How to Rapidly Build a High Performing Project Team from Diverse Organisations

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if you could consistently and reliably create high performing project teams, especially when team members come from diverse organisations, such as in the construction industry ?

This article gives a route map and action orientated tips to do just that.

This article is an update and partial re-write of an article which appeared in 'Project Management Today' in November 2008. But as human nature does not change that much in 8 years,  Jon thinks it’s still relevant !

A quick visit to Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing Stages of Group Development.

Before we jump in, let’s visit some classic research on the stages of team development from the 1950’s : Tuckman’s ‘Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing’ stages of team development which he derived from empirical research - i.e. observation - in the late 1950’s [1]. In a bit more detail, the stages are :

  • Forming :      In the forming stage, peoples’ Task focus is low. They are more concerned with finding out who’s who, seeking to know one another's attitude, background and likely role. Members are also keen to establish their own personal identities in the group and make an impression on others. They are typically being polite, but impersonal, guarded and superficial in their conversation (e.g. discussing the weather), whilst feeling some anxiety & dependence and wanting structure & leadership.
  • Storming :    In the storming stage, members come out of their shell and start competing for position and personal or organisational goals. They therefore challenge roles, objectives etc. Early relationships established in ‘forming’ may be disrupted and new sub-groups formed. As people become uncomfortable and even emotionally stressed, they may regress to what is know as self-orientated behaviour: withdrawing or opting out (the flight response) or being noisy, rebellious and confronting (the fight response). In multi-organisational project environments, such as construction, the most obvious sub-group to revert back to is that of your employing organisation with the contract, commercial power etc. being used as weapons in this ‘fight’.
  • Norming :        The group starts to achieve consensus, or at the very least imposed agreement, on the objectives, roles and responsibilities, processes, norms of behaviour, how the Task is to be achieved etc. These start to bed in as ways of working – i.e. a culture starts to develop. This might be bad or good. If ‘bad’, the group may never evolve into a ‘performing’ team. If ‘good’, individuals start to be more open & honest and listen better. As a result, issues, as opposed to individuals, are confronted and addressed.
  • Performing : In the performing stage, the group is now a team with its main focus and energy being on the Task. Words that describe a high performing team would include task/achievement focused; energetic, effective and flexible in moving towards those goals; close, supportive and interdependent as a team; and aware and accepting of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses. Humour and fun are also likely to be evident and there would be a ‘buzz’, both for those working within the team and for those who come into contact with it.

Here are some observations on Tuckman’s model :

  1. The phases of team development often evolve and merge into the next, rather than there being clear delineation.
  2. It not unknown for groups to get stuck in a stage. I personally have come across teams who, in my opinion, have thought of partnering or collaborative working as the end, not the means. Consequently, they have not addressed any of the hard issues and got stuck in the forming stage i.e. being nice to each other, whilst achieving very little.
  3. Teams can revert back a stage or two when something changes. For example, a new team member may move the team back into a mini-‘Forming’ stage. Entering a new phase of the project may push it back into a ‘Storming’ phase while objectives and how to approach the Task are re-visited e.g. moving from a design phase into a construction phase. The key aspects of the model and this reverting back are illustrated to the right.
  4. The model was derived from observation. Is it still relevant today ? Despite the advances in technology etc. I believe it still is as basic human psychology does not change that much in 50 years, but reflect for a few moments on your personal experience.
  5. The model is based on research for when a team’s development was NOT managed. Think about this for a few moments : how could you manage a team’s development through these phases more rapidly to create a very high performing team ?

“Give me a high performing team”

A typical consultant’s response, when asked to do ‘something’ with a team to make them get on better and perform, has been to run team-building events, often involving some sort of psychometrics e.g. Belbin and/or do team based games from which team working lessons can be drawn and hopefully applied within the team. For the former, there is apparently no evidence that they work [2] and for the latter, the lessons learnt are often a combination of the ‘bleeding obvious’ and being too abstract to have any relevance to the team. But they are fun and give you a warm fuzzy feeling for a bit of time !

What’s happening under the bonnet ?

Look back at the description of the Forming stage. What are people trying to do? They are trying to get to know about each other and where they stand in the hierarchy.

Look back at the Storming phase. What is happening? Participants are competing for position and personal or organisational goals, roles and means to an end.

Could it be that if we consciously and deliberately helped a team evolve through these stages, they would get through them faster and into the performing stage not just more quickly, but also to become a more effective team ?

While it fluctuates depending on the fashion for workshops (demand) and my interest in providing them (supply), a reasonable part of my business has been facilitating workshops for project teams. This includes helping build high performance teams at the start of a project.  And as one client said “We don’t know how you do it, but we always seem to work better together after we’ve had a day with you”. 

So what structure do I follow in managing people through the phases of team development which you can use too ?

A structure for rapidly building high performing project teams

Forming: namely getting people to meet and greet each other, in terms of name, high level job description and expected role in the project, involvement so far in the project, an interests outside of work etc.. In essence, getting people to start opening up to each other about themselves. A little bit of candour begets a little more candour and the snowball starts to roll. As a facilitator, in this phase, I will be quite directive as people want someone to take the lead.

Rather than have Storming Phase, I have an Orientating stage [3]. By this, I mean I start orientating people to the Task by establishing a common understanding of where the project is now and where it has come from. Normally this consists of a series of five to 10 minute presentations by key people from the different organisations, plus question and answer sessions outlining why the project is being done, their drivers and objectives for participating in the project, why this solution has been selected, and key constraints and challenges, risks, unresolved issues etc..

I might mix this up by getting all participants to come up with “one thing that, from your job’s perspective, everybody in the project team should know about &/or appreciate, but probably doesn’t yet”. In other words, I am trying to get all unknown or assumed objectives, constraints, knowledge etc out and on the table so there are no hidden agendas, whether deliberate or otherwise. Notice a theme of increasing candour ?

Interesting things can come out in this phase : for instance in one workshop it came out that the driver for completing the project to time was the availability of funding, not a physical event. This then drove a joint strategy to not just complete the works to this deadline, but have all financials agreed within a month of Completion.

We now move into the Creating stage. Research suggests that the number one characteristic of a high performing team is – unsurprisingly - clear and focussed objectives [2]. So when people come from diverse organisations with different drivers, it’s not surprising that there are misunderstandings and mis-alignment over objectives. So almost certainly the most important thing to do in this phase is to create a charter of SMART [4] objectives that everybody can buy into and focus on for inclusion in a project charter. By a 'Project Charter', I do not mean  a statement of high level 'feel good' words often seen in partnering charters of old. I mean the sort in the USA's Project Management Institute literature which is summary document of key information about the project.

On the basis that if you aim for the stars, you might hit the moon – and I choose to believe that most people want to do an excellent job as opposed to just an OK one - these objectives are supported by OK and stretch measures which can be tracked as the project progresses. I also ask individuals to state upfront what it is they want from the project and, if there is a common thread, to include these in the charter.

Continuing the theme of getting a common view and understanding of the project, I will probably get the whole team to review any existing risk register, generate new and emerging threats / issues and opportunities and prioritise them (in a quick and dirty way). From this, key strategies/critical success factors or important issues emerge for the team to work on in the next phase.

A natural follow on from this is to ask the team how they want to and need to work together as a team. The initial responses are at high level ‘Values’ level e.g. collaborate, trust etc.. A difference, I think, between me and many other facilitators is that I really try to drive these high level Values down to a tangible description that I – and more importantly the participants – can see and hear. This includes how they are organised e.g. office layout & meetings that they will have; the systems they will use; agendas for those meetings as well as the ‘see’ and ‘hear’ behaviours. For example, if ‘honest and early communication of problems’ is a Value, I ask what formal mechanisms they will put in place to embed it as part of the project culture. Whatever 'Values' are chosen, part of embedding them is measuring them as the project progresses.

In the Norming Stage, I ask the team (for they are now becoming a team) to work together in groups of people from the various organisations to flesh out the key strategies and Action Plan out exactly how they are going make them happen. While some of the strategies identified by the team will be task related to the - e.g. a technical or engineering risk, they are mainly about establishing the people, systems and organisation as well as the behavioural protocols for working together so that the team are not consistently ‘storming’ over the same points. For instance, agreeing the who, what, when and how for agreeing the monthly financial evaluation, programming submission etc.

By now, as a facilitator I begin to fade into the background with the team now taking charge of the process. Often they ask for the second most important attribute of a high performing team [2]: known roles and responsibilities in much more detail than their ‘headline’ job title and I will fit in an exercise around this.

The day is then finished off with a report back on the actions, and a quick review of the project charter which encapsulates the project objectives, the values and key strategies for delivering the project.

Performing and Sustaining : The performing stage hopefully happens outside the workshop. Think about it : isn’t it far more likely to happen if you have consciously covered the 20% of things that make 80% of the difference  to a team’s performance ?

But, as a project manager probably with a strong task focus, remember that an exclusive focus on the task whilst ignoring relationships, people, systems and organisations – the enablers for the task to progress – means that ultimately the task will suffer. You therefore need the team to have ‘time-outs’ to build relationships, improve systems, quality of interactions etc.. These can be social events, improvement forums etc. As a project moves from one phase to another, I suggest you re-cycle through the process.

Summary so far

In reality, more forming, orientating, creating and norming will carry on both outside the workshop and informally. There will also be some storming as it is a natural part of team development.

What I, as a facilitator, am trying to achieve is that 20% exchange of information and resolution of differences that make 80% of the difference in terms of the team’s ultimate performance. This enables the team to be open and receptive to covering the remainder. Then they naturally and rapidly evolve into the Performing stage of team development and a high performing one at that. However, you don't need me there ...

Key Actions to Help Rapidly Build A High Performing Team

Here are some actions for the senior people to take at the start of a project :

  1. In the 'Forming' stage, force people to talk to new people and find out about each other, even if it is small talk e.g. name, organisation, job description, to reveal something outside of work.
  2. In the 'Orientating' stage, get people on the same page about the projects history and where it has come from : what is the need, how has it evolved to its present state, and for all the participating organisations : what do they want and need from the project for it to be successfull, what are their key constraints and what, from their different perspectives, are the key challenges and risks.
  3. For the 'Creating' stage, get participants to work in multi-party groups to amalgamate the wants and needs of the different parties into SMART statements of key objectives for the project. Identify the key strategies / critical success factors (csf's) that will lead to these objectives being achieved : think people, systems & organisation as well as behaviours & protocols. 
  4. For the 'Norming' Phase, get people to plan out the implementation of these key strategies / csf's and then give them time to get them up and running as opposed to diving straight into the Task.
  5. In the 'Performing & Sustaining' Phase, remember to sustain : take time outs from the Task to recognise and improve what is working and what could be working better.

[1] Tuckman B (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological bulletin, 63, 384-399.

[2] Hackman J R (2002), Leading Teams : Setting the stage for great team performances, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, USA. ISBN 1-577851-333-2

[3] The phrase is taken from Blanchard K, Carew D & Parise-Carew E (1996), The One Minute Manager builds high performing teams, Harper Collins Business. ISBN 0 00 710580

[4] There are numerous variations on what the SMART acronym stands for : I like 'Specific; Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Trackable'.

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