A state department case study in project team building, constraints, competencies, conflicts, and the people side of change
Alaska Dept of Labor and Workforce Development
Jang Ra, PhD, PMP, Professor and Chair
University of Alaska Anchorage MSPM Program
Projects implement strategy based on an organization’s project management maturity, culture, and goals. Project team dynamics affect the success or failure of projects. Project planning and conflict management of technical and human constraints requires team building, project management training, the “people side” of change management, and good communication. This paper summarizes major experiences and lessons learned from a government project as a case study.
Project team dynamics begin with the supporting organization, and proceed with human resource planning and communication planning prior to the project team acquisition. Project team acquisitions within government departments are generally based on the organizational structure for the divisions or units that initiate the project, the sponsorship level within the Department, the budget, and either available skills within the Department or acquired skills through training or contract resources.
“Maturity and excellence in project management does not occur simply by using project management over a prolonged period of time. Rather it comes through strategic planning for both project management and the project office” (Kerzner, 2003, p. 13).
“Within an organization, the implementation of a new strategy or a new structure can involve a very complex change process, and change in an organization produces uncertainty. The more radical a strategy is, the more uncertainty is associated with it. …. The culture of an organization is therefore critical to the success of strategic change” (Kenny, 2003, p. 47).
This case study presents project management teaming efforts in a real life project from the Alaska State Department of Labor and Workforce Development (AKDOLWD). The project used for the case study is the Alaska Labor Exchange System (ALEXsys). The primary strategic goals for ALEXsys were to provide the public with a no-fee Internet labor exchange system to provide available job-ready workers to employers and to support the network of Alaska Job Centers throughout the state for employment services.
Team Dynamics Background
The project team dynamics grew through a number of external and internal circumstances to the project from organization changes, scope changes that were approved and those that were denied, differing stakeholder agendas, and vendor delays. The ALEXsys Statewide Implementation project was a follow-on project from a pilot project that purchased and tested a couple of Virtual One Stop modules for one of the state’s Job Centers.
The RFP for the pilot project was written and evaluated by technical staff other than those that made up the pilot project team. The pilot team had different expectations than the actual RFP and vendor contract obligation. Halfway into the pilot project a more encompassing plan was developed and approved for the ALEXsys Statewide Implementation Plan. ALEXsys included the purchase and configuration of additional modules, in-house building of interfaces and reporting processes, and implementing the system for the Department state-wide and the public.
With ALEXsys the first set of vendor configured purchased code was delayed. The web technology was a learning curve for in-house mainframe Data Processing (DP) staff. Compounding the delay was the DP unit reorganization due to a newly hired DP manager and the transition of impacted existing IT projects, tasks, and knowledge transfers that cascaded to a delay of the DP functional tech lead’s availability. The reorganization implemented an official project management stance for DP and instituted a full time DP technical project manager and DP project staff to work with the operational DP staff and DP functional tech lead.
Additional delays due to acceptance testing of the purchased code occurred and were compounded by expectations of the testers and other program staff for scope changes instead of changing procedures to use the purchased code. A learning curve existed for testing staff provided in designing test plans and doing formalized testing through a controlled process. The vendor and testing delays were offset by fast tracking later tasks, with the result that the project end that should have been four months delayed was only one month delayed. Team dynamics, communication and other issues were addressed prior to the second vendor code delivery and resulted in more supportive team dynamics.
PM Organization Structure, Maturity, and Culture
The main divisions of the AKDOLWD involved in the project were the Employment Security Division (ESD) and Administrative Services Division (ASD) Data Processing Unit (DPU). Formalization of Project Management at the AKDOLWD began in 1998 as the result of a Baldridge Study within the ESD. In the fall of 1998 one formal position was dedicated to project management. By 2000 ESD had created a project management unit and the ASD DPU had a team lead acting as a project manager for projects other than ESD’s. During 2000 – 2004, formalizing procedures and mentoring from contracting project managers took place. In 2005 two project managers for ESD and one project manager from ASD DPU received their Project Management Professional (PMP®). The ASD DPU technical project manager also started her Master of Science in Project Management.
The organizational form for Project Management for the Department and the ESD parent organization for ALEXsys is considered a “mixed/composite organizational system”. The Department is fundamentally broken into functional program and section units that supply staff for the project. The ESD’s Project Management Unit supplies the Division Project Manager. Larger or more complex IT projects also support a DP Technical Project Manager. The culture of the Department is one of customer service, continuous improvement, and long retention of department staff through hire, promotion or unit transfer, until retirement.
Maturity model assessments help benchmark organization competencies through documents and procedures. Project management maturity is not just for project managers, project management maturity must also exist for the project team and organization as a whole. Project Maturity surveys were taken to assess strengths and growth in both the Spring of 2005 and the Spring of 2006 for the project managers, DP manager, and DP functional team leads. The average overall project maturity level for the Department for both years was level 2 (repeatable planned project managed process for large projects). (Judgev & Thomas, 2002, p. 6)
Project management maturity plays a role in project team dynamics. Resistance exists within the project team and project support teams due to ambiguity about what project management is, why project management is important, and about what the scope and governance of project strategy are used for. Based on the misunderstanding of what project management is often finds organizational functional managers and team leads feeling threatened or propagating misperceptions of project management when they see tasks that had previously fallen under their jurisdiction for management and planning moved under the project manager.
Rejection and resistance occur due lack of:
“understanding about project management’s significance and its strategic potential in serving senior executives-the buyers of project management. These executives viewed project management as something that anyone could do when the need arose, typically fixes a short-term crisis situation, and generally is not applicable to strategic business development, their main focus of an executive’s attention. The ’sellers’ of project management, however, either internal practitioners or external project consultants, tended to reinforce this misunderstanding by focusing on the efficiency and effectiveness measure of project management as a control mechanism. As a result…gaining support for-and garnering investment in-project management within organizations still remains a tough sell” (Ives, 2005, p. 41).
Whether Project Management maturity is generated through either an evolutionary, or a radical process there are five critical success factors: (1) senior management commitment to providing vision, strategy, and sponsorship by acting through a culture that rewards innovative and entrepreneurial individuals; (2) organizational support for cross-functional teams through structure and processes; (3) encouragement through a structured process for new product ideas and procedures that add value to the organization; (4) provision of project teams with appropriate and dedicated staffing, leadership, skills, resources, motivation, and training to be able to work and communicate effectively; and (5) a tactical planning process to determine project goals, shorter timelines, earlier identification of risks, milestone measurements, and required plan adjustments (Lester, 1998, p 36).
Organizational culture and values are often underestimated in creating a successful project environment for the team. As projects within the Department are approved the assignment of resources is based on organization structures and subcultures.
“A project manager faces two main cultural challenges. First, the project manager quickly must develop a suitable organizational culture within the project to achieve proper progress and the best results possible. Second, the project manager must understand the organizational culture of the associated base organization and the subcultures of various departments to communicate and interact effectively with those groups…” (Andersen, 2003, p. 4).
Culture, competencies, and communication are critical for the core project team. The differing agendas of project team members create friction and miscommunication between the defined scope of the project and what may be understood by other stakeholders for the project objective. “Culture is an area that all projects have in common, and the potential of negative and positive impact is high. Intercultural conflicts can have a negative influence on the project as the root cause of team conflicts…interpersonal conflicts, communication breakdowns, personal agendas, and intergroup conflicts.” (Henrie and Sousa-Poza, 2005, p. 5).
Project Team Acquisition and Competencies
In building successful project teams, Project Manager competencies must consist of leadership, project management and business processes, organizational culture, team development, and communication. The organizational culture must include: customer enthusiasm, integrity, teamwork, innovation, continuous improvement, and individual respect and responsibility. These competencies and culture generate common project management language, collaborative and interdependent teams, competent project managers, proper IT system, process orientation, and performance orientation. (Kendra & Taplin, 2004, p 31-35).
Project Management culture ties these competencies and values to the goals and visions of the Department through projects. Within the project management culture, the project team and interdependent functional support teams need to be deliverable-oriented; have skills, or have the ability to acquire skills and use tools; be disciplined, and have the ability to be cohesive; be able to lead others and abide by structure; as well as have the ability to work with diverse staff and situations. The necessity of these team competencies needs to be understood by functional managers since projects are temporary in duration and are used to provide the new processes and procedures for the strategic goals of the department. The reality is, however, that there are a number of mitigating factors and constraints that circumvent obtaining a team that already functions with team competencies. These factors and constraints can be due to the availability of in-house resources, the existing state of competencies and conflicting agendas of the in-house functional structures of the organization.
One of the most valuable organizational assets that came about during the ALEXsys project in dealing with conflicts due to differing agendas of the project team was the Department’s furthering of a formalized project management culture which brought the ESD and ASD project managers together to become a team within themselves. This allowed them to work together to communicate, negotiate and train their project teams to become more cohesive interdependent teams with a common goal, and negotiate alternatives for counter productive technical deficiencies and behavioral issues.
Competency Reality and Change Challenge
The ALEXsys project team was the first project whose core members spanned more Departmental program units and had organizational subcultures that were vastly different from those of past large project teams: ESD program units for Employment and Training Technical Unit, the Regional Job Centers, the Unemployment Insurance Technical Unit, the DP Liaison, and ASD DPU. The majority of the team members had not been involved in large projects, had not worked with strict time constraints and schedules, and had not worked as interdependent teams. The ESD staff had also been more procedural and public interactive for one-on-one service support and did not have an IT project development support background. The ASD DPU analyst programmers assigned were also required to move from a mainframe to a web technology.
All projects bring change with them. Change, whether radical or incremental, can become a constraint in itself to the project and requires good communication, interpersonal skills, and team building to disentangle issues that arise due to the acceptance of the change. Strong conflicting agendas create a lot of miscommunication and undermining behavior to the project which cascades to other project staff in the “drama triangle”: victim (you are with me, or on my side), hero (you are my rescuer), villain (you are against me, or not supporting me). When the “drama triangle” enfolds in a project it becomes a constraint to accomplishing the project tasks either through: the loss of time addressing behavioral problems; the clarifying of communication and rectifying of misperceptions; or the slow down of activity due to the discontent and apathy toward assignments. The perpetrators of discontent sow and sell their views whether or not the injustice is real, a result of activity they instigated, or the result of the project definition that was different from the “victim’s” agenda. In rousing others to the same viewpoint the victim can then rise to the level of hero in their eyes for the actions they take, and the project managers appear as villains forcing the project scope agenda on them.
“People in conflict often talk of feeling stuck—trapped not by the conflict, but on a ‘drama triangle’ of victims, villains and heroes. Once we are aware of it, we can step back and acknowledge our place on the drama triangle and choose to view and approach our conflicts differently. We can see our adversary not as the villain, but as someone with how we must work to identify and solve the problem. In doing so, we move beyond the drama triangle and towards resolution.” (Harper, 2006, p. 2)
To escape a project ‘drama triangle’ the team needs to understand that projects that bring about organizational change are due to the organization’s desire to shift and align the organizational culture due to the needs of its mission. The team needs to understand what that mission or objective is and how the project relates to that goal. They also need to understand that it is normal for this shift to bring with it uncertainty in individuals of the organization. For this reason project managers and functional managers need to provide team development to individuals assigned to the project, especially if teaming skill competencies are not strong and in place at the outset of the project.
If a project manager is having difficulty with a team member, the team member’s functional manager must provide additional support and interpersonal or technical development if they desire that team member to remain on the team. However, project planning must contain ongoing components and effort for team development and training that looks at the individual change process of the team members – what stage they are at for team competencies, where they need to be, and how to get them there. Projects are temporary and of short duration, growth and change of the individual should not be the sole responsibility of the project manager but needs a combined effort from project and functional managers for difficult employees unless the only objective for the project is employee growth and change.
There are five key steps in addressing individual change: 1) awareness of the need to change; 2) desire to participate and support the change; 3) knowledge about how to change; 4) ability to implement new skills and behaviors; and 5) reinforcement to keep the change in place. (Hiatt & Creasy, 2003, p. 87)
When assessing these five areas the reality of the individual change process is that employee resistance is the norm and not the exception and that some employees may never support the change. When it is observable that there are team members that may never support the change, active, visible and ongoing support by the functional manager is necessary to push the change process forward. Every employee goes through this change as an individual, but when an employee refuses to deal with change this can have a detrimental impact on other individuals who might have otherwise had the desire to change. (Hiatt & Creasy, 2003, pp. 40-41)
Resulting dialog in team dynamics changes when time and information are provided to the team as to why a change is needed. When resistance occurs there are three essential lessons to influence the change process:
- Do not react to resistance with surprise; expect it and plan for it. Be patient with individuals as they work their way through the change process.
- Assess resistance not only from an individual’s natural aversion or dislike to change, but also based on how much other change is going on (what is the capacity for more change).
- Persistent and prolonged resistance from middle management that is not addressed by executive sponsors can threaten a project and compromise success. Sponsors must determine and understand why the resistance exists and deal with the root cause. (Hiatt & Creasy, 2003, pp. 21-22)
Real-time Communication, Interfacing and Interaction
Communication is crucial in change. Information senders provide information about the change. Information receivers are the ones being given information about change. Dialog disconnect during a change process is due to a shift of the routine comfort zone. This is where team members and project managers talk right past one another with two different messages. Communication for the ALEXsys project required serious dialogue between project team members and the project managers as the drama triangle enfolded and also required the project managers to use problem solving techniques to address the teaming deficiencies as well as the technical deficiencies.
The original project plan’s team development contained technical training for the new web technologies (.Net, ASP Classic, ASP.Net, VB.Net, MS SQL Server, MS SQL Reporting Services) as well as some team building sessions. Additional staff members were contracted for mentoring and assisting in the IT development cycle of the product and help with the organization and training for testing support. However, the staff that needed the training the most in the technical and teaming areas were sporadic in attendance of the technical sessions, would not attend the team building sessions and activities, and at the start of the project were vocal about contracted staff being a threat to state worker jobs.
The original communication plan addressed mostly stakeholder progress reports, status meetings, an escalation process for scope change control issues, and a process for recording and handling project technical and procedural issues and decisions. However, in past projects there had not been as many conflicting agendas. or an existing planned process for working through them. Change resistance by a few was now compounded by conflicting agendas of the various units. Cutting off “drama triangle” dialog in the meetings to keep the meeting agendas on track only unfolded more “drama triangle” support for the few team members that were resisting change and caused longer unproductive meetings due to interruptions.
Teaming requires ground rules, clear expectations, and building trust. Change resistance and conflicting agendas can erode existing teaming competencies and values causing a bottleneck to accomplishing the project tasks either through: the loss of time addressing behavioral problems; the clarifying of communication and rectifying of misperceptions; or the slow down of activity due to the discontent and apathy toward assignments.
The Theory of Constraints (TOC) identifies constraints that create a bottleneck in a system with the intent to improve the weakest link in a system or process. This weakest link needs to be strengthened, enhanced, or replaced. “Strengthening anything but the weakest link will not improve the strength of the whole chain/system.” (Leach, 2005, p. 44) Normally the problems that are seen on the surface are undesired effects caused by a core problem. If only individual undesired effects are eliminated solutions are short-lived. Addressing a core problem is challenging and generates its own conflict. The TOC looks at the reality of the system for ongoing improvement. As part of the process for ongoing improvement TOC looks at a five step process: Step 1 identifies the constraint and must answer three questions: 1) What to change; 2) What to change to; and 3) How to cause the change; Step 2 exploits the constraint; Step 3 makes everything subordinate to the constraint; Step 4 elevates the constraint for organization support; and Step 5 loops back to step 1 for on-going improvement. (The TOC Center, 2006, pp. 3-4)
In coming together as a team of project managers to problem solve, it helped to have tools and techniques to communicate objectively to differing mind-sets and beliefs. One method used is Goldratt’s “Evaporating Cloud” method to help diagram and explain issues to team members where communication problems existed between senders and receivers and their conflicting agendas as depicted in Exhibit 1. (Leach, 2005, pp. 45-56)
From ALEXsys one example of common goal A was a major Federal report where two distinct beliefs existed as to how the goal should be reached for rolling quarters that spanned the year as the new system came on-line. Belief B was based on the decision of the project deliverable that no mass data conversion would take place. Action D therefore suggested a merge of old and new data at report time with a filter for duplicate data and making use of existing code. Belief C was based on the premise that a partial conversion should take place but be put into the system with pseudo keys. Action D1 therefore suggested processes to convert and hold the data with pseudo keys and move the appropriate pseudo keyed data to the new registration records as the applicant registered as well as a new process to create the report.
Exhibit 1 – Evaporating Cloud to Resolve Conflict and Dilemmas
The arrows that connected the beliefs and actions were then used to help validate, invalidate, or enhance the assumptions that supported the two opposing beliefs. The assumptions were then used to help ensure that the direction D1 the lead tech desired would meet issues from both beliefs.
Conflict when managed properly can be beneficial to the team. Visually problem solving through diagrams to represent issues, or to graph solutions aids in communication. Training in deficiencies whether technical or soft skills also help team members understand concepts that they have not really thought through before or have forgotten. Addressing concerns in a managed process offers a controlled process for recommended corrective actions. As part of this process the concept of “meetings do matter” needs to be propagated by the organizational culture.
Part of this managed process for concerns is meetings. The “too many meetings” is due to “too many unproductive meetings”. Training needs to be given in what a productive meeting is, and how it should be run to adhere to its assigned purpose. The other awareness about meetings that needs to occur is that a meeting is where the information is and the people are, and that this is where the project culture is and perpetuates itself. Meetings to be productive need to avoid the seven deadly sins:
Exhibit 2 – Seven Deadly Sins (Matson, 2006, pp. 1-8).
For ALEXsys the project concerns meeting became a separate weekly meeting from progress reporting since the focus and agenda were different. It also was only made up of Department staff and was optional in case some of the issues were not of concern to others or if the concerns were related to contract staff. The end result was a list (surprisingly not even large) of concerns for procedures, education, meeting agenda alterations, and setting up a separate weekly meeting for project concerns (whether technical, procedural, or personnel related).
One by one the project managers tackled the issues that were presented through knowledge transfer training, bringing the right people together to discuss the issues, or funnelling the concerns through the change control process. For those concerns that involved changes to the project scope that could not be done within the project, recording of the concerns was done as well as explanations and reasons given for why they could not be done at that specific time. By the time the second cut of the code had arrived there was now a consensus and solidarity of the project team for momentum to go forward, except for the few vocal “drama triangle” individuals. However, they no longer had a project audience, since alternative outlets had been provided for the project staff to voice and meet on their concerns. The concerns meeting was not about being defensive, only about listening to, documenting, and then scheduling the needed research or methods to address the concerns. After a few weeks, hardly any project staff attended the optional “concern’s meeting”, though the meeting was still scheduled and project managers there to listen.
Addressing change at the individual and project team level is part of team development. Lessons learned and continuous ongoing planning and improvement for communication and team development within the project addressed: outlets for project team concerns; presentations on productive meeting processes and agendas, revised methods for communicating information to the interdependent teams; outlets for team development concerns; workshops for staff to present their knowledge to other staff for knowledge transfer; functional managers and sponsors actively supporting change in difficult employees; and project management training to the team about what project management really is – strategy, communication, control and support, not just a list of tasks and dates.
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© 2006, Joyce Douglas & Jang Ra
Originally published as part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle, Washington