporate life, and your professional life by integrating ideas of moving from active to engaging moving from project management to project leadership.

Christakis, N. (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Day, D. (2006, May 01). The Space Review. The Billion Dollar Space Pen. Retrieved on 7/19/10, from

© 2010, R. Camper Bull
Originally published as a part of 2010 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Washington DC



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