Many project managers feel that they have no power to change the organizational culture and projects and therefore cannot achieve success when they are challenged with a toxic or negative environment. While it is a daunting task, project managers can not only overcome this hurdle but actually achieve a positive culture capable of supporting high performing work teams that exceed expectations and deliver outstanding results.
Project Managers the world over complain that projects exist within corporate environments, cultures that permeate every initiative and staff member of the project. They regularly state that they cannot change the organization, its culture and the impact the organization has had on its staff (the team members). So how can a Project Manager set up a team that has a unique culture, value and ethics system when it operates within a larger environment? How can they create a High Performing Team (HPT) when the corporate culture works against this?
Corporations, government agencies and non-profits have and are making the commitment more and more towards project oriented work. They are starting to value the project team and the ability of a group of people focused on achieving a single objective achieving more than individuals can on their own. While project failure continues to be an issue, standards and processes provide a great deal of input into the potential for success. The Project Management Institute (PMI) offers a process that assists in generating repeatable project success, but management and process are simply not enough to ensure success.
Organizational environments range on a spectrum of toxicity to healthy. A culture can be toxic with standard behavior including backstabbing, hostility, personal abuse, and management support of negativity, or they can be extremely healthy promoting positive reinforcement, communication and conflict resolution. As such, each organization has challenges that work against the achievement of project and program success.
Project Managers have neither the power, nor the responsibility to change the organizational culture. Their job is to build a team and create a unique product, service or result with limited resources mostly consisting of staff that has been influenced (positively or negatively) by their past experiences with the company. A PM can follow processes but the mechanics alone do not explain how to.com build an innovative, empowered, self-managed high performing project team in a toxic organization.
The sheer formation of a project team creates a new environment with all the potential in the world. The environment consists of new relationships, processes, goals, objectives, and potential. I call this environment a “Project Bubble”. This bubble is formed not by management effort, or process or directive. Instead it is created because it is a unique situation with many unknowns. Team members are unsure of what the team will be, how it will work, what interrelationships will be formed and how communications will be handled.
We recognize the team formation process and opportunity through Tuckerman’s Stages of Team Development (1965)
This team development process is repeatable regardless of organizational health, projects, operational initiatives or committee creation. Teams go through this process both consciously and unconsciously but the pattern is repeatable and recognizable. The simple process of creating a team of unique resources creates a blank canvas where unknowns exist:
- How will this be managed? Micro-managed? Loosely controlled? Chaotic/unplanned?
- How will risks be handled?
- Will I have input into the approach or will we have to follow a plan I don’t believe in?
- Does my opinion matter?
- What if I don’t agree with the vision?
- Who get’s credit for success? Blame for failure?
- What will my role be?
- Who is this PM and if I don’t work for them, why should I listen?
Each team member will come to the kick-off or initial team meeting with these questions permeating their thoughts. It is at this forming (initiating) stage that a leader has the greatest potential to influence the team. Forming is where process is identified, communication channels are created, conflict resolution strategies developed and team environment is initiated.
A leader recognizes this process and leverages the forming as an opportunity to influence the team in a positive and healthy direction. They define a project vision, set standards for the team interaction, outline the management strategy, recognize the challenges, and define their commitment in supporting the team.
Left to it’s own means, the team members will fall back on the organizational environment, processes, resentments, feelings of helplessness, communication patterns, and conflict approaches. But a leader has an opportunity to influence the team with a focus on:
- Open communication
- Risk tolerance
Of course team members may assume the worst, but the unknown provides a unique opportunity for the PM. This is an opportunity that can either be welcomed, or ignored. It is at this point that Leadership has its greatest opportunity. A leader can take this moment of unknown and undecided as an opportunity to create something new, or allow it to pass and focus on the process of PMI. This is a crucial point for the team and the effort.
It is important to note that while teams progress through the forming, storming, norming phase it is not a guarantee that they will achieve performing, or even high-performing standards. As a matter of fact, it is more the exception than the norm that team growth stops at the norming and does not push into the next stages.
Leadership is crucial to team development and without a conscious and invested leader, teams can often stagnate at the norming phase. A leader leverages tools like empowerment, rewards/recognition, communication channels, and vision to drive the team forward to the next stages and achieve the performing stage.
Tom Edison (2008) suggests that Tuckerman’s team development can actually be extended to include High Performing as a team stage after performing and to achieve this, a leader must invest in the team and facilitate the growth of the team to drive forward towards a more challenging and rewarding level of interaction.
High performing teams demonstrate a level of achievement and progress that individuals and normal teams cannot achieve. They are generally self-managed, intrinsically motivated, have clear roles and responsibilities and are recognizable by their supportive and healthy relationship with team members. A high performing team outperforms others because they have a clear understanding of what the vision of the effort is, who is responsible for that vision, an ability to achieve decision-making as a team as well as a defined path for escalation of issues when necessary.
While leadership is critical in driving a team to achieve a high-performing stage, the objective of a leader is to allow the team to progress on their own once this stage is achieved. The leader can do more harm than good intervening and attempting to manage the team when the progress and tasks are clearly understood by all. Instead, it is a leaders role to support the team running interference with outside influences, protecting the team culture and environment, and communicating the team success on a regular and consistent basis.
Edison also points out that once a team has achieved a high performing state, there are tremendous risks it faces without a strong leader. Over time, the team can start to hit dysfunctional behavior and decompose when the accomplishments are not recognized or as the vision is not extended. Edison adds a stage in the team development cycle for “informing”. Informing requires a transformational leader is critical to maintaing the team through external support, recognition of accomplishments, communication of achievements and a constant update and communication of the vision for the effort. The informing stage ensure that teams are valued for their contribution and continue to demonstrate the highest level of commitment to the effort. Informing ensures that the recognition from the organization enforces the value of the high performing efforts and helps to prevent a dysfunctional deterioration for the team as a whole.
So, while a Project Manager cannot change the organizational culture, the opportunity for creating a project team culture is a valuable one. Project Manager’s recognize the project bubble that is formed and work to build that bubble to a positive, healthy and supportive culture, even while it may exist within a toxic environment. The strength and duration of the project bubble is one that the leader is responsible for. Rather than assuming that the organizational culture is too strong to change, a successful project leader will leverage a project bubble to create an environment dedicated to success and the growth of the team. They will then assume the leadership necessary to drive the team development through each stage pushing towards high performing and once achieved, maintaining that level with informing through recognition, communication, and support.