A team is a collaboration of people with different personalities that is led by a person with a favored leadership style. Managing the interactions of these personalities and styles as a group is an important aspect of project management.
Trust is the foundation for all relationships within a project. Without a minimum level of trust, communication breaks down, and eventually the project suffers in the form of costs increasing and schedules slipping. Often, when reviewing a project where the performance problems have captured the attention of upper management, the evidence of problems is the increase in project costs and the slippage in the project schedule. The underlying cause is usually blamed on communication breakdown. With deeper investigation, the communication breakdown is associated with a breakdown in trust.
On projects, trust is the filter through which we screen information that is shared and the filter we use to screen information we receive. The more trust that exists, the easier it is for information to flow through the filters. As trust diminishes, the filters become stronger and information has a harder time getting through, and projects that are highly dependent on an information-rich environment will suffer from information deprivation.
Contracts and Trust Relationships
The project typically begins with a charter or contract. A contract is a legal agreement that includes penalties for any behavior or results not achieved. Contracts are based on an adversarial paradigm and do not lend themselves to creating an environment of trust. Contracts and charters are necessary to clearly establish the scope of the project, among other things, but they are not conducive to establishing a trusting project culture.
A relationship of mutual trust is less formal but vitally important. When a person or team enters into a relationship of mutual trust, each person’s reputation and self-respect are the drivers in meeting the intent of the relationship. A relationship of mutual trust within the context of a project is a commitment to an open and honest relationship. There is nothing that enforces the commitments in the relationship except the integrity of the people involved. Smaller, less complex projects can operate within the boundaries of a legal contract, but larger, more complex projects must develop a relationship of mutual trust to be successful.
Types of Trust
Svenn Lindskold (1978) describes four kinds of trust:
- Objective credibility. A personal characteristic that reflects the truthfulness of an individual that can be checked against observable facts.
- Attribution of benevolence. A form of trust that is built on the examination of the person’s motives and the conclusion that they are not hostile.
- Nonmanipulative trust. A form of trust that correlates to a person’s self-interest and the predictability of a person’s behavior in acting consistent in that self-interest.
- High cost of lying. The type of trust that emerges when persons in authority raise the cost of lying so high that people will not lie because the penalty will be too high.
Building trust on a project begins with the project manager. On complex projects, the assignment of a project manager with a high trust reputation can help establish the trust level needed. The project manager can also establish the cost of lying in a way that communicates an expectation and a value for trust on the project. Project managers can also assure that the official goals (stated goals) and operational goals (goals that are reinforced) are aligned. The project manager can create an atmosphere where informal communication is expected and reinforced.
The informal communication is important to establishing personal trust among team members and with the client. Allotting time during project start-up meetings to allow team members to develop a personal relationship is important to establishing the team trust. The informal discussion allows for a deeper understanding of the whole person and creates an atmosphere where trust can emerge.
On a project in Charleston, South Carolina, the client was asking for more and more backup to information from the project. The project manager visited the client to better understand the reporting requirements and discovered the client did not trust the reports coming from the project and wanted validating material for each report. After some candid discussion, the project manager discovered that one of the project team members had provided information to the client that was inaccurate. The team member had made a mistake but had not corrected it with the client, hoping that the information would get lost in the stream of information from the project.The project manager removed the team member from the project for two main reasons. The project manager established that the cost of lying was high. The removal communicated to the project team an expectation of honesty. The project manager also reinforced a covenant with the client that reinforced the trust in the information the project provided. The requests for additional information declined, and the trust relationship between project personnel and the client remained high.
Small events that reduce trust often take place on a project without anyone remembering what happened to create the environment of distrust. Taking fast and decisive action to establish a high cost of lying, communicating the expectation of honesty, and creating an atmosphere of trust are critical steps a project manager can take to ensure the success of complex projects.
Project managers can also establish expectations of team members to respect individual differences and skills, look and react to the positives, recognize each other’s accomplishments, and value people’s self-esteem to increase a sense of the benevolent intent.
Managing Team Meetings
Team meetings are conducted differently depending on the purpose of the meeting, the leadership style that is appropriate for the meeting, and the personality types of the members of the team.
Action Item Meetings
Action item meetings are short meetings to develop a common understanding of what the short-term priorities are for the project, individual roles, and expectations for specific activities. This type of meeting is for sharing, not problem solving. Any problems that emerge from the discussion are assigned to a person, and another meeting is established to address the issue. Action item meetings focus on short-term activities, usually less than a week in duration.
The action item meeting is fact based and information oriented. It is a left-brain-type focus. The action item meeting has very little dialogue except to ask clarification questions. If discussion is needed or disagreement is not easily resolved, another problem-solving meeting is established to deal with that issue. On smaller topics, that meeting might take place immediately after the action item meeting and only include those people with an interest in the outcome of the discussion.
The project manager keeps the successful action item meeting short in duration and focused on only those items of information needed for the short-term project plan. The project manager will restate the common understandings of what activities are priorities and who will be responsible for the activities. Often these meetings can include a review of safety procedures or security procedures when these issues are important to the project. The leadership approach to action item meetings focuses on data, actions, and commitments. Although the project manager may observe stresses between project team members or other issues, they are not addressed in this meeting. These are fact-based meetings. If issues begin to arise between people, the project manager will develop other opportunities to address these issues in another forum. Using the Myers-Briggs descriptions, team members who favor thinking more than feeling and judging more than perceiving are more comfortable with this type of meeting.
Management meetings are longer in duration and are focused on planning. They are oriented toward developing plans, tracking progress of existing plans, and making adjustments to plans in response to new information.
These meetings include focused discussion on generating a common understanding of the progress of the existing plan. This discussion is based on quantitative information provided on the progress of the schedule and other data, but the discussion is qualitative in evaluating the data to develop a more complete understanding of the data. The experience and opinions of the project leaders are solicited, and disagreement about meaning of the data is even encouraged to develop a deeper understanding of the data. Through this discussion, a common understanding of the status of the project should emerge, and the project manager invites discussion, includes people to offer their thoughts, and assures that disagreements are positive discussions about interpretation of the information and that disagreements do not become personal.
Management meetings also focus on developing midterm goals. For larger, more complex projects, the goals may be monthly or even quarterly. For smaller or less complex projects, weekly goals will provide the focus. The project manager focuses the discussion on the broad priorities for the next period and includes all the functional leaders in the discussion. The goals that emerge from the discussion should represent a common understanding of the priorities of the project for the next term.
For example, during the early phases of a project, the team is focused on developing a conceptual understanding of the project. A major milestone on complex projects is typically the completion of the conceptual plan. The project manager would lead a discussion on what needs to be accomplished to meet the project milestone and asks what potential barriers exist and what key resources are needed. From the discussion, the project team develops a few key goals that integrate the various functions of the project team and focus the team on priorities.
The following are some examples of goals during the conceptual phase:
- Developing a list of the procurement long lead items and defining critical dates
- Developing a human resources plan that identifies critical positions
- Developing and building agreement with the client on the project scope of work
Each of these goals is measurable and time framed. They can be developed as positive motivators and will take the project leaders and most of the project team to accomplish. They develop a general understanding of the priorities and are easy to remember.
Management meetings are a combination of left-brain thinking, which is fact based, and right-brain thinking, which is creative and innovative. Using the Myers-Briggs terminology, team members who prefer feeling over thinking and perceiving over judging can contribute ideas and perspectives on the project that the more fact-oriented members might miss.
The project manager allows and encourages conversation in developing and evaluating the goals but focuses the discussion on the goals and obstacles. Management meetings take on a different focus during the month. Meetings at the beginning of the month spend time addressing the progress and potential barriers to the goals developed the previous month. During the middle of the month, the project manager leads the team to develop next month’s goals as the team also works on the current month’s goals. Toward the end of the month as the goals for the month are accomplished, the meeting focuses more on the next month, enabling the team to remain goal focused during the life of the project.
Management meetings are also an opportunity to discover obstacles to goal achievement. The project team reallocates resources or develops alternative methods for accomplishing the goals. As the project team discusses the progress of project goals, the project manager explores possible obstacles and encourages exposing potential problems in achieving goals. The project manager focuses the team on finding solutions and avoids searching for blame.
The project manager uses a facilitative leadership approach, encouraging the management team to contribute their ideas, and builds consensus on what goals will bring the appropriate focus. The project manager keeps the focus on developing the goals, tracking progress, identifying barriers, and making adjustments to accomplish the management goals. Although there are typically meetings for scheduling and procurement and other meetings where goals are established and problems solved, the management meeting and the goal development process create alignment among the project leadership on the items critical to the project’s success.
Leadership meetings are held less frequently and are longer in length. These meetings are used by the project manager to reflect on the project, to explore the larger issues of the project, and to back away from the day-to-day problem solving. The project manager will create a safe environment for sharing thoughts and evaluations of issues that are less data oriented. This is a right-brained, creative meeting that focuses on the people issues of the project: the relationship with the client, vendors, and project team. Team members who favor feeling, perceiving, and intuition often contribute valuable insights in this type of meeting. The team might also share perceptions by upper management and perceptions of the community in which the project is being executed. Where the time frame for action item meetings is in weeks and management meetings is in months, the time frame for leadership meetings is longer and takes in the entire length and impact of the project.
The project manager’s meeting management skill includes creating the right meeting atmosphere for the team discussion that is needed. For discussions based on data and facts, the project manager creates the action item type meeting. The conversation is focused on sharing information and clarification. The conversation for leadership meetings is the opposite. Discussion is more open ended and focused on creativity and innovation. Because each type of meeting requires a different meeting atmosphere, mixing the purposes of a meeting will make it difficult for the project manager to develop and maintain the appropriate kind of conversation.
Skilled project managers know what type of meeting is needed and how to develop an atmosphere to support the meeting type. Meetings of the action item type are focused on information sharing with little discussion. They require efficient communication of plans, progress, and other information team members need to plan and execute daily work. Management type meetings are focused on developing and progressing goals. Leadership meetings are more reflective and focused on the project mission and culture.
These three types of meetings do not cover all the types of project meetings. Specific problem-solving, vendor evaluation, and scheduling meetings are examples of typical project meetings. Understanding what kinds of meetings are needed on the project and creating the right focus for each meeting type is a critical project management skill.
Types of Teams
Teams can outperform individual team members in several situations. The effort and time invested in developing a team and the work of the team are large investments of project resources, and the payback is critical to project success. Determining when a team is needed and then chartering and supporting the development and work of the team are other critical project management abilities.
Teams are effective in several project situations:
- When no one person has the knowledge, skills, and abilities to either understand or solve the problem
- When a commitment to the solution is needed by large portions of the project team
- When the problem and solution cross project functions
- When innovation is required
Individuals can outperform teams on some occasions. An individual tackling a problem consumes fewer resources than a team and can operate more efficiently—as long as the solution meets the project’s needs. A person is most appropriate in the following situations:
- When speed is important
- When one person has the knowledge, skills, and resources to solve the problem
- When the activities involved in solving the problem are very detailed
- When the actual document needs to be written (Teams can provide input, but writing is a solitary task.)
In addition to knowing when a team is appropriate, the project manager must also understand what type of team will function best.
A functional team refers to the team approach related to the project functions. The engineering team, the procurement team, and the project controls team are examples of functional teams within the project. On a project with a low complexity profile that includes low technological challenges, good team member experience, and a clear scope of work, the project manager can utilize well-defined functional teams with clear expectations, direction, and strong vertical communication.
Cross-functional teams address issues and work processes that include two or more of the functional teams. The team members are selected to bring their functional expertise to addressing project opportunities.
A cross-functional project team in Tennessee was assigned to develop a project approach to drafting, shooting, and editing educational videos without storing the videos on the school server. Although the complexity of this goal is primarily related to creating the videos and procuring editing equipment, the planning involved coordination of the script drafting, procurement of equipment and talent, and project controls. Team members from each of these functions developed and tracked a plan to meet the project goal. Because they communicated so frequently and clearly, the cross-functional team was successful in designing a process and executing the plan in a way that saved three weeks on the video schedule and several thousand dollars in cost by hosting off-site.
Problem-solving teams are assigned to address specific issues that arise during the life of the project. The project leadership includes members that have the expertise to address the problem. The team is chartered to address that problem and then disband.
Qualitative Assessment of Project Performance
Project managers should provide an opportunity to ask such questions as “What is your gut feeling about how the project going?” and “How do you think our client perceives the project?” This creates the opportunity for reflection and dialogue around larger issues on the project. The project manager creates an atmosphere for the team to go beyond the data and search for meaning. This type of discussion and reflection is very difficult in the stress of day-to-day problem solving.
The project manager has several tools for developing good quantitative information—based on numbers and measurements—such as the project schedules, budgets and budget reports, risk analysis, and goal tracking. This quantitative information is essential to understanding the current status and trends on the project. Just as important is the development of qualitative information—comparisons of qualities—such as judgments made by expert team members that go beyond the quantitative data provided in a report. Some would label this the “gut feeling” or intuition of experienced project managers.
The Humm Factor is a survey tool developed by Russ Darnall to capture the thoughts of project participants (Caudron, 1995). It derived its name from a project manager who always claimed he could tell you more by listening to the hum of the project than reading all the project reports. “Do you feel the project is doing the things it needs to do to stay on schedule?” and “Is the project team focused on project goals?” are the types of questions that can be included in the Humm Factor. It is distributed on a weekly or less frequent basis depending on the complexity profile of the project. A project with a high level of complexity due to team-based and cultural issues will be surveyed more frequently.
The qualitative responses are converted to a quantitative value as a score from 1 to 10. Responses are tracked by individuals and the total project, resulting in qualitative comparisons over time. The project team reviews the ratings regularly, looking for trends that indicate an issue may be emerging on the project that might need exploring.
On a project in South Carolina, the project surveyed the project leadership with a Humm Survey each week. The Humm Factor indicated an increasing worry about the schedule beginning to slip when the schedule reports indicated that everything was according to plan. When the project manager began trying to understand why the Humm Factor was showing concerns about the schedule, he discovered an apprehension about the performance of a critical project supplier. When he asked team members, they responded, “It was the way they answered the phone or the hesitation when providing information—something didn’t feel right.”
The procurement manager visited the supplier and discovered the company was experiencing financial problems and had serious cash flow problems. The project manager was able to develop a plan to help the supplier through the period, and the supplier eventually recovered. The project was able to meet performance goals. The Humm Factor Survey provided a tool for members of the project team to express concerns that were based on very soft data, and the project team was able to discover a potential problem.
Another project team used the Humm Factor to survey the client monthly. The completed surveys went to a person who was not on the project team to provide anonymity to the responses. The responses were discussed at the monthly project review meetings, and the project manager summarized the results and addressed all the concerns expressed in the report. “I don’t feel my concerns are being heard” was one response that began increasing during the project, and the project manager spent a significant portion of the next project review meeting attempting to understand what this meant. The team discovered that as the project progressed toward major milestones, the project team became more focused on solving daily problems, spent more time in meetings, and their workday was becoming longer. The result was fewer contacts with the clients, slower responses in returning phone calls, and much fewer coffee breaks where team members could casually discuss the project with the client.
The result of the conversation led to better understanding by both the project team and client team of the change in behavior based on the current phase of the project and the commitment to developing more frequent informal discussion about the project.
Developing a Project Story
Every project develops a story. It is the short explanation that project team members give when asked about the project. This is also called the elevator speech, which is the explanation a person would give if he or she were in the elevator with the CEO and the CEO asked him or her to describe the project. Project stories often express important aspects of the project and can create a positive picture of the project or one that is less appealing.
A project story will develop, and creating a positive project story is a project management skill that helps the project. A positive project story is inviting to people and helps with the recruitment of talent to the project. A positive project story also helps when services are needed from functional departments within the company and in developing management support for the project. The project manager actively sets out to create the project story. Creating a positive story entails identifying the unique aspects of the project and building a positive outcome.
A project manager in South Carolina always challenged people with speed. He identified the last project with similar characteristics and challenged the team to beat the time by weeks or months. The story became, “If you want a project done on time, this is the project team you need.” The project manager created a spirit of competition and fun. The project manager was a high-energy person, and the idea of finding a way to finish a project early seemed a natural outcome.
Every project manager can find the unique aspect of the project and build a sense of specialness about the project. The project becomes a good place to work, provides the team with a sense of accomplishment, and becomes the story created by the project manager.
Svenn Lindskold, “Trust Development, the GRIT Proposal, and the Effects of Conciliatory Acts on Conflict and Corporation,” Psychological Bulletin 85, no. 4 (1978): 772–93.
Shari Caudron, “Industry’s Unsung Heroes,” Industry Week, December 4, 1995, 12–16.