March 21, 2016

Project Teams

Team Types and their Characteristics

There are four principal team types to be found in most organisations. Whilst they share many characteristics and challenges, each is unique in terms of how they interact with their environment and they each have unique challenges and characteristics. Developing a team and maximising its effectiveness requires an understanding and recognition of its particular characteristics and challenges. The figure below broadly describes the four types. This article considers the Project Team in more depth.

Project Team:

In many organisations, project teams are the primary productive units and most of the output is achieved or delivered through project work. More and more employees are becoming involved in project teams of varying sizes. Project teams are generally established for a specific purpose and a specific duration which more often than not tends to be short term. Project teams can be co-located or, increasingly, virtual with members dispersed geographically.

Project Teams are established:

  • to enhance product or service delivery to customers,
  • to improve processes,
  • to change business practices in a planned and co-ordinated way,
  • to solve emerging problems,

... or may be rushed into being to rapidly respond to a crisis.

Membership of project teams is normally determined by the skillsets required for achieving the team’s mission and generally comprises the smallest optimum number of people necessary for effectively achieving their project goal.

Team members may be required to commit all of their contracted working time to a single project or may be involved in a number of simultaneous projects.

These projects may

  • be at different phases of their lifecycle,
  • have different members and project leaders and
  • be subject to different operating practices.

Teams may be functional in orientation and comprise everyone in a particular section. In departments where there are many short duration projects, membership of a specific project team may be whoever is currently available or whoever has just concluded another project.

Teams may be cross-functional with expertise drawn from (i) across the organisation, (ii) external experts, (iii) external service providers or even (iv) customers.

For some projects, membership can be through selection based on specific expertise or skills and often the nominated Project Leader can have autonomy to select a team of his or her choice to achieve the goals, within the constraints of time and budgets and recognising the significance or importance of the project to business imperatives. This may require the inclusion of contingent workers from outside the organisation.

When teams are selected, team leaders may have the potential to choose members who they feel will work well together from a personal styles perspective.

Leadership of project teams can be:

  1. a reflection of the corporate hierarchy so that the most senior person is the de facto project leader
  2. the individual with the most relevant expertise for that particular project
  3. chosen from an established cadre of Project Managers who often do not have any direct reports in the traditional managerial sense but who instead have leadership responsibility for the duration of a specific project.

Project Team Strengths

  • Project teams generally have a clear focus. They have what many other team types often do not have which is a common objective and purpose. They have deadlines and milestones. Project goals are generally well defined and the commonly shorter time horizons provide an impetus to deliver.
  • Regardless of member composition, project teams often allocate responsibilities based on capability, competency and availability. Members tend to be aware of who owns what and of the critical inter-dependencies between their respective roles and functions. Recognition of roles allows team members to hold each other mutually accountable, to offer support where necessary and to recognise accomplishments when individuals have delivered.
  • Project Teams generally tend to recognise the need to plan effectively from the outset. Participation by members in the initial planning phase helps bolster involvement and further participation. It enables clarity and awareness as well as providing a sense of control.
  • The nature of project planning and control often creates a rigor of review and evaluation. It should readily provide the answer to questions like “where are we?” and “where should we be?”. Regular status review meetings and updates help ensure a project stays on track but also can help sustain the bonds and sense of esprit de corps between team members while providing a vehicle for honest, two-way communication.
  • When project teams are cross-functional, members may acquire new insights from across the organisation, may develop new skills and knowledge and will build their network of contacts. When members are from outside the organisation a range of different perspectives can be acquired which will add value to the individual, the team and the organisation.

Project Team Challenges

  • Critical to the success of all project teams is Mission Clarity and the question of “Why does this team exist?” A major challenge for any project team whether Functional or Cross-Functional is the focussing of team members’ expectations during the forming stage. Best practice recommends that team members are not only familiar with the mission and purpose of the team but they also understand the role of the project in the context of overall organisational goals. Ideally members may have even explored alternative approaches to achieving their goals. Conversely, a tendency for action at the expense of establishing total clarity on the team goals can very quickly turn the advantages of project teams described above into a de-motivating, frustrating and stressful experience.
  • A phenomenon familiar to many teams is Project or Scope “Creep”. The initial objective becomes embellished or clients start to request additional outputs never considered in the original scope. While teams may wish to be supportive of these improvements or enhancements it can be frustrating to constantly face new demands or changes to the specifications. Teams need to balance customer expectations, operational realities and quality and ensure practices such as design, specification and delivery sign-offs are in place and agreed upon by all stakeholders.
  • Lack of knowledge of other team members can lead to confusion at team forming stage. This may include a lack of familiarity with differing individual styles, skill sets and even terminology. Consideration must be therefore be given and time must be dedicated to these issues as well as (or even in advance of) focussing on the project plan.
  • Project Leaders who are in situ due to their hierarchical seniority may not be the most appropriate people to manage the flexibility required for a project team. As long ago as the 1960s both Tuckman and Blanchard identified the need for leaders to be flexible in their style. Leaders need to be adaptable to changes both in individuals and in teams. As the project team progresses, leadership should become devolved. The leader moves from being the director to the coach and facilitator. S/he should not undermine the maturing of the team by refusing to share leadership or encourage full engagement and participation by all team members. Maintaining his/her status and reputation as “The Boss” may create a dis-connect within the team, demotivating members and jeopardising productivity.
  • Project leaders who owe their position to technical expertise alone can fail to prioritise the human dimension of the team or the day-to-day people management practices including performance management, feedback and coaching. This will be more challenging for the cross-functional team as members who do not share the same technical background may find the leadership style inappropriate or overly utilitarian. Team members from a similar technical discipline as the leader may fully appreciate the knowledge, expertise and even the leader’s management style but lose out on the balanced approach to people management.
  • Managing virtual teams can be a significant challenge for a leader (and team) where crucial processes such as testing or quality assurance are handled at different sites. For a full description of the specific challenges of teams that are not co-located see our article on Virtual Teams.
  • In many respects Project Teams have an advantage over Traditional Intact Teams and Teaming Work Groups due to the in-built project review practices commonly used. However, if the review sessions are solely focussed on the project plan, impending milestones and progress, it may overlook the imperative for the team to reflect on the teamworking dimension. The net result is that behaviours that are unhelpful to the team and the project can go undetected or be ignored. This will likely result in a negative compound effect on efficiency and delivery and in the deterioration of commitment, communication and interpersonal-relations.

The Imperatives

Regardless of the size and type of organisation or the sector in which it operates, projects are becoming an increasing phenomenon in how business goals are achieved. Project teams are the norm for more and more employees. For organisations to maximise the potential strengths of project teams there must be acknowledgement of the challenges. In particular Project Team Leaders should be mindful of the following:

  1. Leaders must explain to team members the reasons for the team’s formation and mission in the context of the organisation’s goals and customer requirements. Leaders should also establish individual team member expectations and ideally set some ground rules relating to operating principles, the meeting process, evaluation format etc. Leaders should at this stage also assess team training needs (e.g. domain expertise, team process, tools and techniques etc.) The leader should, as appropriate, encourage the team to determine broad approaches to the project goal and the modus operandi of the team.
  2. Goal Clarity is key for the effectiveness of a team. Team members should refine the team goals into key objectives and then collectively develop more detailed objectives. Leaders must ensure that members have a full understanding of the team goals so they can then support these objectives. Goal Clarity is an even greater imperative when project teams comprise cross-functional representatives, contingent workers or members from client/customer organisations.
  3. Leaders should recognise the need to be flexible in their role and to acknowledge that team leadership is a multi-faceted responsibility requiring more than functional seniority or technical expertise. It is noteworthy that current project management methodologies (such as the various Agile approaches) define roles such as Scrum Master, team coach or project lead as responsible for facilitating the team, obtaining resources for it and protecting it from problems. This role encompasses the soft skills of project management but not the technical ones such as planning and scheduling, activities which are better left to the team members.
  4. Good planning and evaluation practices are essential for project success. Time invested at the initial planning phase of the project may be wasted if there has been a failure to regularly and frequently review progress. Planning and evaluation help keep projects on track, help identify risks and help maintain a sense of team purpose. Leaders should ideally minimise the time spent in review meetings and rely more on simple status reporting. They should seek more opportunities to enhance team energy levels through joint problem-solving and innovation activities linked to the project.
  5. Leaders in particular must manage the “customer” expectations and protect the team from constant changing of the specifications or deliverables.
  6. Leaders should encourage constructive disagreement as a means of ensuring the team does not fall into “the-way-we’ve-always-done-it”-type thinking. Such an exercise helps demonstrate that conflict within a team is inevitable and that teams needs to manage conflict appropriately and constructively when disagreements do arise.
  7. As part of their on-going development, teams—especially on longer duration projects—should find time to recognise their individual performance and contribution to the project and the team. This should include feedback on team member behaviours that have helped and behaviours that need to change.
  8. While Project Leaders may have one major focus on their project, they must also be mindful of the fact that some team members may be involved in a number of simultaneous projects and have various demands placed on them from a variety of other of sources.

Project teams are fortunate to have a critical factor for success that other teams lack i.e. a clearly visible common mission and purpose. However this alone is only a part of the recipe for success. Project Teams like all the team types need to constantly and consistently take time out to reflect on both the task and the relationship dimensions of their operation to ensure they give themselves the best chance of success.

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