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Critical Team Development and Intervention Tips for Project Managers
By Daniel Seet

Introduction

The saying goes that the Human Resource Management (HRM) profession is really six to seven different jobs all rolled into one. The broad and distinct spectrum of knowledge areas that a HR practitioner needs truly runs the gamut, such as benefits, compensation, staffing, and many other specialties. While there is probably no empirical basis for a direct comparison, I do believe that the field of project management would rank a close second if the expansiveness of a project manager’s job scope were to be considered.

Take the practitioners trained under the PMBOK (Project Management Body of Knowledge) system administered by the Project Management Institute as an example. Apart from understanding the broad picture of how each project should be managed throughout its lifecycle, they also need to have a working knowledge of the PMBOK’s nine knowledge areas (integration, cost, scope, quality, HR and procurement, etc) and their subdivision of 44 management processes, and how they work together to guide the project to success. It is little wonder that some people think of project managers as a mile wide and an inch deep!

Perrin1, the author of Real World Project Management, points out that theory aside, harsh organizational realities such as out-of-the-world expectations, unclear needs that have been spin-doctored by senior executives, as well as the vagrancies of team members and their contributions, are just some of the problems that add to the project manager’s somewhat schizophrenic task of reconciling all these differences, and bridging what the organization wants with what can realistically be delivered.

Team building: Arguably the greatest challenge project managers face today!

In the plethora of concerns that face the project manager, one of the most pressing challenges, arguably, is that of team building. After all, it is the individuals in the team and the various skills and expertise they bring that are the forces the project manager must harness in order to accomplish the project. As early as the 1960s, Schmidt and Tannenbaum2 already discovered in their research that one of the most uncomfortable moments for managers is when they are forced to deal with differences among people in their teams. These are situations that, if unchallenged, may lead to the erosion of objectivity, personal relationships, and productivity.

Little has changed between now and then. Kemp3, in his 2004 work Project Management Demystified: A Self-Teaching Guide, argues that the one of the foremost reasons why projects continue to fail is because teamwork has not been effectively managed in the project group. He defines teamwork as the process of communication within the team, and everything else that supports and leads to its success. This logically implies both in-group communication, as well as external communication with the project sponsor, senior management, and other stakeholders.

In a survey that this author conducted this past September among a group of project managers from a large multinational firm, all the respondents unanimously rated communication as the top skill that a project manager had to possess. 60 percent of them believe that project managers should also have team-building and motivational skills, while more than a third of them feel that team-building, among other areas, is a critical communicative skill that many project managers lack today. These findings resonate with the conclusions of a separate market survey released by ESI International4 earlier this year, where 38% of the respondents said that effective communication (e.g. within the team, between the team and stakeholders) was one of the most pressing challenges that project managers and organizations were faced with.

In the face of what appears to be unequivocal support for the importance of team-building skills as a crucial communicative skill set for project managers, I believe it is timely to take readers through a review of the four-step team development life cycle originally put together by Dr Bruce Tuckman5 in his 1965 study of small groups. His research was pivotal in identifying the famous four stages that developing groups undergo: forming, storming, norming, and performing. In addition to Tuckman’s study, this white paper will also review the recent work by Dr Tom Edison6 of the Defence Acquisition University (DAU). Edison expands on the Tuckman model by including new phases that cover the potential dysfunctional states that teams may slip under, in order to reflect the complete development life cycle of a modern work team.

Project Team Development Curve

This illustration shows the full life-cycle of a team’s development, from its initial formation to its potential decline unless there is a transformation intiated (adapted from Edison6)

Tuckman’s original four-stage group development model

In his original formulation of the group development process, Tuckman5 argues that groups that exist for an extended period are likely to go through the four distinct stages of forming, storming, norming and performing. However, while group members might be able to recognize the phases or stages in some ways, they may only possess a limited awareness of the changes involved, and their implications on group dynamics. He believes that if people are able to better understand the processes surrounding group development, they will stand a better chance of enhancing the effectiveness of the group by taking certain interventions to keep the team moving forward5 7. We will now examine the four stages and the suggested interventions in greater detail:

  • Stage #1 – FORMING (the phase of orientation, testing and dependence)

    Tuckman5 says that when people initially come together in groups, their first concern will be to orientate themselves within the team. This is primarily accomplished through testing, which identifies the boundaries for both interpersonal and task behaviors. In an environment where relationships are either nonexistent, or at best, distant, individuals are more focused on their own objectives. Consequently, there is a tendency to strive for cordiality as the new team members hold their cards close to their chest while they suss out their colleagues7. People are generally unsure, suspicious and nervous, and this is entirely to be expected. However, because of the task-oriented nature of teams, individuals also understand that they would have to quickly develop certain dependency relationships with their leader and other group members5 7. Here are some measures that project managers should adopt when in the forming phase of group development:

    • Lay out the group’s purpose and objectives, and set clear and high levels of expectations. Blanchard and Johnson8, using the gaming analogy, say that performance problems sometimes arise because team members do not know where the goalposts are. Goal-setting research in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia and the Caribbean shows that people are generally predisposed to purposeful action, and performance levels tend to increase when higher goals are set because people will adjust their efforts according to the difficulty of the task assigned9. Furthermore, as the team has just been constituted and relationships and structures are tentative, the leader’s persuasion style ought to be a more affirmative one of telling and pushing7.
    • Help individuals to understand how they fit into the team. Wetlaufer10, citing Katzenbach in her article, argues that the ‘rules of the road’ must be very clear. While teams may have a good mix of skills and experience, they are new to one another. Hence, the leader must play a visible role in clarifying how team members are individually expected to contribute and work together, what they will work together on, as well as how team meetings will be conducted, among other issues10. This goes back to the orientation and dependence-building process that Tuckman5 says is characteristic of the forming phase.
  • Stage #2 – STORMING (the phase of conflict)

    The second phase, also known as storming, is characterized by the loss of systematic resolve, the heightening of differences, and the polarization around interpersonal issues, facts, goals, methods, and values. Although fighting in the physical sense is unlikely, conflict may manifest itself in the form of emotional outbursts as team members talk at, rather than talk to, one another2. It is important to understand that conflicts often develop insidiously and usually do not begin as outright disagreements. In this regard, project managers should find Schmidt and Tannenbaum’s explanation of the five stages of the ‘conflict creep’ phenomenon a useful reference2:

    • Level 1 – Anticipation Individuals are aware of the presence of issues (e.g. proposals, plans, methods, and values) that may lead to differences of opinion within the team.
    • Level 2 – Conscious but unexpressed difference Polarization occurs as members start clustering among those they trust to discuss the issues. Facts are limited and assumptions are made. Tension builds and there is a sense of an impending dispute and trouble.
    • Level 3 – Discussion As the issues are brought out for discussion and facts begin to surface, differing opinions start to emerge openly. Undercurrents can be felt in the way the questions are phrased, as well as the body language and nonverbal expressions that are used.
    • Level 4 – Open dispute Arguments and counter-arguments begin to be articulated, and any differences in opinion that have so far been obliquely expressed are now stated more clearly and directly.
    • Level 5 – Open conflict Individuals are firmly committed to their positions, and they attempt to increase the effectiveness and power of their situation while seeking to minimize that of the others.

    According to Schmidt and Tannenbaum2, the project leader’s ability to intervene and mitigate the conflict is inversely related to the progression of the stages. The earlier he or she enters the picture, the better the chances to influence the conflict situation. Some other intervention measures that could be adopted during the storming phase are:

    • Focus group efforts toward building up trust and interaction. The project leader must continue to build bridges and relationships in the team by emphasizing his or her expectations and vision of how the team should work together. A highly visible leader using the sell and consult persuasive approach may be useful here7.
    • Identify the protagonists and meet them out of the group setting. A key issue for the project manager is to establish control over the unofficial power nodes in the group and prevent the conflict from escalating beyond repair. It helps to meet the chief protagonists on an individual basis to understand their position on issues, and to solicit their identification on common goals and objectives. In the worst case, uncooperative or destructive individuals must be shipped off the team.
    • Ensure differences of any sort are directed towards the idea and not the individual. Dignity must be preserved even in the midst of critiques, or open and constructive communication will collapse11.
  • Stage #3 – NORMING (the phase of group cohesion)

    Tuckman5 says that this phase occurs when resistance is replaced by an in-group feeling, and a sense of cohesion. This is also the time when group standards and processes evolve, and new roles are adopted. Norming essentially marks the birth of the realization of the project manager’s vision for the group. As he or she continues to facilitate the development of the team, here are some measures to consider:

    • Focus on developing group processes and task interactions. Relationships at this stage are more stable but still mechanical, so project leaders should focus on encouraging the team members away from an individualistic approach to problem-solving, and into a cross-functional approach. Wetlaufer10 believes this is critical in jarring people out of their individual or compartmentalized loyalties, and to develop a team-based big picture perspective. In other words, the leader needs to facilitate the building of partnerships in the team.
    • Soften up on direct leading and allow team interaction to blossom. To facilitate the team’s growth as a cohesive entity, and to move away from the single-leader approach, the project manager should adopt a light-touch approach towards leading if the group dynamics permit it. In addition, he or she should also take up a back-stage, advisory role instead7.
  • Stage #4 – PERFORMING (the phase of functional role-relatedness)

    This is the phase where roles become flexible and functional, and group energy is channeled into task completion5. The performing team is now a truly purpose-driven unit where members derive satisfaction from working together to overcome the challenges at hand. Here are some issues for team leaders to consider as they continue to fine-tune their unit towards higher performances:

    • Focus on team self-development and individual renewal. This calls for a continued departure from the single-leader approach, and towards the situation where group leadership is dependent on the individual who is in the best portion to ensure performance10. The project leader should adopt a coaching role and provide his or her team members with help by the sidelines. The persuasive style should be one of close observation and support7.
    • Develop the dynamic grouping of the team. As with the norming phase of development, project leaders should continue to encourage and emphasize cross-functional problem-solving approaches7. The principle here is the progressive integration of job enrichment opportunities into the tasks to expand on the challenges faced. This serves to drive the intrinsic motivation of individuals who demonstrate high levels of ability, and who desire to stretch their own limits and potential12. This is a channel to improve the efficiency of the team, as well as to edge the team into a high-performing mode.

Edison’s expansion of the Tuckman Model

Dr Tom Edison, in his article The Team development Life Cycle: A New Look published in the May-June 2008 edition of the Defense AT&L Journal6, argues for the need to look beyond the performing stage of the traditional Tuckman model. It is important to understand the dysfunctional phases that teams may encounter, he says, in order to institute the necessary measures to keep the team at high-performing levels. Edison’s thesis is that while the Tuckman model provides a general understanding of group development, teams may not always follow the four stages of growth. In addition, it may also give the erroneous impression that teams will end at the performing stage.

Edison6 labels Tuckman’s four-stages as the functional side of the coin, and develops his insights by bringing in the informing, conforming and deforming stages – the latter two which he terms as the dysfunctional phases for teams. If the four-step process of the Tuckman model is viewed as a linear journey, the three new phases shall be added to the original model as follows:

  • Stage # 5 – INFORMING (the calm before the storm)

    Edison6 calls the informing phase the proverbial mid-point of the group development journey. This is where the organization recognizes the achievements of the project team and gets it to document and inform others about its results, processes and conclusions. Citing a 2002 research by Dr Owen Gadeken, he says that the informing phase is still part of the functional stage of group development as the organization tries to, as part of knowledge management, capture the processes and lessons learned by the project team to enable its replication by other groups. However, the informing stage is also the tipping point before a successful team begins its decline, so here are some issues that project managers should consider:

    • Realize the impending danger of team dysfunction. This point needs little elaboration. Once project managers are made aware that the informing stage is also the precursor of the more dysfunctional states, they need to avoid lapsing into complacency. On the contrary, they must be acutely sensitive to the existing state of development of their teams, and what is needed to progress.
    • Continue reviewing the team set-up and consider new blood. The team’s composition must be continually examined to ensure that it has the right level of resources to survive and function. I would argue that the two main challenges for the project manager are: (1) the addition of new blood that may disrupt group stability, and (2) the prospect of dismantling what appears to be a successful set-up. There is no simple solution, but it does seem that unless there is an artificial yet constructive ‘destabilization’ of the seasoned team into jumping the curve and recreating new phases of storming and norming (what Edison6 calls the transformation process), the team and its stable of old guards may just slip into the first state of decline that is characterized by groupthink.
  • Stage #6 – CONFORMING (the start of the slip)

    The manifestation of groupthink is really the first clear sign that the team is heading downhill. The desire to conform threatens the team by subverting creativity, originality and innovation, according to Edison6. He says about the stage of conformity, ‘members have begun to think alike, and any of the unique yet appropriate ideas… from the team are lost or decreased because the team members are beginning to develop the characteristics of groupthink.’ The danger, as Drohn13 and Hamilton14 explain, is that sometimes, even experts may end up reinforcing each other’s ideas and opinions due to the phenomena of self-censorship, mind guarding, and the illusion of unanimity, for example. Hamilton14 makes some suggestions to counter groupthink that team leaders should consider as intervention when faced with conformity:

    • Have outside voices with opinions different from that of the team. This suggestion of bringing outside experts into the group decision-making process to provide an alternative opinion actually validates the earlier measure discussed at the informing stage, which calls for the injection of new blood into the team to add new perspectives to the group dynamics. Edison6 describes this as the addition of more activation energy to energize the team.
    • Rotate the leadership of meetings. The incumbent project managers should consider deliberately missing some meeting sessions, and to rotate the chairmanship to allow different members to lead and facilitate instead. This is primarily because their presence may be doing harm by inadvertently dominating the team processes14. To add to this, I think that it is also necessary to critically review the quality of the decisions made in the leader’s absence to test for signs of groupthink. Otherwise, conformity if unchecked will lead to the team’s deformation, which is the next and final stage we will review.
  • Stage #7 – DEFORMING (the deforming phase: the team in peril)

    According to Edison6, when the team is caught in the mire of conformity, it will essentially start to decay as a functional unit. As more and more team members gradually lose the sense of gratification and motivation that initially characterized the group in the norming and performing stages, they may start to miss team meetings or even pull out altogether. The team in the deforming stage is devoid of spark, life and effectiveness. Theoretically, the intervention measures discussed in the previous two phases may still be applied to try and transform the team, but in reality, Edison6 says that any effort by this stage could be futile as the team may well be past the point of no recovery.

Conclusion

For a long time, Tuckman’s four-stage model has been the basis for understanding the main phases of group development. However, stopping at the performing phase is apparently insufficient. To have the true picture, teams also need to consider the perils and implications of the dysfunctional stages, where they may lapse into conformity due to groupthink, and eventually head towards deformation and disbandment. I do hope that through this exposition of the thoughts of Tuckman, Edison, and other works that have been covered in this paper, project managers and team leaders may acquire a clearer understanding of the complete cycle of group development. Furthermore, the insights should hopefully provide them with a means to assess the stage of growth (or decline) that their group may be at, and to take the appropriate steps to support or even transform their teams into high-performing units.

References

1Perrin R. Introduction. In: Real World Project Management. New Jersey, John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2007. p. 1-2.
2Schmidt WH. Tannenbaum R. Management of differences. In: Ideas with impact: Harvard business review on negotiation and conflict resolution. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1960. p. 1-3.
3Kemp S. Chapter 3: Six keys to project success. In: Project management demystified – A self-teaching guide. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc, 2004. p. 43-48.
4Punk JS. Survey identifies key challenges to successful project management. In: ESI International.
5Smith MK. Bruce W. Tuckman – forming, storming, norming and performing in groups. In: The encyclopaedia of informal education.
6Edison T. The team development cycle: A new look. In: Defense AT&L.
7Team technology. Leadership: Using the Tuckman model. In: Teamtechnology.c o.uk. – Publishers of quality online articles and resources.
8Blanchard K. Johnson S. (2003). One minute manager. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc, 2003. p. 66.
9Locke EA. Latham GP. Chapter 2 – Goal setting theory. In: H. F. O’Neil, Jr & M. Drillings (Eds.), Motivation theory and research. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1994. p. 17.
10Wetlaufer S. The team that wasn’t. In: Ideas with impact: Harvard business review on negotiation and conflict resolution. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1994. pp. 37-38.
11Mai R. Akerson A. Chapter 5 – Trust builder. In: The leader as communicator. Notes provided by Dr Weiler for references purposes during the 11 Sep 2008 Strategic Communication class, 2003. p.78.
12NetMBA.com. Herzberg’s motivation-hygiene theory (two-factor theory). In: NetMBA – Business knowledge center.
13Drohn J. The dangers of group think.
14Hamilton C. Chapter 9 – Small-group communication and problem-solving. In: Communicating for results – A guide for business and the professions (7th ed.) United States of America: Thomson learning, Inc, 2005. p. 212-213.

Daniel Seet is a member of the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF), a public emergency response agency that provides 24hrs fire fighting, rescue, hazardous materials mitigation and emergency ambulance services in the island republic. Having been with the SCDF for close to 10 years, Daniel has seen tour of duties with two fire stations, as well as served as a media relations officer in the agency’s public affairs department. As part of his career development, Daniel is currently pursuing his graduate degree in Communication Management with Emerson College in Boston. Broadly, his interests include the study of management and leadership – and their interplay in the discipline of project management – as well as crisis communication, public affairs and the impact of new and emerging online social media on public communication practices and policies.

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