A team building approach to organizational change


John P. Saia, PMP, PE, Deputy District Engineer for Planning, Programs, Project and Management


The United States Army Corps of Engineers Headquarters has seen the necessity of changing the way it does business. It is moving from a highly functional organization to a matrix organization with empowered project delivery teams focused on satisfying customers. The new configuration is named the Project Management Business Process (PMBP).

This paper discusses how the New Orleans District with a staff of over 1,300 civilian employees met the challenge of progressively implementing the PMBP in a team-oriented manner. The District had recently defined a three-tiered management structure, which included an Executive Team made of the District Engineer and executive level managers, a District Operating Team (DOT) including middle managers, and Project Delivery Teams (PDTs) including Project Managers and team members. The Executive Team is responsible for establishing policy while the DOT focuses on managing process. The PDTs functions are centered on executing projects.

Creating or improving project management practices in government is challenging and can be difficult to implement. Executive level functional managers are traditionally conservative and not often convinced that the new PMBP is appropriate and will actually improve project performance. When executive-level managers do not agree among themselves on the project management concept for the organization they give mixed signals leading to confusion and project delays. Further, the middle managers and project delivery team members in the organization must have a clear understanding of the changes and how they are to be implemented. The persons entrusted to get projects completed face a number of issues, such as the frustrations of not being adequately supported or not being given sufficient authority to make needed decisions.

This paper demonstrates the planning and training strategies implemented to institute the needed changes while getting buy-in from all members of the organization. The underlying strategy was based on a number of basic assumptions. First was the assumption that for change to be effective, all of the major participants needed to participate in the conversation about how it was to be implemented. Second, if an organization wants to base its structure on teams the executive team needs to be the model of teamwork and also be the driving force in bringing about the change. Third, the higher level of middle management has the most invested in maintaining the status quo even if they positioned themselves as champions of the change. This group needs to participate in forging out their new role as a significant factor in making things work. In spite of knowing that this was a critical factor, not enough time was allocated to help this group invent their role in the new order of things. Finally, it was assumed that any initial serious foray into bringing about organizational change needed to take into account that it is a plan, do, check, act process in which those involved had to be enabled to understand that it would continue to be an iterative process. A critical factor at the beginning was the role of the District Engineer “CEO” who participated in the process, endorsed the strategy and gave his active support in bringing together the Executive Team. Another helpful factor in approaching this was the fact that John Saia, the senior civilian Executive, and Carlos Zervigon, the consultant, both PMPs, had a history of leadership in PMI®, and were both committed to engaging the Corps' staff in the process.

The Process Action Team

At the onset, a strategy for assessing the needs of the organization and creating consensus among senior managers was developed. The basis of the strategy was first creating a sense of teamwork among the civilian Executive Team members, then among the middle managers of the DOT, and lastly to create the basis for teamwork and direction for the PDT members. All levels of management had to ultimately have a clear understanding of the PMBP policies and practices. The first step of the strategy was for the Executive Team to receive input on issues and concerns about PMBP from middle managers and PDT members. This was needed to give the Executives a better sense of the issues their working level staffs were most concerned about and that needed to be addressed to achieve successful implementation of the PMBP. Accordingly, a Process Action Team (PAT) was formed including middle management and PDT members. The PAT's job was to make recommendations to the Executive Team on what actions needed to be taken to empower Project Delivery Teams. They made recommendations in the areas of team member performance, roles and responsibilities, issue resolution, project management team structure dependent on complex of a project, team awards, and a number of other items. The consultant participated in the PATs initial out brief and final out brief to the Executive Team. The stage was now set for the Executive Team to meet and define the District's PMBP direction and policy.

The Executive Team

It was decided that the Executive Team would first review headquarters' guidance on the PMBP and the recommendations of the PAT. Then the Executive Team would meet for two nonconsecutive days allowing time for thought, communication among individual team members, and gathering of data outside the meetings. The meetings were held on March 9, 2001, and March 28, 2001. At the first meeting the consultant discussed team building and consensus development and worked with the Executive Team in creating “a PMBP Strategic Vision and Policy Statements.” Initially, the Executive Team members needed to reach a mutual understanding of what the PMBP provided. At the start it was evident that there were different interpretations of certain aspect of the PMBP. For instance, some members believed that not all District staff member were members of one or more project delivery teams and that the PMBP applied to only certain offices in the District. But after further discussions and review of regulations and other available information the Executive Team members agreed that the PMBP was applicable to all staff members and organizations within the District. The first action to be accomplished was creation of a PMBP Vision. For example, in part the vision stated the following:

“Our Vision begins with customers as the focus. Further, we must see ourselves as customers to each other.

Delivering quality products and services to our ultimate customers does not happen unless we fulfill our obligations to each other…. Our Vision requires that we undergo changes in process…In the next 3 to 5 years New Orleans District will have: Delighted Customers, Effective & Efficient Organization, Successful PDTs, A Trained Workforce, Implemented Key Work Processes, Fully Automated Management Tools….”

The next step for the Executive Team was to discuss what they needed to impart to the DOT and PDTs for them to achieve the Vision defined for implementing the PMBP. The Executive Team believed that it was important that they appropriately respond to the findings of the PAT and include many of their recommended subjects in the Executive Team's report. The team was broken up into two person teams to further refine the vision and spell out the implications for the rest of their report. At the close of the first meeting it was agreed that the two person teams would work together in refining certain sections of the report. A final outline of the team's report was agreed to at the second meeting and all of the products of the two person teams were reported on with refinements happening once consensus had been achieved on changes. A third half-day meeting was scheduled the following week to resolve a handful of issues for which consensus had not been reached. The final meeting achieved enough of a consensus to allow for the final edit to be managed through email exchanges. The report addressed common definitions; roles and responsibilities of teams and team members; PDT performance, training, standards of conduct, and recognition; and standard procedures. Between Executive Team meetings there were many reviews and individual meetings between the Executives. In addition, middle managers and the PAT were asked to review and comment on the draft report. The final report was presented to the District Engineer for approval on June 5, 2001, and signed by all Executive Team members. The District Engineer issued the report with his endorsement on July 5, 2001, to all 1, 300 staff members.

The District Operating Team

The District Operating Team (DOT), in response to the Report of the Executive Team, met on June 6 and June 28, 2001. The initial task was to get clarity on the Executive Team report and the implications for the DOT. Following that, a presentation was given dealing with issues surrounding empowered teams in terms of the culture of teamwork and the organizational issues revolving around operating as a matrix organization. Among this group there were many misconceptions about what the PMBP really entailed. Explaining that what was being created was a matrix organization in which functional and project based endeavors were both part of the formula helped this group to begin to rethink the value of the change. The group was then divided into work teams to explore the different arenas assigned to the DOT in the Executive Team Document. At the end of the first day each team gave an interim report with input from others on the assignments for the June 28 meeting. The second day was initiated with a report by an Assistant Division Chief, Planning Programs, and Project Management of the Portland District, on the group that is comparable to the DOT in his District. Questions and reflections followed the report. A brief interactive presentation was then given around the USACOE Strategic Vision. Each work team then gave its report followed by input from the group. The entire group then participated in a workshop to give input into the content of the two-day Team Building courses. Finally, next steps were decided including a meeting of the Assistant Division Chiefs to further define the steps toward a report to the Executive team. The Assistant Division Chiefs' meeting was held July 20 and the follow up steps of the DOT were clarified. These follow up steps included a number of structures, processes and decisions that were integral to the full implementation of the Project Management Business Process. Crucial arenas included:

•  Mapping standard processes, including critical modifications to assure that the processes were in keeping with the PMBP and the Executive Team Vision and Policies report on how to best implement it in the New Orleans District

•  Procedures for the execution phase of projects requiring interfaces between the Project Delivery Teams and the District Operating Team, which was still defining its organizational structure

•  Performance appraisals for the Project Delivery Team members in which it was clear that project managers had to have input into the appraisals of members that played critical roles in their projects without at the same time creating an administrative nightmare for functional managers

•  A system for team recognition awards although the budget for recognition was allocated to the functional departments

•  Resource leveling across the District, which is heavily dependent on an adequate and utilized automated information system, with procedures that assure optimum role up capabilities

•  Standardized project performance measurements.

Simultaneous with this process the District has been in the midst of working with another consultant to implement, standardize and connect the various information systems. While very few projects have been utilizing electronic schedules, the intent is to have that become standard procedure. Until the automated information system is implemented across projects, the procedures for resource leveling and measuring project performance will be difficult at best.

Part of the outcome of the DOT meeting was their input into what should be included as the elements of the two-day team courses to be conducted for approximately 150 project managers and project team members in five sessions. They indicated a number of areas to help equip project team members to be more effective. They wanted to include much of what was presented to them on teams and leadership, a context on the vision of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the District Executive Team, and finally be sure that they were on top of the PMBP and its implementation guidelines from the Executive Team.

Building the Team Course

The participants in the team courses, in addition to members of Planning, Programs and Project Management, included team members from Engineering, Real Estate, Construction, Operations, Contracting and Resource Management. These Divisions all must work in concert for projects to be successful. Historically, the project manager's authority to control the project was limited by functional manager's propensity to call the schedule shots. Because of the size of many of the projects a category of functional team leaders was created to help coordinate the persons engaged in the project from their functional arena. This role created problems on both side of the matrix dynamics. The project team often runs into a middle person insulating them from the team member doing the work, and the functional team leaders often get overextended. Many project teams rarely held physical meetings. Even though, the project managers produced thorough Project Management Plans at the beginning of the design phase, in all too many cases, projects were managed to milestones from that point on, thus relying on the functional departments to monitor activities, create their own schedules or follow rules of thumb. Annually, a Project Execution Plan (PEP) is developed for the budget year but this is primarily reflected in dollars and does not require the level of detail that would be required if adjustments were made to the PMP. This scenario is probably reinforced by the fact that the original PMP is often developed to a level of detail that is administratively difficult to constantly update.

While the original interest for arranging for team building was to train project team members, the two authors of this paper and the persons charged with arranging the course realized that what was needed was a cultural change. The team courses could only take place on the other side of a unified Executive Team and a committed District Operating Team. The team courses therefore, had to be an extension of the efforts of those two groups and a feedback loop from those in the project trenches. Factors that are at the root of team building were paramount to this change. The way people relate to one another, the acceptance of the value of empowered teams and team members, the decision on the part of functional departments to be of service to projects rather than vice-versa, value placed on the satisfaction of cost sharing partners and other customers, openness to the possibility of change and growth in the encounter with fellow team members and the honoring of one another are all part of what contributes to the Project Management Business Process. Additionally, for change to be embraced the workplace itself has to be embraced. Conviction that things will always be a mess makes participation in a change a hard sell. Convincing some that their job could again become significant or even exciting needed to become one of the course objectives. Another objective was to assure that all project delivery team members were committed to using effective project management practices. The work of the Executive Team and the District Operating Team formed the basis for this in that they created the framework.

The course was designed to do all of this and continue the dialog to create the optimum structures to effectively execute projects. It was divided into four half-day sessions. Each session was divided into three basic parts. First was a section on the Corps and New Orleans District processes that include contextual material as well as specific policies intended to make the system work. Second were factors on operating as a team. This included presentations based on material from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline (1990), images on effective leadership, techniques for effective meetings and particular facilitation skills. Finally, team role-play situations were created to work through the learnings of the seminar in the study phase, the design phase, the construction phase and the close out or delivery phase of actual projects. As much as possible participants were to be encouraged to choose projects in the initiation stage in the New Orleans District respectively. These sessions asked them to create realistic scenarios and conduct meetings with assigned roles. As to the elements of the Executive Team Report, the first session dealt with the Vision of the PMBP and the definition of an empowered team “An empowered team has the authority and responsibility, within the confines of the established criteria, policies, laws and regulations to independently make ethical decisions that impact the accomplishment of it's (the team's) goals and objectives. The second session dealt with the roles of the various levels of teams and team awards. The third session dealt with the 11 arenas of policy statements. The last session dealt with individual's performance appraisals, the decision-making process, and standards of conduct. At the conclusion of the last session there was a time for the breakout groups to give feedback as to what needed to be done to make the PMBP more effective. These were compiled for the final report.

The Dynamics of the Five Courses

Prior to the first scheduled course, the consultant had a sense of the dynamics of project management in the New Orleans District through conducting three four-day project management courses, three partnering sessions (bringing all parties in a project together to reach common objectives and agree on objectives and how to achieve them at the beginning of a project), and a one-day planning event with key managers about implementation of the PMBP. However, it could not be predicted how the participants would respond to this interactive process. A number of participants would begin the courses declaring that they were not “believers” or “fans” of the PMBP and needed convincing. A handful of those never changed. However, what was more prevalent was genuine dialogue about areas of difficulty, areas of frustration, and perceptions of what would not work. It was important to constantly remind the participants that much of the organizational infrastructure necessary for the PMBP to function well was still being put in place. In many cases, there was a great appreciation that comments were honored and that there was honest allowance for and even acknowledgement of areas of struggle within the District. The Deputy District Engineer for Planning, Programs and Projects, when he was in town during the courses, would not only give an opening context the first day, but also would often drop in and help clarify areas of concern or acknowledge what still needed work. Persons from functional or “stovepipe” areas of responsibility were often appreciative of the fact that their concern for the assurance of technical quality in their products, was supposed to fit into the system. The third session on the morning of the second day created the most responses to the Executive Team Report in that it dealt with policies in eleven different categories. These probably reflected more on changes or challenges to the way many were doing their work or areas where there were genuine ongoing issues. The dynamic among the different groups that make up project teams probably did as much as the course content did to help build a foundation for teamwork. The content of the course that dealt with team building, however did give the participants new perspectives on how to effectively work with each other, their funding partners and other stakeholders. Finally, there was a definite improvement from the first to the fifth course in that there could be more time and thought given to areas of repeated concerns.

Next Steps

Implementation of the PMBP is a never-ending activity. As you reach one level of implementation you move on to the next higher level. At the same time you are moving along, changes are occurring in technology, culture within the office, and policy from headquarters. Accordingly you must remain flexible in adjusting the implementation strategy. For example, in 2003 Corps headquarters will issue a new PMBP manual and mandate use of a new management information system including an off-the-shelf network analysis system. Further, every Corps office worldwide will conduct standard PMBP training sessions using a series of training CDs. Every person in the Corps will receive a certain level of standard training. This will create a new and improved cultural and knowledge base to work from and require the New Orleans District to adjust its implementation strategy. Even with these Corps-wide actions being taken there remain many actions the District must continue to make at this time, considering advance knowledge of changes coming from headquarters.

What we have learned to date from working through the PAT recommendations, preparing the Executive Team's report, development of further definition of process by the District Operating Team, and conducting teamwork training with the PDT's was that much more needs to be accomplished. The items include:

•  The Executive Team's Report needs to be further modified to capture comments received during the last year from middle managers and project delivery team members during training sessions.

•  The consultant needs to conduct a joint session with the Executive Team and key middle managers to focus on what changes need to be made.

•  The District Operating Team needs ongoing communication with the consultant and senior Civilian Executive to help them establish their role in setting District processes and resolving workload issues among projects.

•  The Executive Team Report had established standard procedures for the management information system, but further definition for consistency was needed and enforcement would be required via the Executive Team and District Operating Team members.

•  Interim milestones need to be set for District team members to achieve a certain level of implementation of what was prescribed in the Executive Team Reports.

•  Input to and structure of data for the current management information system needs to be geared to transitioning to the new system being mandated by headquarters.

•  Since less than 20% of the District was involved in the training sessions, additional teamwork sessions will be needed and various methods will need to be employed to communicate the changes to the rest of the workforce.


Execution of the initial strategy has taken over one year to accomplish. The ultimate questions are: Has this been productive and have the desired expectations been achieved? The answer is definitely yes, but more needs to be done. The following are conclusions reached relative to the methods used to create teamwork and culture change in the organization:

•  The New Orleans District Engineer's strong endorsement and participation in the execution of the strategy was key to the overall success and support by all team members.

•  The senior civilian Executive for the New Orleans District previously had the same position in two other large Corps districts and used other methods to promote cultural changes. The planned strategy and progress approach discussed in this paper was a far better method because it centered on first reaching consensus among senior managers. This method took longer but resulted in greater commitment by everyone involved.

•  Senior management must continually demonstrate to the staff that they are working as a team and that they expect others to working together in the same manner.

•  Middle managers must take on the role of resolving issues between project delivery teams and communicating among other middle managers within and outside their district organizational element.

•  In each PDT session there were several project delivery teams including the respective project manager and his or her team members. The sessions provided them the form to express their concerns about teamwork, the ongoing issue of technical vs. management decision-making, and to better understand the problems each faced in performing their respective jobs.

•  Work is needed on how the Executive Team and DOT in their day-to-day activities could better support the PDTs in executing projects.

•  Clearly, further clarification and enforcement of process was needed since it became evident that each PDT was executing in a different manner without the knowledge of what impact the other PDTs had on resource requirements.

Overall, the execution of the strategy was a success because of senior management's desire to work together for the good of organization, their desire for genuine input from every level, and the process allowed time for consensus building.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 • San Antonio, Texas, USA



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