More on Managing Projects Through People

Read this section, which discusses how to build an effective team of high performers for successful project implementation.

Project team


Some projects, especially large-scale ones, will rely on a team, not just an individual, for their successful implementation. Unlike permanent work teams, a project team's objective is the achievement of a finite and specific task – the project. Its performance, especially its ability to perform effectively as a group, is therefore critical to a project's outcome. However, it may prove relatively difficult for a project team to work well together at the outset, since its members are often drawn from different functions within the organisation, perhaps even from different organisations, and may include external representatives such as external consultants or representatives of the project's customers. This means that the group members' interests regarding the project are highly likely to differ at the outset.

Extract 1: Catalogue of errors at the British Library

Inspectors checking the British Library project found more than 230,000 defects between 1992 and 1996. As costs increased and delays lengthened, the Government even considered abandoning the project, the National Audit Office disclosed. But with more than £450 million already committed, the Treasury agreed to a further £46 million to allow the building, next to St Pancras Station in London, to be completed.

A National Audit Office report uncovered a saga of building errors, management failures and blurred responsibilities. Until 1992, when the Heritage Department was created, responsibility for managing the project rested with the Office of Arts and Libraries. Since 1989, the British Library has questioned how the specifications of the building have been implemented in design. The Audit Office said that concern was expressed in 1991 that the Library and the Department were behaving 'as opposing parties rather than as partners'. To this day, they have been unable to agree shared objectives largely because of the conflict between the Government's desires to reduce costs and the Library's pursuit of the highest quality.

There had been 'confusion, conflict and difficulty in determining liability' when things went wrong. Quality checks were 'weak and failed to detect major technical problems until they were hard or costly to rectify' and there was insufficient control over the budget on the first phase of the building.

The bureaucratic structure behind the British Library project is Byzantine. For the first phase until the end of 1992, there were three titular heads: the Property Services Agency, the Treasury and the National Heritage Department. At the strategic level, there was a project steering committee and a project director appointed by the Government. On the site, a construction professional was project manager. Below him was a superintending officer who administered the contract. Under him was a construction manager, appointed by the builders, Laing.

The example shows that, in the case of the construction of the British Library, failure to establish a coherent and effective project team with clearly defined tasks meant that no shared set of objectives was ever agreed by the parties involved. Thus no one group took responsibility for driving through the project. A direct consequence of this was that control over the project's progress was inadequate and technical problems proliferated.

For project teams to perform well, certain circumstances need to exist:

  • members must feel personally involved in the project;

  • members believe that they are serving the interests of those whom they represent who will benefit from the project outcome;

  • a readiness to accept new ideas;

  • a certain autonomy for project teams to determine their own goals and their approaches to achieving them if they are to work effectively. Not surprisingly, the ability of the project manager to expedite effective project team working is crucial.

While the diversity of a project team may sometimes detract from its effective working, especially at the beginning of a project, it is nevertheless essential that a range of skills and knowledge is represented within it if it is to perform efficiently. Boddy and Buchanan (1992) identify three aspects of a project for which a well-balanced project team will require appropriate skills: process, content and control.

To deal with the content agenda, a team may require:

  • expertise in the skills which the project concerns, e.g. IT skills;

  • awareness of the organisation's policies and strategies;

  • operating knowledge of how the part of the organisation which will benefit from the project works.

To deal with the process agenda, a team may require:

  • skills in team-building to help the members of the group work together;

  • awareness that the process by which things are done are as important as what is done;

  • willingness and ability to give time and commitment to the team.

To deal with the control agenda, a team may require:

  • a helicopter view to set the project within a broader picture;

  • deadline skills to ensure that the project is progressing satisfactorily;

  • administration skills to ensure that appropriate and timely project documentation is maintained.

Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a project team

Those involved in a project may have skills that fulfil more than one aspect of the project agenda. This is likely to be particularly important in small-scale projects, where management of the content, process and control agendas are just as important to the project's success, but where fewer people are involved.

Activity 3: Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a project team

Timing: 0 hours 15 minutes

Consider a project team you have worked on or with. This could be a team at work or a team out of work, for example, one which organised an event at a local school or church.

Note down the answers to the following questions.

  1. Make a list of the skills and expertise of the team members.

  2. Compare it with the ideal project team skills described above.

  3. Which roles and expertise were well represented and which were missing?

  4. How did this affect the way in which the team worked?

Managing a project team is complicated by the fact that it is not a constant process, since the behaviour and tasks of the project team reflect the lifecycle of the project. It is argued that project teams go through four identifiable stages of development, at each of which it may be appropriate for the project manager to take particular actions to maximise their performance.

Undeveloped team – This is the stage at which people have been assembled to form a project team but have not yet given much thought about how they might work together. At this stage the project manager needs to be able to get team members to share any concerns and problems that they might have regarding the project. They can begin to develop team cohesion by explicitly identifying the strengths (and weaknesses) of the team.

Experimenting team – The main characteristic of this second stage is that the team makes a conscious effort to review the way in which it works in order to improve performance. The team begins to face problems more openly and consider options more widely. More listening takes place and a broader range of contributions is considered. At this stage the project manager needs to encourage team member openness and debate about ways of working, by inviting feedback on performance and process issues.

Consolidating team – In the third stage the team creates clearer and more methodical ways of working. Attention is given to matters such as clarifying the purpose of tasks and activities, deciding what will need to be done and how, and reviewing progress. At this stage the project manager needs to get the team to agree procedures and methods of working, and to facilitate performance reviews as a means of identifying ways of improving team methods.

Mature team – In the fourth stage the team becomes confident and outward looking, able and willing to take into consideration the wider aspects and implications of what it is doing. At this stage, while the project manager can in general allow the team the autonomy necessary to complete its allotted tasks, they must support any requirements to link up with other teams and units and they must encourage external evaluation of the team's performance.

Team-management tasks remain constant throughout the lifetime of the project. These include continually ensuring that the project team has a shared understanding of the project's remit and objectives, effectively dealing with conflict and disagreement whenever it arises, and generating excitement and celebrating success, where appropriate, in order to maximise team motivation.

Source: Open University,
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Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2023, 8:18 PM