After 30 years of working closely with over a hundred dysfunctional project teams, I have discovered some common patterns.

On a positive note, the project teams that I see are made up of honest, hardworking, talented professionals.

They have good intentions and want their projects to succeed.

Some teams consist of professionals working full time on a project assignment, while others are part time, squeezing the work in between their regular job duties.

In either case, many teams share a common set of challenges that cause them to implode or under-perform. In this blog, we will explore the causes of their trials.

Challenge One:  Lack of direction

lack of directionMost project teams lack the discipline to pause and invest some time in clearly articulating and defining a common understanding about what the team is trying to achieve.

Each member has his or her own point of view, and sometimes the project team’s collective view is not in line with its sponsors’ expectations and intent. There is often a lot of excitement about getting started, and setting a clear direction becomes an afterthought.

Years ago, CMOE coined the term “task magnet.” What this phrase means is that the team is so anxious to get started that they “fire” before they’ve gotten ready and aimed for the right target.

Because they are overly eager to begin, these high achievers feel that they are adding value but often end up missing key objectives because they start too soon.

Challenge Two: Lack of familiarity

Project teams are usually made up of individuals who have very low awareness or familiarity with each other. This even occurs on teams comprised of members from the same department.

chemistryThis exact scenario happened recently with an IT group in Denver. Everyone assumed that because they came from the same division, people would know and understand each other.

Sadly, they didn’t.

The members of the project team had different educational backgrounds (some academic and some with hands-on experience but no formal training); some were from the United States and some were from India, the Middle East, and Europe; some had been with the company five years and some, less than one.

As simplistic as it sounds, this team failed to make a connection because they didn’t understand each other’s working style, individual hopes for this project, preferences about how to go about completing the work, and what they needed from each other.

As a consequence, this team had a lot of unnecessary conflict, and some members were highly disengaged because there was no “chemistry” between team members.

Challenge Three: Lack of candid dialogue

lack of dialogueToo many team members lack the skill and courage to constructively, supportively, and courageously confront one another.

Not all team members want to go along with the prevailing thinking in the group and avoid challenging assumptions and conclusions, but many do.

They don’t want to be ostracized or excluded if they disagree or have deep questions about the team’s solutions or recommendations, so they remain silent. The team then doesn’t have the chance to capitalize on its individual members’ contributions, experience, and wisdom.

Every project-team breakthrough that I have witnessed over the years has been the result of much conflict, intense discussion, and thorough debate. But doing this well takes some skill, a little finesse, and a dose of courage.

Teams have to learn how to manage their differences and encourage people who are naturally non-confrontational to speak up. Until a project team figures out how to surface, manage, work through, and accept opposing ideas, the team is doomed to underperform.

Challenge Four: Lack of a real mechanism to maintain accountability

collective progressProject teams have a lot of meetings, but they generally shy away from creating a formal structure to maintain accountability.

Designating someone on the team to ask sometimes-uncomfortable questions and conduct a regular review of the project team’s tasks, accomplishments, and ongoing commitments can be one way to approach maintaining team accountability.

Not having some kind of accountability mechanism in place can be a problem for both the team and its individual members. Everyone on a project team needs a clear set of objectives and goals that amount to a collective set of performance targets and objectives that the project team will achieve together.

Being asked to review the individual and collective progress of the team can often be a thankless task.

Coaching your peers and being honest when they are not pulling their weight or meeting expectations can be daunting—but if someone doesn’t step up and do it, I guarantee that the project team will fail.

It is important to recognize the early-warning signals that a team is drifting off course. If you discover that your team is adrift, the next step is to provide assistance, tools, and skills to help its members avoid the four common challenges altogether or help them dig themselves free of their dilemmas.

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About the Author
Steven Stowell, Ph.D.
Dr. Steven J. Stowell is the Founder and President of the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness, Inc. CMOE was created in 1978 for the purpose of helping individuals and teams maximize their effectiveness and create strategic competitiveness. Steve’s special interests lie in helping leaders and organizations transform into high-performance cultures that are focused on long-term, sustained growth.

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