Project Management Institute

Project teams

what have we learned?

Creating a “Star Team” isn't just a matter of assembling a group of skilled people. Here are tips on how to make the whole more than the sum of its parts.

by H. Dudley Dewhirst

TEAMS ARE CENTRAL to project management: that's been true as long as there have been projects. However, in recent years, organizations in the nonproject world have “discovered” teams. Out of this experience, managers, consultants and academics developed a wealth of ideas about what makes teams work. Some of it is “old wine in new bottles,” but much of it sheds new light on team management issues.

In conventional organizations, teams produce dramatic increases in productivity, improved customer satisfaction, lower error rates, reduced scrap, more rapid delivery and higher market shares. Project teams develop dramatically successful new products and create innovative new services, often in an incredibly short time.

This in itself isn't surprising. What's really intriguing is that some teams do this so incredibly well and so incredibly fast. Teams like these have the potential to change the mathematics of work. For these high-performance teams, the productivity math is

2 + 2 = 6.

Unfortunately, for other teams, the math is more like

2 + 2 = 3 or less.

The differences between high- and low-productivity teams can be explored by examining the answers to four basic questions: When do you really need a team? What are the different levels of teamwork? What makes teams work? How can I implement and manage a team?

When Do You Really Need a Team?

Because teams require an investment of managerial work and organizational support, it's fair to ask when a team is needed and why. Many projects can be accomplished by a group of individuals that are a team in name only. They can succeed because of the nature of the work and the independence of each individual's work from that of other specialists.

Exhibit 1 contrasts characteristics of projects that need a team approach with projects for which the costs of organizing, developing and building a team may outweigh the benefits.

Many organizations and managers have adopted an all-or-nothing approach to using teams; that is, either all projects require a tightly organized, highly cohesive and interactive team or none of them do. Managers need to make distinctions between projects and invest heavily in developing teams for projects that really need high levels of teamwork.

What Are the Different Levels of Teamwork?

To say that the word team is used loosely is a gross understatement. Here are four variations in what might be called the “teamness” of a group working on a project.

Star Teams. According to Katzenback and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams (1993, Harvard Business School Press), a Star Team is “a small group of people with complementary skills committed to a common purpose, with shared performance goals and a common approach, holding themselves mutually accountable.

The size element is an important consideration. The size that best facilitates team effectiveness is between four and 12. Above that number, the closeness, ease of communication, and ability of every member to be a real contributor decline, although teams of 25 or more members can be effective in some instances.

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Not every work group is a team—or needs to be. To determine whether the team approach is required, ask this series of questions regarding the characteristics of the project

Exhibit 1. Not every work group is a team—or needs to be. To determine whether the team approach is required, ask this series of questions regarding the characteristics of the project.

Naturally, the team must have a mix of skills that fit the task requirements and complement one another. Notice that all the remaining criteria are about sharing of purpose, goals, approach and accountability. Team members understand what needs to be done, agree on how to do it, are focused on accomplishing the goal and have taken ownership of the project.

I've asked dozens of project managers which single criterion is the most difficult to meet. They agree on the last one: “holding themselves mutually accountable.”

When a star team comes together, great things usually happen: 2 + 2 = 6 or more.

Effective Teams. Effective Teams result when teams don't quite achieve star status. Organizational constraints often prevent proper implementation, development and support of the team. Project organizations are, like all organizations, imperfect. Even with good support and leadership, many teams do well but are not great. Perhaps several team members don't get along well. Or maybe some members don't fully develop ownership of team purpose and goals. But Effective Teams, while they may struggle, do get the job done. For them, 2 + 2 = 4 or 5.

Pseudo Teams. Pseudo Teams result when team members simply do not jell into a cohesive team. These teams would get a grade of “C” at best on each of the characteristics of the Star Team. There are many reasons why this can occur—lack of leadership, poor chartering, poor management. Two factors are at play in Pseudo Teams. First, the team wastes time and effort in “playing at” being a team. Most important, the coordination and cooperation between team members doesn't occur. False starts, rework and interpersonal conflict result in a productivity sum of 2 + 2 = 3 or less.

Name-Only Teams. A Name-Only Team, or “NOT,” is a group of individuals working largely independently of one another. There is nothing inherently wrong with a NOT. Many project “teams” are really NOTs in the sense that individuals complete portions of a project on their own, with minimum interaction and coordination with others. If the characteristics of the project in question largely correspond to those in the “Team is not necessary” column in Exhibit 1, a NOT is an effective way of managing the project. In this instance, 2 + 2 = 4.

On the other hand, if the project characteristics correspond to those in the “Team is vital to success” column, then the work group math changes to 2 + 2 = 3 or less.

What Makes Teams Work?

Just what is required for Star Teams and Effective Teams to develop in project organizations?

Performance impact: Quantity and quality of output, efficiency. Obviously, teams have to produce or the work of their formation and management isn't worth the investment.

Effective working relations among team members. This doesn't mean that team members necessarily must like each other. In fact, team members can like each other too much. Team members must respect each other, since mutual respect is essential for effective working relationships.

Effective working relationships, influence, and reputation for competence with those outside the team. This is often overlooked. The team needs to obtain resources, information and support from outside its boundaries. In addition, it must be able to influence organizational decisions.

To achieve these outcomes, teams need cohesion, positive norms, capability, and motivation.

Cohesion is the social glue that holds a group or team together. It results from a team member's desire to be accepted and respected by the other team members and to remain a member of the team.

Teams develop informal standards concerning acceptable member behavior. These standards, or norms, evolve through experience as the team develops. Both informal leaders within the team and managers inside and outside the team can influence the norms, but neither can exercise complete control. Norms are a group phenomenon.

Teams must have the capability (skills and knowledge) to carry out their tasks. It is not that teams have complete mastery at the start. Rather, members must have enough basic skills and knowledge so they can learn how to do what is required.

Team members must be motivated to succeed as a team. That's different from succeeding as an individual. We know that team motivation can be enhanced by the challenge of new and different projects, recognition, responsibility—the intrinsic motivators. There is also a novelty effect. “It's new, different, fun—I'll give it a shot.” But there is more.

Individuals differ in inherent motives. Some are more likely than others to be motivated to succeed as a team. Some people do better in teams, others as individuals. David McClelland's categorization of needs as achievement, affiliation and power (The Achievement Motive, 1953, Appleton Century Crofts) helps us to understand this point. People with high affiliation needs are more likely motivated in a team situation. For example, my wife works harder at playing doubles tennis than at singles because of her high affiliation needs. My daughter, with lower affiliation needs, hates doubles, and works much harder at singles.

How to Develop Star Teams

Now that we have described the different variations of team capability and reviewed what is required for team success, we can turn to implementation guidelines. These guidelines describe the ideal. If followed, a Star Team is the likely result. However, situations and constraints may preclude following all the guidelines. Do as much as you can. Even if a Star Team doesn't result, the effort is worth it. If an Effective Team can be developed, you are still a winner.

Staffing the Team. Team members should be selected on the basis of technical competence and the ability to work as a team player. Careful selection of team members is important but often overlooked. Here are some suggestions:

Volunteers are better than draftees. The act of volunteering indicates both motivation and interest (although perhaps not competence). One method used with success is to approach potential members with the desired competence and describe the problem or task. Then ask if they will sign on.

Consider the roles members are likely to play on the team. Research on teams by David Barry (Organizational Dynamics, Summer, 1991) suggests that effective teams need four roles to be fulfilled: Envisioner—visualizes what might be possible, sees the big picture, the grand scheme. Organizer—concerned with organizing, setting the agenda and deadlines, coordinating activities, pushing for closure and completion. Social leader—provides social skills, jokes to relieve tension, defuses conflict, keeps everyone involved. Spanner—seeks and maintains contacts outside the team boundaries, gathers information, resources and other help for the team. Team members might fulfill more than one role, but all are needed. One potential landmine is conflict over roles. Barry cites team failures resulting from such conflict: for example, two strong-willed envisioners, neither a good team player, in a team with no strong organizer.

Don't add low-contribution members. Team members with little potential to contribute lead to trouble. Such members slow teams down and often waste time with naive attempts to help or lead. That is not to say that technicians or mechanics can't be on a team with Ph.D.s. It is the potential contribution that counts.

Diversity helps. Although people with different characteristics (age, sex, education, life experiences, values) make it more difficult for a team to become cohesive, teams with diversity will be more creative if they jell. All-alike teams often like each other too much; thus, they tend to close too fast on decisions and are in danger of groupthink.

Managing the Start. Many teams fail because of poorly managed starts. New teams are like babies—very fragile, and they go through developmental stages: Forming—confused, wandering discussions, tentative attachment to team, determining tasks, mix of optimism and suspicion); Storming—conflict, defensiveness, competition among members, concern about extra work, factions; Norming—acceptance of team concept, discussion of team dynamics, developing norms, team spirit, relief that it looks like it is going to work; Performing—accomplishment, working through team problems, satisfaction, constructive self-change, learning.

Teams develop at different speeds. Some do their storming late (usually when the chips are down) and some do not develop the norms needed for success. Managers can help by:

Reader Service Number 5027

Making the start an important event. Hold an off-site retreat for a day. Break bread together. Get acquainted. Have a big boss come to kick things off. Discuss goals, tasks, potential difficulties. Have some team building activities.

Sharing a vision of success. Explain and discuss objectives. Establish importance and urgency of the team's activities.

Presenting, discussing, developing the charter.

Providing training in team dynamics and any new skills required.

Chartering the Team. Teams need to be empowered to be effective. Paradoxically, the only way to empower a team is to define the limits to its power. Teams need direction, goals and boundaries. A charter should:

Clarify goals and objectives. This is so obvious. Goals need to be articulated, discussed, explored, debated, and negotiated. Sharing of goals, purpose and accountability is a criterion for a Star Team. In addition to getting members pointing in the same direction, clear objectives serve to measure success.

Define reporting relationships. Teams need to know to whom they report, how often reviews will be conducted, and the level of detail required.

Settle the authority question. Teams need to know what decisions they can make on their own, what decisions need approval, and when they should ask for a review.

Establish linkage to the client. Developing effective working relationships with the client is key to team success. The charter should define the frequency and scope of client contacts.

It always helps to maximize team participation in the chartering process. Risking greater levels of participation has potential payoffs in enhancing motivation and commitment of team members.

If your organization is not chartering its new teams, learn more about it. The best detailed advice I have seen for developing a charter for project teams can be found in Project Delivery: A System and Process for Benchmark Performance (1996, CH2MHill).

Building the Team. Here are some suggestions for helping the team develop cohesion, influencing the development of norms and motivation:

Facilitate cohesion and communication by co-locating the team or otherwise promoting interaction. High levels of interaction help the team develop. If co-location isn't possible, provide a meeting place for face-to-face interaction.

Provide a trained facilitator to help the team develop norms of open communication, manage meetings and make decisions effectively.

Discuss and develop agreement on goals. It is surprising how long it takes for members to fully understand and internalize goals. Continued revisiting and focusing on goals is important.

Provide recognition. Small wins are important in the early life of a team. Success throughout the team's life should be broadcast and celebrated.

Advocate the norms you would like to see; you can't exercise total control here, but you do have influence. One way is simply to broadcast and discuss the norms you want. Some norms you may want to consider are openness, willingness to confront differences, timely and full attendance at meetings, mutual respect, and an appreciation for the value of humor and fun.

Measuring Performance. Measuring performance on projects is problematic. I was once captivated by the intellectual elegance of the earned value method. However, I have found very few project managers who actually use it. There are two problems. One is obtaining real-time measures of costs. The second problem is accurately measuring how much work has actually been completed. Unanticipated events make this difficult, especially on projects that are highly uncertain. Modern information systems technology may solve the time delay problems, but uncertainty remains. My advice is to use whatever systems provide reasonably reliable information. No matter what measures are used, some general guidelines apply.

Provide real-time, direct feedback. Information that is late and filtered or interpreted through layers of management is ineffective.

Outcome measures on costs and schedule should be supplemented with softer measures, which focus on process. Such measures might include client satisfaction, attendance at team meetings, team morale, and assessment by managers from performance reviews.

Encourage the team to develop its own measures. Team members are in the best position to see what measures are needed. Most formal performance measurement systems focus on inputs, outputs and efficiencies. Process measures often provide better information for performance improvement.

Encourage feedback directly from the client where possible and appropriate.

Make dual use of measures: to provide feedback to the team and to enhance the viability of the team to the larger organization.

Managing Performance. If teams have good charters that define objectives, reporting linkages and team decision-making authority, then the best management is the least management. The largest (over 8,000 teams) study of team performance ever done was conducted by Mohrman, Mohrman and Lawler (1992, “The Performance Management of Teams” in Performance Measurement, Evaluation and Incentives, Harvard Business School Press). They explored relationships among management and team practices and outcomes such as team performance, individual performance, trust in the larger organization and teamwork. What surprises most managers is that these activities by the team itself were more powerful predictors of effectiveness and performance than anything managers did to manage performance. The strongest predictors of performance were self-appraisal by the team, team development of performance norms, feedback by the team members within the team, and team structuring of tasks.

The lesson is clear: Effective teams manage their own performance. Only three guidelines apply: (1) Hold periodic performance reviews with the team. (2) Try to emulate the sports analogy. Why are people on sports teams motivated? Because goals are clearly defined, rules are clear, effort and performance are linked, scorekeeping is objective, performance can be compared to a standard, and others see the score—and recognize excellence. (3) Celebrate team events. Meeting milestones, solving difficult technical problems, receiving praise from the client, having good performance reviews and finishing the project are all causes for celebration. Have a party, pass out awards, have the big boss come by, just do it!

PROJECT TEAMS HOLD great promise. If you have ever worked on a Star Team, you know how effective they are and how exhilarating they can be for team members: not only the productivity math, but the intrinsic motivation increases geometrically. ■

H. Dudley Dewhirst, Ph.D., Department of Management professor at the University of Tennessee, learned his first project management lessons the hard way, as a young U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lieutenant in command of a detachment at a remote air base in Alaska. Later, he managed engineering design and R&D projects for Exxon.

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.

PM Network • April 1998

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