Project Management Institute

Turn liabilities into assets

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

→ Personality assessment tools can measure motivational tendencies and predict responses to stress.

→ Senior managers/sponsors should intervene throughout project life cycles and apply their expertise in people-skills management to help turn potential weak links into strong contributors.

→ Team-building can reinforce people skills including effective leadership, task assignment and quality control.

Deiric McCann,
Dublin, Ireland-based
Vice President of Profiles International's
European Branch

BY LORNA PAPPAS

PHOTOS BY ED LALLO

Project sponsors can determine
    what's driving a team's dysfunction
         and steer teams back on track.

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IN ALMOST EVERY SITUATION I’VE COME ACROSS, THE MAJOR PROBLEM WAS NOT JOB PROFICIENCY, WHICH IS EASIER TO SPOT, BUT POOR COMMUNICATION CAUSING PERSONALITY CLASHES AND DYSFUNCTION WITHIN THE TEAM.
—DEIRIC MCCANN

If your teams are struggling and you can't explain why, chances are they can't either. Most project team members want to contribute to a project; however, they likely lack the ability to communicate well with the team rather than lack the required job skills, according to Deiric McCann, the Dublin, Ireland-based vice president of the European branch of Profiles International, Waco, Texas, USA. “In almost every situation I’ve come across, the major problem was not job proficiency, which is easier to spot, but poor communication causing personality clashes and dysfunction within the team,” Mr. McCann says.

To compound the problem, senior managers often have difficulty identifying weak links, according to James Lewis, Ph.D., president of The Lewis Institute of Vinton, Va., USA, a project management, behavioral and leadership consulting firm. “Within a team of knowledge workers, you may recognize which [members] aren't performing, but it is difficult to identify why in logical terms. You can't set quotas for people, because they can only do what they're capable of doing, and that's all you can expect them to do.” Everyone has skills, and the challenge is finding and matching those skills to the task, rather than assigning people to a job in which they don't fit.

However, once people are aware of their communications issues, they can change their behaviors. New team members must be trained immediately to recognize each other's strengths and challenges to ensure the team interrelates as effectively as possible. “The goal is to have team members walk into a live project totally cognizant of the best way to get the best out of one another,” Mr. McCann says.

imag A variety of basic personality assessment tools can measure productivity and motivational tendencies and predict how people will respond to job-related stress, frustration and conflict.

The behaviorally anchored rating scale (BARS) is a job-specific assessment that empirically links judgments about team members’ performances to specific examples of incumbent performance at each level of effectiveness on the rating scale. Team members are assessed in terms of skills they are and aren't likely to be capable of doing. The results then are matched to the requirements of accomplishing a particular task.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI), which exemplifies the basic differences in the way individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment, helps team members understand that everyone doesn't think exactly as they do. Friction abates as the value of those differences is exposed and team members begin to understand each other's personality types and motivations. The tool also can help project managers form more cohesive subgroups, as some personalities will together work better than others. MBTI can increase team members’ awareness of each other's styles, and assist sponsors with plans for improvement by providing more insight to each member's personality.

The Profiles Performance Indicator (PPI) is a drive, influence, steadiness and compliance (DISC)-oriented personality review system based on the four styles of behavioral characteristics everyone shares in varying degrees. The PPI assessment can be used to produce self-defined “rules of engagement” for each team member—the things you need to do to get the best results from them. “We can't change people overnight, but we can change their behaviors within the team, and thus the team environment, by finding the best ways for people to understand and operate with their colleagues,” Mr. McCann says.

The Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI™) from Herrmann International, Lake Lure, N.C., USA, is a physiological construct that measures an individual's thinking-style preferences and helps identify preferred approaches to emotional, analytical, structural and strategic thinking. The organizing principle behind HBDI is Herrmann International's Whole Brain Technology four-stage concept: awareness, application, broad adoption and organizational transformation.

“Instruments like HBDI help project managers identify and bring out the best in themselves and in their teams. We must all learn to work together, or we will not be able to work at all,” says Jorge Valdés Garciatorres, PMP, the Mexico-based representative for TenStep Inc., a global project management consultancy.

BACK OFF OR HANDS ON?
 

One of the best indicators that intervention is required is when a team member's stress reactions seem persistent and obtrusive. Under normal circumstances, we all exhibit our dominant preferences, and in stressful situations we revert to inferior preferences.

Senior managers who are aware of team members’ dominant preferences can recognize when inferior preferences are blatant and persistent, and then step in to break the scenario, says Don Dressler of The Frontline Group. “However, if you do suspect stress but milestones are being hit and customer feedback is positive, then keep a close eye, but back off.”

If you think you may need to step in, Gary Keller of Keller Management Services offers these questions:

images Is the project still within the scope we originally defined?

images Are we hitting our deadlines?

images Are we on budget?

images Are we meeting our quality indicators?

images Is the customer satisfied?

If your answers are “Yes,” then back off: Project delivery should be a success, he says.

 

The biggest failure of personality assessment tools is using them in one-off, two-hour workshops, and then stepping away from results. “The classic dysfunctional team normally has its problems in the soft issues, so it is critical to understand and address strengths and weaknesses proactively and early on; there's a definite window of opportunity for getting the best benefits,” says Don Dressler, vice president of consulting for The Frontline Group, Houston, Texas, USA, and board member of PMI’s Consulting Specific Interest Group (SIG). “Then, sponsors need to revisit the strength and weakness profiles over the course of a project to keep people aware and focused, and assess how that profile reflects where the project is now.”

img You can't set quotas for people, because they can only do what they're capable of doing, and that's all you can expect them to do.
James Lewis, Ph.D.,
President, The Lewis Institute,
Vinton, Va., USA

All-Around Performance

imag Stepping back from specific personality drivers, senior managers also can use 360° reviews to help identify a project's weak link. In most cases, the “360” provides a balanced, multidimensional view of a team member's performance using feedback from direct reports, peers, supervisors, clients and senior managers. The process helps quantify competencies, verify results from various perspectives and identify ways to enhance skills. Results are used to increase self-awareness, compare perceptions from different sources, measure performance in relation to goals, clarify expectations and prioritize development needs.

Bob Handwerk, president of human resources consultancy RLH & Associates, Delavan, Wis., USA, uses the Checkpoint 360° Competency Feedback System from Profiles International to evaluate project team members. At Cedarburg Pharmaceuticals Inc., Grafton, Wis., USA, an emerging pharmaceutical company experiencing significant growth, Mr. Handwerk assessed project managers in research and development, quality assurance, regulations, marketing and other areas together.

Most individuals being reviewed were science-oriented—very bright in the lab, with significant academic achievements—but needed better interrelation skills. They also needed to be motivated and rewarded for taking a product from conception to trial and production without continuously studying it.

“Our rationale for the 360 was to see how effective team members were at managing people and project deliverables,” Mr. Handwerk says. One individual was a Ph.D. and all-star research chemist, but also a solitary performer. When assigned to a team, this person could not communicate directions and expectations because he assumed other people already knew them. In addition, the chemist ignored (and considered unimportant) the needs of people in adjacent departments. As a result, information flow in his direction was cut, people wouldn't respond to his inquiries and adversarial relationships developed.

  TUNE IN
 

By projecting yourself as a rigid authoritarian, you'll lose 50 percent of the team, according to Gary Keller of Keller Management Services. To avoid this impression, Mr. Keller says there are simple, but effective project “pulse” questions that may be used:

images Do you have what you need?

images Where do you think we are vulnerable?

images Where are we not meeting goals?

Using “I” messages also is helpful for senior managers, Mr. Keller says. “It's better to say, ‘I don't understand, so please clarify that,’ or ‘I need to get a better handle on this,’ than to put someone on the defensive,” Keller notes. “‘I’ messages constantly invite people to disclose what's at the heart of their issues, without making them feel inferior.”

“Rather than jumping right in to query a team member about performance or personal issues, first base the conversation on common ground such as project quantifiables,” Bob Handwerk of RLH & Associates suggests.“Then ask about clients, vendors and other people issues. Finally you can take the risk and move into deeper issues.”

“Through peer and management discussions, he soon understood the broader picture and the value of conjunctive relationships, and gradually became more cooperative,” Mr. Handwerk says.

Mr. McCann values the 360 because “there is absolutely no other way to get as clear a picture of how you are perceived to be performing on a day-to-day basis.” However, to strengthen themselves as links in a project, team members must use the results to improve both their performance and the view of that performance.

Peer-led Accountability

Peer-led accountability deals with weak links by allowing the team to report to, monitor and motivate each other. Individual team members who observe performance that is not supporting the broader team objectives apply subtle or not-so-subtle pressure on team members, as well as provide coaching and support where appropriate.

“As long as the project manager creates an open and supportive team environment, responses emerge comfortably from within the team,” says Mark Ives, president of PMI’s Melbourne, Australia Chapter and program director for Meta Project Management, a Melbourne-based consultancy. “This allows a natural balance that is less formal and visible than through intervention by the project manager. In that way, the team adjusts with the natural supply and demand factors that exist within the team.”

Peer-led team organization can be effective, but senior managers can't remove themselves totally from performance issues, according to Tom Mochal, PMP, president of TenStep Inc., Kennesaw, Ga., USA. “Theoretically a high-performance team should be able to manage itself, feel comfortable giving feedback to members not doing their jobs and suggest constructive areas of improvement,” he says, “yet sometimes the level of people involved is not mature enough to deal with the team's weak links.”

For example, at The Coca-Cola Co., a project manager was in charge of a self-managed team while Mr. Mochal served as the first-level functional manager, with no active role other than project coach. The project's objective was to enhance the IT system in finance/accounting via a series of projects that entailed hundreds of thousands of dollars.

From a work perspective, peer-led accountability was successful. The team created the project plans, determined deadlines and coordinated its own tasks. “But from a performance standpoint—how well goals were being met—team members were not fulfilling their commitments,” Mr. Mochal says. “There was a definite weak link whom team members were not comfortable confronting. This person seemed to work hard and spoke about his accomplishments, but in reality, he was doing half his work while other team members, primarily programmers, had to make up the difference. Since no one on the team would address this peer-level performance issue, I stepped in eventually.

“I was disappointed but not totally surprised,” Mr. Mochal says. “It takes a very mature team to make peer-led accountability measures work.”

Team-Building

imag In team-building, members learn the key factors influencing performance, examine their own function with respect to those factors and take action to improve effectiveness, says Brian R. King, PMP, president of Millennium 3 Inc., a training and consulting firm based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. “Steering an organization's course in today's complex business environment requires effective teamwork, which is the key to quality and customer satisfaction,” he says. “Teamwork is the most important structure available for mobilizing the organization to maximum effectiveness.”

In a team-building exercise used to reinforce effective leadership, task assignment, quality control and manufacturing control, Mr. King assigns participants to teams responsible for setup, production techniques, purchasing, plans, manufacturing, inspection and testing of a new product. A leader assigns roles and responsibilities, and the teams compete to maximize profits by selling their product back to the facilitator at a negotiated price. Following the exercise, the teams evaluate individual performance as well as team and leader effectiveness. In the end, the teams learn to improve their ability to establish common goals, make decisions, communicate, resolve differences and solve problems.

img When team members feel their input is important and valued, contributions become a pull, not a push.
Gary Keller,
Keller Management Services,
Milwaukee, Wis., USA

Gary Keller of Keller Management Services, a Milwaukee, Wis., USA-based project management consultancy, says celebrating small victories also helps reinforce the team spirit, especially with long-term projects. “Even a few words from the senior manager asking team members if they have what they need go a long way to build team spirit. When team members feel their input is important and valued, contributions become a pull, not a push.”

Cut Your Losses

In the end, senior managers must differentiate between motivation and ability. “You can't motivate someone who just isn't capable of doing the work,” Mr. Lewis says. “There are some employees who should have been fired years ago but weren't because management was either too busy or too lazy to take the responsibility. When these employees are assigned to a project manager, the company is asking that project manager to deal proactively with a weak link.

“You can't solve the problem with the same thinking that created it. Sometimes the person just needs to be replaced, and until sponsors come to grips with that fact, the project will suffer.”

Although personality assessments, 360° reviews and other tools are effective, “ultimately you have to determine if a person is capable of doing the work, and if not, cut your losses,” Mr. Lewis says. PM

Lorna Pappas is a freelance writer based in Andover, N.J., USA. She contributes to Consumer Goods Technology, POP Times, Retail Information Systems News and several other business-to-business publications.

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 2005 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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