The art of building a self-aware team


Eyes wide shut

Towards the end of the last century, after more than a decade in which I had been managing projects, I became a project management trainer. Because being a teacher was one of the dreams that I had cultivated during my school years, I approached the new job equipped with a backpack of old fashioned stereotypes: my image of the trainer, in particular, resembled that of the distinct professor giving a lecture in front of an adoring audience. This prejudice was also enforced by the experiences that I had accumulated in twenty years of attendance at all kind of corporate trainings.

I quickly realized that the particularity of the subject (i.e. projects are typically performed by teams) and the discoveries of modern educational psychology, which emphasises practical hands on training, required that most of the learning processes ought to happen within group's exercises. This kind of course organization gave me the opportunity of experimenting with a huge number of teams, well beyond those represented in the projects that I had managed in my previous career. As a consequence, I ought to review some of my previous assumptions about project management.

My approach to team building, in particular, changed dramatically. In fact, in my previous years as project manager, I had always strived to find time and budget for organizing special events to strength the relationships between the members of my teams. Now, in my new trainer role, I argue that, to become really effective, team building should be incorporated into a team's daily activities.

Rules of the game

In the last three years I had the opportunity of observing around 200 teams in action. All of them were assembled specifically for the purpose of participating in class activities and worked together for a period of 2 to 5 days. The high level of participant's involvement, and the intensity of the group dynamics that I observed in this context, support my convincement that the behaviours expressed in these classroom situations are representative of likely behaviours that would also be manifest during a real project. Nevertheless, I recognize that, in a real project, the level of pressure under which people work is often higher and can determine a different evolution of the team.

In a business class setting, it's easy to recognize the stages of team development described by Tuckman (1977); in fact, group dynamics evolve in a classroom in fast forward mode. At the beginning, there is a forming stage, where a group of people, assigned to the same project, are still uncertain about objectives, organization and roles. From outside, it's possible to observe things moving slowly, puzzled expressions, embarrassed faces and a general feeling of waiting.

In the storming stage, team members conflict, often animatedly, about strategies, perspectives and roles. The observer can watch a great amount of physical movement, lively discussions, break down of the team in opposing parties and detachment of some participants. In the norming stage a team identity emerges and roles, responsibility and procedures are clarified. Discussion, disagreement, conflicting parties, isolation are still observed but they are usually overcome and redirected towards the achievement of the project's objectives.

In the performing stage, action is going fast, because now energy is directed towards completing project's tasks. In this phase it is possible to feel the buzz of the working bees. Deliverables are produced quickly, discussion is replaced by focused exchange of information and self-reliance is the norm. Very few teams reach this stage: most of the groups I've observed never moved out of the storming stage.

At the end of the course it is often possible to observe an adjourning stage, where team members mutually acknowledge their satisfaction for the job done and exchange promises of meeting together again in the future. In a few occasions, I had teams that made this hope a habit of meeting regularly.

The self-aware team

Depending on the characteristics of the work to be done, different organizational structures can be chosen to fit the needs of the project and to guarantee the effectiveness of the team. My personal interest lead me towards the study of what I've called a self aware team: a group of people adopting a shared leadership approach, whose members have internalized a common vision, are self reliant and self confident in their ability to meet project objectives. The reason I like this kind of structure is probably linked with my personality: I'm essentially a lazy dreamer, who loves to talk about his vision in order to inspire other people to enthusiastically propose, organize and execute tasks aimed at achieving what is now become their common goal. Let's face the truth: if one were able to lead a self aware team, one wouldn't be too tired at the end of the day.

One of the courses I teach, an introductory project management class, starts with a lovely icebreaker. The participants are randomly grouped in teams of 5 to 7 people and than they receive the materials for building the model of a bridge (i.e. girders, screws, nuts, screwdriver, diagram). Directions for the exercise are specific about the deliverables, but don't mention how to organize the team.

I've observed around 50 teams completing this exercise in a time comprised between 12 and 45 minutes (average duration being 20-25 minutes). Considering the simplicity of the exercise, the difference in duration is amazing.

While the newly formed teams work at building their bridges, I'm usually busy observing their actions and behaviours, in order to pick out key points to be highlighted during the exercise's debrief. It is in this observer role that I've started to look for common characteristics that differentiate successful teams from the others.

In this exercise, a high performing team looks like a colony of ants building their anthill: six bodies bent over a table, each one busy on a different task, in what seems a chaotic situation. Usually the team agrees on a basic strategy, roles are clearly assigned (e.g. left side bridge builder, time keeper, quality controller, etc.) and every team member is able to autonomously decide about the conduction of individual tasks. The ‘project manager’ usually expresses behaviours like asking questions, pointing to issues and exchanging integrative information.

Recently, while I was observing one of these self aware teams in action, a late participant came to the class when the ‘project’ was already in progress. I directed her to team that I had already spotted as the high performing one, with the aim of observing if the addition of a new contributor would have caused some decrease in performance.

I was amazed by the reaction of the busy member she approached: he put some girders, screws and nuts in her hands and, after giving her ‘three seconds directions’, he resumed his task. The new comer started to work and, in less than a minute, helped by quick updating communications from the others participants, she was already performing.

I've always noticed that teams performing well in the ice breaker maintain a high level of performance during the whole course and that their members usually bring thoughtful contributions to the class. A new insight came when, with the objective of making their learning experience more memorable, I started to take pictures of the teams at work during my classes. In fact, looking at the photos, I had the feeling that good teams looked better than poor ones.

In order to verify if there was some truth behind my feeling, I decided to show the pictures of different teams to people unaware of the context and to ask them to pick up the successful teams: often their choice corresponded with reality. Also interesting was the fact that weak teams were usually excluded very quickly. When I asked the evaluators why they selected one particular team, the answers described the pictured team members as standing well planted on their feet, every body in a similar posture, satisfied, relaxed, self confident, with ‘a smile coming from inside’: a self aware team indeed.

The art of leading

A self-aware team relies on the skills of its members but, to effectively learn how to perform as a team, individual contributors usually need the help of a leader, whose expertise resides in his ability to smoothly drive the group through the stages of team development. In this perspective the leader acts as a catalyst, a facilitator and a process consultant working in association with a team of content focused specialists. He “must recognize that ‘process,’ i.e. how things are said and done, is as or more important than content, i.e. what is said and done. Yet most of us are not familiar with process as a concept or focus of attention. We tend to take process for granted instead of thinking of it as something to be managed” (Schein, 1999, 145).

A remarkable opportunity for exploiting this kind of facilitating role happened when, in one of the introductory classes, I met a team, which included a member who, in the opinion of my client, came to the course with the precise objective of sabotaging it.

Feedback from other instructors and previous classmates were also discouraging: nobody could stand the guy, who was supposed to thrive in the organization only because of his intimacy with one of the vice presidents. As expected, the team where the ‘troublemaker’ was working started with a low morale and everybody looked resigned to passively accept their grim fate.

After I had observed this guy expressing a set of dominating behaviours that nobody dared to confront, I initiated some lightly intervention in the activities of the team, pretending I was clarifying some point of the exercise. I expressed appreciation for the job done by the chap, but, at the same time, focused his attention on the opportunity he was missing of leading a better performing team. I also addressed passive team members with comments about the necessity of introducing different perspectives to their discussion, in order to produce more meaningful deliverables.

On the whole, I implied that they were performing badly, when compared with the other teams. All my interventions focused on how to work and never entered in discussions about the what, an area where the ‘troublemaker’ was unbeatable.

Eventually the troublemaker's group became a self aware team where I could observe a quiet lady, with absolutely no knowledge of the subject they were discussing, stopping the chap's talk and reminding him of the rules the team had willingly decided to follow, and than I could watch the same guy accepting the remark and attentively listen to other participant's perspectives.

Even a great artist needs good tools

Team building should be a concern for the leader during the whole life of the project, but it's the team's childhood that especially presents opportunities for developing its members self awareness. Indeed, during the initiation and planning stages there are usually not only more occasions for both formal and informal meetings but there are also high expectations and willingness to be involved in the new initiative. In this perspective, the team leader should act as a mediator, able to help the team produce the expected deliverables (e.g. scope statement, work breakdown structure) and at the same time obtaining, as free collateral, a more integrated team.

In this phase the methods and tools chosen for planning the project can make the difference. It's important to choose tools, which can facilitate team member's interactions; I like in particular all those settings that force participants to stand up, move around and interact physically. My hypothesis is that bodily movements consume part of the energy that would otherwise be directed towards hindering human interrelationships. These tools include, for example, the use of flipcharts, white boards, self stick notes, discussion circles, and all other materials and approaches that make working together compulsory, possibly with physical interactions.

But, even if the best tools were available, not all participants would automatically engage in team activities. In this case, the role of the leader is that of recognizing the symptoms of uncooperative behaviours, of diagnosing their causes and of dosing small interventions aimed at refocusing their energies towards project objectives. It's not necessary to use force because ‘we can never direct a living system. We can only disturb it. As external agents we provide only small impulses of information. We can nudge, titillate, or provoke one another into some new ways of seeing. But we can never give anyone an instruction and expect him or her to follow it precisely’ (Wheatley, 1996, 49).

Today, the use of sophisticated software tools for helping the team to plan a project is greatly emphasised. Without entering into the merits of these instruments, it's clear from the previous discussion how the use of these tools can seriously hinder the process of building the team. Indeed, due to its ‘soft’ nature, software is missing the very ‘hard’ physical experience that facilitates participant's interactions and group dynamics. For this reason, the use of software tools would be more beneficial if delayed to a later stage of the project's life, when the more creative part of the planning process is completed and the artist needs the help of technology to present his in work in the best way.

It's the question that matters

A good team can achieve amazing results: commitment to a shared objective can overcome all kind of obstacles. And key to becoming a high performing team is the presence, between the team members, of a leader who is capable of shifting his perspective from the content (e.g. deliverables, strategies, approaches) to the processes of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the project described in the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide).

A process oriented approach to project management requires team building to be process oriented too, especially during the initiating and planning phases. Planning, in particular, offers plenty of opportunities for growing the team identity almost for free. By choosing human centred, preferably touchable, tools the leader can help the team to smoothly progress through the stages of its development and become a self aware team.

This behaviour is not spontaneous though; indeed, ‘one of the toughest tasks for the consultant/helper is not to get seduced by the content, not to get so caught up in the actual problem the group is working on as to cease to pay attention to how it is working' (Schein, 1999, 150).

My favourite approach to avoid the content's trap and stay tuned in process mode resembles one of children's preferred games: when I don't know, I ask the ‘why’ question.

Very often the processes initiated by this question are much more important than the answer's content.


Project Management Institute. (2000) A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK®) (2000 ed.). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Schein, E. H. (1999) Process consultation revisited: building the helping relationship. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Tuckman, B. W. & Jensen, M. C. (1977) Stages of Small Group Development Revisited', Group and Organizational Studies (2): 419-427.

Wheatley, M. J. & Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996) A Simpler Way. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

©Luciano Garagna
Originally published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings - Prague



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