Well-oiled machinery

This new regular PM Network feature will present articles based on exemplary presentations at PMI‘s global congresses.





The fundamental strength of a project team is its ability to solve problems, according to Eric Verzuh, president and founder of The Versatile Co., Seattle, Wash., USA. In this vein, a high-performing project team really is a problem-solving machine, cranking out solutions uniformly and in measured time.

Project teams, however, are temporary endeavors. A group of relative strangers gather to achieve a goal, so becoming a high-performance team can be a challenge, as it requires commitment to and investment in learning to work cohesively.

Mr. Verzuh’s model of the problem-solving machine (PSM)—characterized by a positive work environment, conscious, collaborative processes and shared goal clarity—simplifies the human management side of project management by concentrating on behaviors that allow the team to fulfill its core mission. The PSM’s project manager is tasked with developing and maintaining the aforementioned characteristics while providing leadership that allows team members to flourish.

Based on “High Performance Teams—Building the Problem Solving Machine,” presented by Eric Verzuh, PMP, at PMI Global Congress 2004—North America.


images Although project teams are temporary, knowing how to work cohesively and building knowledge are long-term skills.

images The project team on the Canadian Roundwood and Fibre Tracking (CRAFT) project developed a glossary to aid goal clarity.

images A positive, trust-based environment fosters the “safety” needed for creative problem-solving.

images The problem-solving machine (PSM) model enables leaders to communicate effectively and build team relationships.

“A team’s ability to act as a cohesive unit either gives it momentum or makes it drag as the members work to solve problems. If you look at any decision-making literature over the past 45 years, the whole always is greater than the sum of the parts,” Mr. Verzuh says. Over and over again, it becomes clear that our biggest obstacle isn’t our knowledge or expertise—it is the way in which we work together.”

Organize the Parts

Federal Way, Wash., USA-based Weyerhaeuser’s Canadian Roundwood and Fibre Tracking (CRAFT) project team was tasked with replacing more than 12 log-harvesting and delivery-tracking programs across five Canadian provinces between June and December 2004. The key to forming his PSM was the organization of its parts, says CRAFT project manager Joe Kresse, PMP.

The project was layered with small business, IT and vendor subteams (three to six for each implementation) that installed the necessary hardware and software, trained end-users, documented the process and troubleshot the project’s “go live phase.” Each subteam had a lead who also sat on the at-large project team to ensure all tasks were coordinated sequentially. “We had members on multiple teams, so communication improved,”

Mr. Kresse says. “Multiple, small subteams have been very effective for us instead of a single, large team trying to do everything together. Seeing the big picture and then focusing on the immediate work ahead kept our subteams on schedule.”

Making sure everyone used the same terms also helped achieve goal clarity on the CRAFT project. While gathering the project requirements, the project team developed a glossary of relevant terms that was continuously updated during the project life cycle. “We wanted to form common definitions for many processes or items. Our company is fond of buzzwords and acronyms, and we needed a single repository for this information,” Mr. Kresse says.

The CRAFT PSM demonstrates the importance of team-building and achieving total group participation early in the team’s formation. Giving team members only rough schedules at the onset allowed them to play a more active role in their own time management, and many subteams came up with ways to perform more tasks concurrently that the at-large team had not considered. This high level of autonomy gave the team an impetus to take completely the project goal to heart, something Mr. Verzuh sees as a sign of PSM with real, permeating goal clarity.

“We had a large, week-long vendor review early in the project and had team dinners every evening. Working and relaxing together built great teamwork,” Mr. Kresse says. “Without effective teamwork, we would have been mired down after or during the first implementation. If we burn out on the first one, we fail on the rest. Any team can do short bursts of overtime, but it can’t go on for months. Effective teams can work over long timeframes if given a reasonable schedule that they participated in from the beginning.”


Just as a bridge connects one point to another, envision the goal of your project team as getting from point A to point B. For simple projects, you can grab a handful of people, drop them onto a project, and they’ll somehow get from A to B without a lot of special attention to team-building. But if the bridge has to hold the weight of a complex project, it must be strong. The arch provides strength and support to a team with a heavy load.


Source: “Building a High-Performance Project Team,” The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management, Second Edition, Eric Verzuh (John Wiley & Sons, 2005).

Grease the Hinges

High-performance project teams often are faced with challenging project conditions. Changing site conditions during the construction phase of a seven month, $2.2 million, fixed price landfill closure project required several field changes, according to Mike Fisher, PMP, corporate project planning and control manager at Sumner, Wash., USA-based Parametrix. But the PSM was formed less out of the given circumstances and more from the project’s commitment to utilizing conscious collaborative processes.

“When unplanned events occurred, the project manager empowered the project team members to propose and execute solutions,” Mr. Fisher says. “Using this tactic to resolve problems quickly helped the project team realize that when mistakes occur, the priority is to identify and execute corrective actions.”

While the PSM model does not dictate that all decisions be made collaboratively, there always should be an awareness of how the project team is accomplishing its tasks. “Awareness enables us to analyze our effectiveness and improve; the more complex the activity, the greater the value of this consciousness,” Mr. Verzuh says.



—Mike Fisher, PMP, Corporate Project Planning and Control Manager, Parametrix Sumner, Wash., USA

Given that the main goals of the project were to save as much money and finish as quickly as possible, it was imperative for the Parametrix team to measure every option’s effect on cost and schedule before selecting a solution. This required ongoing collaboration between project managers, project control managers and technical managers. “Communication among team members was frequent; in addition to cost and schedule objectives, we only accepted ground rules about proceedings and processes after we had discussions to clarify expectations,” Mr. Fisher says.

Parametrix’s “culture training”—which covers collaboration and conflict-resolution strategies—gave the PSM a boost. However, the project team committed to collaboration by adding a mentoring component to its work. “Project team members that were exposed to new responsibilities were teamed with an informal mentor. As the protégés demonstrated a desire and capability to take on more responsibility, they were given more opportunity,” Mr. Fisher says.

The project was delivered $300,000 under budget and 60 days ahead of contract completion, earning the project team 100 percent of the schedule incentive fee and a share of the cost under run. “An effective project team that trusted and relied on each other to deliver their commitments was directly responsible for the successful delivery of this project,” Mr. Fisher says.

Preventative Maintenance

Recognizing negative behaviors and preempting them is critical to strong team performance—if the PSM overheats, stalls or otherwise malfunctions, it’s difficult to get back on course, and the time lost in trying to repair it takes away from productivity.

“Once people on a team get tired of one another, and you’re in a mode where you have to create, you won’t be able to do it because you will be [exhausted],” Mr. Verzuh says. “When people don’t mesh together well, a person is just happy to finish the job, and that person will never go above and beyond. To be ultimately successfully, people have to feel the commitment to go above and beyond.”

This commitment is why a positive environment is so critical to the PSM. In a trust-based atmosphere where team members are valued for their individuality and distinctive contributions, there is an increased comfort level when it comes to taking risks or expressing differing views. “If individuals are afraid to suggest a novel approach or take a contrary stand, the team loses the one unique advantage humans always will have over computers and machines: our imagination,” Mr. Verzuh says. “A positive team environment makes it safe to challenge ideas and each other,” and plurality of thought makes for a more robust, grounded project.

During the Parametrix project, the team members integrated other company core values—compassion and integrity—to ensure conflict never spoiled moods or stunted progress. “The project manager’s reaction to issues and problems set the tone for open communication,” Mr. Fisher says. “During conflict we create conversation from a shared foundation of understanding—conflict was addressed professionally, and with respect for each person to hold his or her point of view.”

“When I get e-mails from team members saying how much they enjoyed one of the implementations or working on a subteam, I know how important a positive environment is,” Mr. Kresse says, affirming that a positive team environment is a PSM’s source of energy.

The Bona Fide PSM

The PSM model is sound and successful for those who use it. Building a PSM requires the team leader to:

1. Focus on team-building early in the project

2. Use a kick-off meeting to model the characteristics of the ideal team

3. Set ground rules early in the project

4. Focus on communication skills

5. Use collaborative processes consciously.

However, if your team does not enjoy its work and benefit from the processes, the PSM is not complete: This is the nuance that separates an efficient project team from a PSM.

“A high-performance team gives us more than high productivity; it gives us the joy and satisfaction that is possible when we reach our full potential,” says Mr. Verzuh in the second edition of his book, The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management [John Wiley & Sons, 2005]. “Team building requires personal conviction that team health actually affects the project’s result.” A project leader must go beyond the hard measures of status reports and create an atmosphere of success defined beyond on-time, on-budget deliveries, such as Parametrix’s dedication to balancing project tasks with the team development opportunities within its informal mentoring program.

“As a project leader, I work harder to facilitate than lead,” Mr. Kresse says. “I try to remove roadblocks and provide resources where they are needed.”

“Those who truly understands the PSM concept will invest in their team members, and their teams will be characterized by a high-level of respect, an open dialogue and the ability to recite the goals at any time,” Mr. Verzuh says. “As a leader, you have to take action to build these components. It’s not a passive leadership: It’s actively seeking to plant the kernels. Change happens in little ways and big ways, and the real strength of a PSM are in the concept’s daily habits and behaviors.” PM

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