Is it a team? A working group? Or just a co-located collection of people?


Assistant Professor, USC Upstate


This paper considers a reason outside of the project manager for challenged or failed projects: the lack of a project team. As a chef’s cooking is only as good as his or her ingredients, a project manager's success depends upon the quality of the project team. To understand the quality of their team, project managers must understand whether the individuals on whom they depend to successfully complete a project are actually a team.

Project managers will be able to apply this knowledge of teams to their current and future projects. The keys questions raised here give project managers a greater probability of project success and allow project managers to be more effective and efficient in meeting the scope of their projects on budget and on time.

Project Teams are Integral to Project Success

Project managers are the key actors in the success or failure of the drama we call projects. According to the 2009 CHAOS Study (The Standish Chaos Report, 2009), 68% of projects were challenged or failed in terms of scope, time, and budget. This study posits that the project manager is the cause for these challenged and failed projects, but project managers do not work alone. They work with others to accomplish goals and provide deliverables for their project sponsor. Do project managers call those with whom they work “resources?” No. Whether the individuals are assigned, volunteer, or are “volun-told,” they are called a team. But, are they?

Key Question # 1 – Is a team required? Don't create a team as a default action.

Before forming a team, project managers should ask themselves “Is a team required?” (See Exhibit 1) If not and a team is formed anyway, the individuals will never gel because they will see that there is no need for a team. Forming and implementing a team when no need exists is a waste of time and money.

As project managers collaborate with their project sponsor to write the statement of work and the project charter, project managers must decide if forming a team is the right approach for their project and should be aware of and prepared for the resistance they will face as they assemble their teams. According to Costa (2010), the following five items are the main obstacles a project manager will face with a team.

  1. Irrational Opposition. Irrational opposition occurs when the act of rejecting, criticizing, suppressing, ignoring, misrepresenting, marginalizing, and resisting rational solutions becomes the accepted norm (Costa, 2010, p. 70).
  2. The Personalization of Blame. [The personalization of blame is] foisting the responsibility for complex problems onto the shoulders of individuals whenever complex problems exist (Costa, 2010, p. 89).
  3. Counterfeit Correlation. Counterfeit correlation is a misleading form of logic based on which people believe a correlation between two events is evidence of one event causing the other (Costa, 2010, p. 111). (For example, when an NFL team wins the Super Bowl, there is a correlation of the U. S. stock market going up. This mathematical correlation is counterfeit as far as practical reality is concerned.) As a result, the conclusions drawn, though interesting, are false.
  4. Silo Thinking. [Silo thinking is the] compartmentalized thinking and behaviors that prohibit the collaboration needed to address highly complex problems (Costa, 2010, p. 131).
  5. Extreme Economics. This occurs when simple principles in business, such as risk/reward and profit/loss, become the litmus test for determining value of people and priorities, initiatives and institutions (Costa, 2010, p. 148).

If a team is required to accomplish a project, project managers need to be able to state what—exactly—is the definition of a team.

How do you define “Team?”

Many different ideas exist about what a team is because people have different reference points. Even the tried and true sport analogy fails to achieve a common definition. Which sport do you use? Baseball versus American football versus volleyball versus cricket? These “teams” all function and cooperate differently under different constraints and rules.

According to the A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, a project team:

“includes the project manager and the group of individuals who act together in performing the work of the project to achieve its objectives” (PMI, 2013, p. 35).

Katzenbach and Smith expand this definition of a team in their book, The Wisdom of Teams,

A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 45)

Project managers should state their assumptions. To this end, an implicit assumption in this definition is the membership of the team is stable over time. Changing membership negates the ability to achieve a common goal because the “buy-in” by the whole team has to be re-established every time new members join the team.

Is it a team? flowchart

Exhibit 1: Is it a team? flowchart

Schrödinger's Cat

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger, the Nobel prize-winning physicist proposed a paradox in a theoretical experiment which provides an analogy for teams. Just like Schrödinger's Cat, project managers don't know if they have a team until they observe these individuals called the project team.

A cat is placed in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive substance. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger detects it and triggers the hammer to release the poison, which subsequently kills the cat. The radioactive decay is a random process, and there is no way to predict when it will happen.

Schrödinger's Cat


Until the box is opened, an observer doesn't know whether the cat is alive or dead— because the cat's fate is intrinsically tied to whether or not the atom has decayed and the cat would, as Schrödinger put it, be “living and dead … in equal parts” until it is observed.

Immediately upon looking at the cat, an observer would immediately know if the cat was alive or dead and …the idea that it was in both states would collapse into either the knowledge that “the cat is alive” or “the cat is dead,” but not both.

(Kramer, 2013)

This same thought process applies to project teams. Upon observing the individuals with whom they're working, project managers should know if they have a project team or not. But, how do project managers know if they don't just have a co-located collection of people or a working group instead of a team? Breaking down Katzenbach and Smith's definition will answer this question.

What is a Team?

While the prose of Katzenbach and Smith's definition of a team reads well, we will examine these components in order of priority.

Key Question # 2 – Is there a clear objective?

In other words, is there a common purpose, performance goals, and approach? People shopping at a mall have no objective held in common to drive them to coordinate and monitor each other's actions. This lack of a clear objective prevents this co-located collection of individuals from being considered as a team. If this co-location of people is supposed to be the project team, the project manager must establish the clear, common objective in the minds of all of these individuals to have even a whisper of a chance of forming a team.

A working group will have a common objective, but they are not interdependent. For example, people working for the same company or even the same department within a company are not a team if they do not need each other to complete their jobs or the task at hand. Additionally, the individuals’ focus in a working group is on themselves. If this working group is supposed to be a project team, the project manager must clarify the roles of the individual members and explain or demonstrate why they need each other's skills to successfully complete the project.

A team will have a clear, common objective, and the members will depend on each other's skills to successfully complete the objective. In project management terms, these people need each other to successfully provide the deliverables designated in the project charter.

According to Deming, “A team should have an aim, a job, and a goal. A statement thereof must not be specific in detail, else it stifle innovation” (1986, p. 90). In other words, a team will have a clear objective to follow and achieve, but the team must determine the path to achieve their objective. For this, the team needs a common goal.

This clarity of purpose is driven by the scope statement and the specified deliverables found in the statement of work and the project charter.

With the clear objective in place, the next key question is:

Key Question # 3 – Do you have the right number of people with the right skills?

If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we'll figure out how to take it someplace great (Collins, 2001, p. 41).

Asking this question about a co-located collection of people is a waste of time. With no clear objective, project managers have no basis for determing the number of people or skills which are needed.

The difficulty with the working group is the independence between the group members; this independence makes it difficult, if not impossible, for project managers to determine the correct number of people needed to have the necessary complementary skills to successfully complete a project.

A small number of people is critical to the success of a project team. More than eight people on a team creates a communication problem and limits the ability of the team to hold each other mutually accountable. More than eight people will require the project manager spend his or her time managing the people and trying to maintain clear channels of communication instead of tending to the project.

It is worth noting that sometimes (i.e., most of the time), project managers don't get to choose their team members. The make-up of the team may be from individuals who are assigned, those who volunteer, or those who are “volun-told.” While stressful, this situation is not one for despair: “With the exception of some advanced functional or technical skills, most people can develop needed skills after joining a team” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 120). If you have no choice and the people on the team do not possess the needed skills for a successful project, then, yes, you need to negotiate for a training line item in your budget for this activity. Project managers have to work with the resources they have and, if necessary, work with their team members to develop the skills the team needs to succeed. Once the team members are trained, the project team will “have the right people on the bus, [and] the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away” (Collins, 2001, p. 42).

Once the right number of people with complementary skills are in place and they are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach, only one question remains.

Key Question # 4 – Do the team members hold each other mutually accountable?

Mutually accountability requires team members to trust each other. This trust is reflected in the team members’ commitment to each other's success within and outside of the team.

Have the team “members work together to generate ideas for effective behaviors at work then choose five to seven agreements to guide team interactions or processes” (Derby & Larsen, 2006, p. 47-48). Establishing and following these team rules is part of the basis of establishing explicit trust among team members which, when combined with respect for other team members and low autonomy, leads to performance improvement (Thompson, 2014, p. 119).

Agreeing and following the rules of conduct will help build trust and enhance mutual accountability, which will help the team achieve deliverables within scope, budget, and time as indicated in the project charter while taking care of the other team members as well as themselves.

A few of the more common rules for team meetings are

  • Show up for meetings and pay attention (for example, no phone calls or e-mails during the meeting).
  • All project-related topics are on the table.
  • Don't speak “out of school.” In other words, the team must agree what material and which topics can be taken from the meeting and discussed with non-team members.
  • Work the problem and not the people. Focusing on the people opens the door to personal animosity. Have the team focus on the problem.

To push for this mutual accountability, project managers need to establish urgency and direction for the team: “All team members need to believe the team has urgent and worthwhile purposes, and they want to know what the expectations are” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 119). “Additionally, common sense tells us that teams should spend a lot of time together, especially at the beginning. The time spent together must be both scheduled and unscheduled” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1993, p. 125). This key is a particularly difficult issue with virtual teams.

To build on this mutal accountability, project mangers should make sure open and candid communication occurs within the team. Some things will not go as planned on a project, and project managers must deal with these events directly and in a timely manner. When positive events occur during a project, the project manager should “exploit the power of positive feedback, recognition, and reward. Positive reinforcement works as well in a team context as elsewhere” (Katzenbach & Smith 126). “In fact, a job is just a series of behaviors. By adding positive reinforcements to these behaviors, you improve [team] performance while making people feel better about their work” (Daniels, 1999, p. 222).


The lack of a team among a collection of individuals or a group of people working together on a project is stressful. The project manager can reduce this stress and improve the probability of success for the project by observing the people working with them to see if they are acutally a team. If a team is needed, the remaining key questions project managers need to ask to deterimine if they have a team are:

Is there a clear objective?

Do you have the right number of people with the right skills?

Do the team members hold each other mutually accountable?

Exhibit 2 provides the answers project managers can expect to receive when trying to determine if the people they are working with on a project are a team, a working group, or just a co-located collection of individuals.

Answers to key questions for a team

Exhibit 2: Answers to key questions for a team

Works Cited

Clark, Josh (2014). How Quantum Suicide Works. Retrieved on March 1, 2014 from

Collins, J. (2001). Good to great: Why some companies make the leap…and others don't. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Costa, R. D. (2010). The watchman's rattle. Philadelphia, PA: Vanguard Press.

Daniels, A. C. (1999). Bringing out the best in people: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Deming, W. E. (1986). Out of the crisis. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study.

Derby, E., & Larsen, D. (2006). Agile retrospectives: Making good teams great. Dallas, TX: The Pragmatic Bookshelf.

Goman, Carol Kinsey (2014). Tearing Down Business Silos. Retrieved on March 10, 2014 from

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The wisdom of teams. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Kramer, M. (2013, August 12). The physics behind Schrödinger's Cat Paradox. National Geographic. Retrieved from

Project Management Institute. (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

The Standish Chaos Report 2009: Are projects failing or are project managers failing? (2009, May 12). Retrieved from

Thompson, L. L. (2014). Making the team: A guide for managers. (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Prentice Hall.

© 2014, Thomas Rogers
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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