Perceptions of a project team performance

Pål Ingsøy, Statoil ASA

Abstract

Project team performance has proven hard to measure, and determinants of high-performance teams tend to evade investigators. Based on a survey conducted amongst the IT professionals of a medium size oil company, the current study identifies key factors for project team performance. Measures for improving the performance are derived from a gap analysis. It is suggested that the generic methodology underpinning the analysis is applicable in a variety of settings.

A literature review elicited a theoretical framework that formed the basis of the survey questionnaire. The survey showed that many significant factors linked to team performance can be grounded in familiar project management concepts, with the project manager's competence rated most important.

The survey confronted the respondents with 16 pairs of statements. The first member of a pair presented a theoretical supposition, while the second investigated whether the respondent's experience conformed to the theoretical assertion. The response formed the basis of a gap analysis, pin-pointing areas where operational practices deviate from the respondents' perception of how team performance should be promoted. The measured deviation was termed an expectation cap.

The analysis proceeded to develop measures for aligning practices with expectation. Corrective measures were linked to factors that scored high in 2 dimensions:

  • - Significance, as perceived by the respondents
  • - Expectation gap

Key targets for improving team performance were categorized as follows:

  • - Project manager's competence
  • - Informal interpersonal relations
  • - Dedicated team building

Informal relation, e.g. having lunch together, turned out more important than expected. The current paper offers a more detailed account of the methodology and results.

Introduction

Team performance is paramount to execute projects in a timely and expedient manner, and performance management is considered integral part of project management. In spite of this, there is considerable bewilderment regarding how to manage team performance and maximize the value of project teams. Although an array of factors is likely to impact performance, direct measurement of team performance has proven evasive.

The current study approaches the team performance challenge by investigating the perception of good project team performance. Surmising that the perceptions nurtured by professionals provide clues to underlying factors controlling team performance, we used a questionnaire to survey the opinions of IT professionals working with Statoil, a medium size oil company. The survey was designed to compare opinions and perceptions on one hand with actual experience pertinent to good team performance on the other. Comparing scores obtained in both of these dimensions, we seek to identify areas where performance can be improved.

The paper consists of three chapters. The first chapter presents the theoretical framework. The second chapter presents the survey and its results. In the third chapter we conclude our findings.

Theoretical Framework

Performance

Sink (1989) suggested that the performance of an organizational system, e.g. a project, is an interrelationship between seven performance criteria.

The model is arguably too complex for practical applications, but it represents a classical approach to performance measurement (Rolstadås, 1997). The first two criteria (effectiveness and efficiency) are more or less “recycled” in more recent models.

Armstrong (2000) concluded that, when managing the performance of teams and individuals, a 2D model that accounts for both input (behavior) and outputs (results) is warranted. Performance management is therefore concerned with what people do (their work), how they do it (their behavior) and what they achieve (their results). The TOPP model (Moseng, 1993, Bredrup, 1994, Rolstadås, 1995) implies that performance should be addressed in a 3D framework based on the notions of:

  • Effectiveness - to what extent are customer needs met
  • Efficiency - how economically are the resources utilized
  • Changeability - to what extent are the company prepared for future changes

At project level corporate Changeability has little impact and the model comes across as primarily 2D.

De Paoli (1996) determines project performance as a multiple-attribute function defined in a space spanned by 2 dimensions:

  • Productivity – gauged against the best performing unit, the so called ‘best practice’ measure
  • Quality – defined according to clients' evaluations on several dimensions such as fulfillment of needs and product characteristics; design, functionality and technical abilities.

We suggest that the notions expounded above can be coalesced in a 2D framework that is illustrated by Exhibit 1:

Team performance model

Exhibit 1 – Team performance model

Team performance here subsumes the notions of behavior, efficiency and productivity. Results, on the other hand, account for deliverables, effectiveness and quality.

Team Performance Concepts

The above framework needs to be grounded in a concrete terminology suitable for the survey questionnaire. A literature study was carried out to distill concepts likely to impact team performance in either of the dimensions introduced above. The concepts thus derived include project manager, whose leadership style is likely to influence performance (Armstrong, 2000; Carver, 2002; Mulcahy, 2002). Vision, goals and objectives are regarded important by several authors (Jauch, 1988; PMI, 1997; Armstrong, 2000; Statoil, 2003; Westhagen, 1994). Other factors include a clear scope (PMI, 2000; Construction Industry Institute, 1986), individual competence (PMI, 1997; Prahalad, 1990; Armstrong, 2000; Barney, 1991; Amundsen, 1999; Landsberg, 1997; Statoil, 2002; Boxall, 1996), team climate (Haythorn, 1968; Paoli, 1996), roles (PMI, 1997; Gido, 1999; Armstrong, 2000), communication (Rolstadås, 1995; PMI, 2000; PMI, 199;, Beck, 2000; Paoli, 1996; Spurkeland, 1998), concurrent engineering (Rolstadås, 1995; Jergeas ?), coaching and support (Whitmore, 2002; Withworth, 1998; Landsberg, 1997; Armstrong, 2000), standard methodology (SEI; ISO;, Mirza, 2002; Paoli, 1996), and project planning (PMI, 2000; Briner, 2001; Gido, 1999).

Of the above concepts, team climate seems closely affiliated with team performance, and one might question whether the input – team climate – is a priori linked to team performance. After all, it is widely accepted that cohesive groups outperform non-cohesive groups. However, a survey conducted by De Paoli (Paoli 1996) concluded that a good cooperative environment had no effect on the core group's productivity. She theorizes that the limited project time perspective may play a role in influencing team member behavior and enhancing performance.

The current study refrains from addressing Information and Communication Technology, ICT. Although ICT is a key driver in modern project work (Rolstadås, 1995; Armstrong, 2000; Paoli, 1996), the relation between team performance on one hand and ICT proficiency and infrastructure on the other, was deemed too complex to be addressed by the survey presented here.

Motivation feeds on a number of reward mechanisms and psychological notions that evade the comprehensive survey method applied here. Hence, we did not venture to link performance to motivation in an explicit manner.

Survey

Design of the survey

The web-based survey presented 32 statements to the respondents. The number of statements was limited by a requirement that responding should not require more than 10 minutes. The respondents were asked to rank their agreement with the statements by using a scale 1-6, where 6 indicates full agreement.

The statements are designed to convey 16 pairs of suppositions. The first statement of a pair contends a theoretical position, i.e. “Team Building is important for project team performance”. The second statement is designed to query the perception of the practical adoption of the theoretical proposition, i.e. “I have participated in team building exercises”. For the sake of discussion we will refer to two paired statements as coupled. For the sake of discussion we introduce the following terminology: The first statement of a pair projects an expectation or hypothesis and is referred to as the “theoretical statement.” The second statement queries the respondent's “experience” and is referred to as the “operational statement.”

As for any survey, the order in which the statements appear is likely to influence the response (Levine, 2002) By design, the coupled assertions were stated in succession such that the theoretical proposition always preceded the operational. This is done to direct the respondent towards a comparative evaluation while at the same time fixing a common conception and interpretation of the coupled pair of statements.

Comparing the responses triggered by the coupled statements, allows identification of potential discrepancies between expectations and experience. The “expectation gap hypothesis” was coined to assert that such a discrepancy exists.

The population consists of 261 respondents, including projects managers, project team members, managers and a few miscellaneous professionals from the IT department in Statoil. Managers, however, were only exposed to the theoretical statements. The below table, Exhibit 2, provides a summary of the response.

Response data with confidence intervals (CI) based on a 95% confidence level (CL)

Exhibit 2 – Response data with confidence intervals (CI) based on a 95% confidence level (CL)

Note that the confidence interval was calculated based on assuming a 50% probability. The survey was web based and distributed by means of Statoil's intranet, a factor that is unlikely to introduce bias since the population consists of IT professionals that are familiar with electronic surveys.

Survey results

The survey statements are displayed below, Exhibit 3.

Survey statements

Exhibit 3 – Survey statements

Note that the 32 statements (Exhibit 3) have been mapped to 7 groups that are grounded in the concepts introduced above. Each statement can be identified by a number; uneven for theoretical statements and otherwise even. The column at the far right exposes the mean value of the respondent's rating. Statements that reinforce common notions of proficient project management resonance well with the respondents and appear high on the ranking list. Note that the confidence revealed by Exhibit 2, translates into a typical errors of 0.3-0.5 associated with the mean rating values.

The results become more transparent when the rating is plotted against group, Exhibit 4. The figure includes only the response to theoretical statements. Statements linked to conventional project management concepts scored high. Factors that are perceived as most important for project team performance include (the statement number is given in parenthesis):

  • The project manager's project management competence (3)
  • Scope clearly defined and communicated (9)
  • Objectives clearly stated and communicated (5)
  • Careful planning (31)

Communication issues, on the other hand, failed to inspire the same consensus. The claim that an open office environment improved team performance received the lowest rating (of the theoretical suppositions).

Response to theoretical statements

Exhibit 4 – Response to theoretical statements.

Comparing the theoretical statement/expectation with the corresponding operational coupled statement allows for a gap analysis capturing areas where the operational practices lag behind the respondent's expectations. Exhibit 5 plots the operational mean value scores versus the theoretical expectations. The plot also highlights the statement groups pertinent to the data points. Points that fall below the diagonal indicate areas of “expectation gap”, i.e. areas where operational practice should be improved to match expectations. While the expectation gap is generally positive, 4 data entries entail negative gaps that may indicate that operational adoption is adequate.

Exhibit 5 further reveals that Project Management statements yield entries that are fairly well clustered and balanced with regard to theoretical and operational expectations. Statements grouped under coaching and communication display considerable positive gaps, indicating that operational adoption may not be sufficiently developed.

From a practical point of view, the data points that exhibit high scores and large positive expectations gaps are likely to be the most important candidates for corrective measures. In this case the consensus around an accepted principle may not have been sufficiently migrated to operational procedures. The most manifest candidate seems to be statement No 3 (in the upper right corner of the plot), which entails that Project Managers are still not marshalling enough project management skills in operational settings.

Another data point that warrants closer investigation corresponds to statement No 15. It is reasonable to suggest that more emphasis should be placed on nurturing personal relations between team members. A third data point that stands out is number 17. The gap analysis indicated that more efforts should be devoted to organized team buildings.

Hence, the analysis suggests that the most evident areas for improvement include:

  • Project manager's project management competence
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Organized and dedicated team build efforts
Gap Analysis

Exhibit 5 – Gap Analysis

To further consolidate the results of the gap analysis, we addressed the difference between the distributions expectations and operational adoption, respectively, by a paired sample t-test. The test confirmed that the expectation gap shown by Exhibit 5 is genuine and not caused by statistical errors.

It is interesting to note that the expectation gap analysis projects a somewhat different picture from a simple comparison of scores (Exhibit 4). In particular, certain “soft issues” like team building and interpersonal relations stand out as targets for improvements.

Discussion of the selected population

Within a company like Statoil – with some 19000 employees - the corporate cultural influence may promote a certain “politically correct” thinking that may obscure matters that warrants genuine consideration. The present study endeavors to remedy this predicament by challenging the respondent to contrast theoretical notions with recollections of practical project work set in the harsh reality.

We deliberately chose to target a population whose members share some level of project training and competence. This was because the study – as one of its objectives - aims at precipitating recommendations that can improve the performance of Statoil project teams. The sharp focus certainly impedes any attempt to generalize the results to distinctly different environments. However, the methodology presented here should be amiable to more generic studies.

Conclusions

The current study has demonstrated a methodology for identifying areas of concern for improving project team performance.

Carrying out a survey amongst IT professionals in Statoil, it was shown that factors that encapsulate conventional project management concepts were highly recognized as important for improving project team performance. Factors related to methodology and planning tended to attract medium scores, while factors that pertain to Team climate and group dynamics exhibits a fairly large variability. Communication issues, here a concept with a strong affinity to infrastructure, tended to be rated low. An open office environment for example was not regarded particularly important for team performance.

The gap analysis performed here identifies the most important areas for corrective measures, including:

  • Project managers project management competence
  • Interpersonal relations
  • Organized and dedicated team build efforts

Interpersonal relations and team building, i.e. “soft” issues that industrial professionals tend to overlook, appear as areas where improvement is warranted.

References

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This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2004 Harald Rønneberg & Pål Ingsøy
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California

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