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Understanding project team dynamics

Danielle Annells
February 13, 2014

Projects happen all over the place. All the time. Formally, or informally. Large or small. With project managers who have huge accountability for the outcome, or very little.

A collection of people are asked to contribute work on the project based on their job role, their stake in the project outcome or a mandate. Or they may volunteer to be part of it based on passion or necessity. A team comes together. Or does it?

What is a team?

What is a team, or group? Is it simply a collection of individuals or is it actually something else? In the work that I do, I often hear people joke to one another “there’s no ‘I’ in team” and everyone giggles. That’s because I am often facilitating sessions that focus on the relationship-building aspects of people’s work, when departments take time out to do strategic planning. for example.

It’s at times like these that we may stop and think about team dynamics and our part in it. But this is often the only time we really stop and consciously think about it.

Most of the time we attend project meetings, focus on getting clarity about the tasks to be done, go away and do the tasks, then come back and report on our progress. And we call ourselves a project team. We may giggle that there’s no ‘I’ in team and all nod as if we get it—“of course there isn’t.” But aren’t we just a collection of individuals trying to co-operate for an outcome?

What would it really be like if there was no ‘I’ in team? If ‘I’ disappears, then all the things ‘I’ want disappears too. What we have instead is what the ‘team’, or the ‘we’, wants.

Looking at it from this frame, the way to act in a group is:

  • To give space for equal contribution from each member of the team, which means an evenness in conversational turn-taking.
  • To be unattached to wanting my way in the decisions being made in favour of the way the group sees it.
  • To acknowledge that the group can only be as strong as the weakest link in the chain, thus don’t be a weak link and help those who need it!
  • Not to seek individual recognition for success, nor receive individual blame for failures.
  • To realise that collective intelligence is more intelligent that the knowledge of any one individual (i.e. me), thus even if I am the expert on the subject, I will not make as wise a decision as the group.
  • Even if I am the project manager, all of the above includes me.

For a high-performing project you need a high-performing project team. Thus from the outset of a project, when a group comes together, it is worthwhile to bring attention to what it will take for the group to act as a team, and evaluate it consciously at regular intervals in the project’s life, that is, in all the stages of forming, storming, norming and performing.

In truth, this may be a little out of the comfort zone for some of us as project managers and project participants.

Team-first thinking

It is important to recognise that moving from an ‘I’ to a ‘we’ may require significant behaviour change for some people and each of us have different skill levels in the relationship-oriented aspects of work (or emotional intelligence). You may also be in a working environment where being competitive and standing out is rewarded. It’s difficult to build a true team in this situation.

However, since the group will only be as strong in this regard as the weakest link – being aware of these limitations, building shared understanding of the importance and planning to support your team members, may help you to overcome some of the inevitable difficulties that can occur.

The alternative? Working with a T-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-M. A group that takes a lot of time to do things and takes much more energy to manage than a TEAM that has no I. A team full of individuals tends to take longer to make decisions, can be inefficient due to the difficulties in co-ordinating efforts, have more communication break downs, and a lack of shared vision and focus to keep momentum on deliverables.

In a team I just described it is very difficult for anyone to really be at their best. High-performing teams however, have the ability to tap into the best of the individual because the environment allows people to contribute the best of what they have to offer. Individuals perform beyond what they would expect of themselves. Somehow the ‘we’ brings out the best in ‘me’. Being a real team player is actually a paradox!

I believe conscious attention to team dynamics can set a project up for success, regardless of its scale, and give you the opportunity to develop the kind of strong working relationships that bring fulfilment for all involved, alongside ultimate project outcomes. And in the long run, it will save you time.

As a final thought, I encourage you to ask yourself, how much time do I currently devote to enhancing team dynamics as a percentage of my project management practice? Could making more time for this make me a better project manager?

Danielle Annells
Danielle Annells is a senior consultant at Twyfords specialising in supporting organisations to collaborate with their internal and external stakeholders around complex issues. Twyfords’ Collaborative Governance model underpins her work and provides a pathway for the co-creation of innovative and enduring solutions. She works across a wide range of industries and issues providing strategic advice, process design, facilitation and the delivery of capacity and skill building programs.
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