High performing teams
Developed by Tobias Hyldmo.
This article is about high performing teams. First, the article describe different types of groups and teams, and we outline what differs them from each another. Pseudo groups, traditional work groups, effective groups and high performance groups are introduced and discussed. This article especially look at the difference between the last two types of groups, how they behave compared to teams and why they are important in terms of projects, programs and portfolios.
Johnson & Johnson (2013) describe seven guidelines for effective groups. An effective group utilizes all the advantages by working together and perform better than the members would have done individually. High performing groups follow all these guidelines. In addition to this is a high performing team characterized by the high level of commitment each team member have to each other and to the success of the team. Not many teams reaches this level, as it requires a bigger effort from the team members that what can usually be expected (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.20-21).
In the end, the guidelines are put into the project management context and the article look on how the guidelines help us to get value from teams in project organisations. The guidelines are compared to existing best practice methods described in Maylor (2010) and put up against standards of managing people from Project Management Institute (2017). Finally the article critically reflects on how effective teamwork is balanced against parameters like time, cost, quality and efficiency in project management.
There are many articles about leadership in effective groups and high performing teams, but not so many from the members perspective. Although there are several point of views about good teamwork many of the criteria seem similar. This article presents the seven guidelines for effective groups from Johnson & Johnson (2013) and join them in a context of high performing teams and project management. A characteristic for this article is that the focus is on how the members together behave for contributing to a high performing team. From this point of view it is easy to argue that effective teamwork is at least as important for project, program and portfolio management (”PPPM”) as the focus on good leadership. Effective groups and high performing teams are fundamentals of successful PPPM and suits well in the peoples aspect of this profession. Wilemon & Thamhain (1983) describe it as vital to prioritize team building to increase the chance of success in projects. It is useless to talk about advanced implementations of Gantt Charts and risk management in PPPM if the teamwork is bad and the project is already doomed to fail.
This article talk about both groups and teams. For a detailed explanation of differences and similarities the author refer the reader to external resources, as this article is meant for other purposes. Descriptions and reflections about groups are relevant for teams, but not vice versa. The article is based on seven guidelines for effective groups. High performing groups follow all these guidelines (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.24). The link between effective groups and high performing teams is the extension shown in Figure 1 about teams. Hjertø (2013) argues that a characteristic of teams is that they, in addition to be a group, have high mutual dependence and high joint responsibility for the owner of the group.
Johnson & Johnson (2013) present different types of groups. An overview of different groups and their expected performance can be seen in Figure 2. A pseudo group consists of members who are assigned to work with each other, but with no interest of doing it. A traditional work group accept that they are to work together, but they do most of the work individually. Their performance is on the same level as if they would have worked individually. An effective group combine forces and work together to achieve a higher performance than they would be able to achieve individually. They do this by following the guidelines for effective teamwork presented below. At last, a high performing group excel the effective group by by the high level of commitment to the project, each other and joint success. This, together with Hjertø’s characteristics for teams, form the basis for high performing teams in this article.
The Seven Guidelines Of Effective Groups
The first guideline is to ”Establish clear, operational, and relevant group goals that create positive interdependence and evoke a high level of commitment from every member” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.24-25). Groups exist to achieve goals that individual members are not able to reach themselves. Groups need clear goals to derive synergy. Goals should be operational and relevant for the members, so the members can find out ways to achieve them and are motivated to reach them. Johnson & Johnson (2013) argue that the goal must create a positive interdependence among members.
The second guideline is to ”Establish effective two-way communication by which group members communicate their ideas and feelings accurately and clearly” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.25). Communication is key for interaction between members in groups working toward the same goal. Effective communication removes misunderstandings and promote an effective transfer and the meaning of relevant information. A basis for this is to minimize competition between members and ensure that everybody is included.
The third guideline is to ”Ensure that leadership and participation are distributed among all group members” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.25). Equal participation, equal feeling and responsibility of leadership ensures that all participants invests in the group. Johnson & Johnson (2013) argue that the feeling of commitment give a positive ripple effects so that the members feel ownership for the decisions of the group and are more satisfied with their fellowship. This equal participation bring all the skills available in the group to the table. This will also increase the cohesiveness of the group.
The fourth guideline is to ”Ensure power is distributed among group members and patterns of influence vary according to the needs of the group” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.25-26). Effective groups have the members’ power based on expertise, ability and access to information rather than authority or personal characteristics. Power from wrong sources distract the group from reaching their goals and purposes. A way to avoid this is to make sure every team member have some influence on the work. The power in a group should be dynamic.
The fifth guideline is to ”Match decision-making procedures with the needs of the situation” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.26-27). Making decisions are hard. Having a suitable procedure when doing so is important. A decision procedure needs to have a balance between time consumed and the abilities or knowledge available in the group. Different procedures may, according to Solem & Hermundsgård (2013), be a leaders decision with or without discussion, a majority decision in the group, consensus, a delegated decision or a meta-decision. Johnson & Johnson (2013) argues that consensus is the most suitable form of decision for a group as it encourages participation, equalization of power, cohesion and commitment. In addition to this will consensus promote a constructive way of dealing with disagreements and controversies.
The sixth guideline is to ”Engage in constructive controversy by disagreeing and challenging one another on conclusions and reasoning, thus promoting creative decision making and problem solving” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.27). Conflicts and topic-related controversies after presenting ideas or conclusions are beneficial for the group if the group is able to manage it. Encouragement of this kind of open-mindedness promote effective problem solving, decision making and high performance. Wheelan (2016) say that teams should embrace work related conflicts and avoid interpersonal conflicts at all cost. This distinction is important. Groups and teams that know each other well know more about where the borders between work and interpersonality for each individual member is.
The seventh and last guideline is to ”Face your conflicts and resolve them in constructive ways” (Johnson & Johnson, 2013, p.27). This guideline is about conflicts of interest in a group. Conflicts of interests may come from incompatible needs or goals, lack of resources or competitiveness. Participants in effective groups face the conflicts and use energy on solving them in a suitable manner. Constructively solved conflicts is a basis of increasing group effectiveness.
In this part the article focuses on how theory about efficient teamwork fit the PPPM scene. Although high performing teams are relevant for PPPs, we will from now on focus on their relevance for project and project management. It is hard to provide a step-by-step guide to project managers on how to implement knowledge about high performing teams directly in your project. This is because no project is similar and everything need to be adjusted to local conditions and the specific team. However, this section give suggestions on useful situations where the tool is appropriate, and it will be up to the reader to do a implementation of the guideline in their local project.
Groups and teams form a basis for working with projects, and therefore also programs and portfolios. Everybody love great teamwork. If the teamwork is bad, everything collapse with it. Teams can be found in all parts of the project organisation. All the way from the board of directors, throughout the organisation and to the workers at the bottom of the organisational structure. They come in different shapes and sizes and need to be adjusted to their environment. Knowledge about high performing teams are therefore important in the terms of PPPM.
Furthermore, groups and teams are a natural part of the work breakdown structure of a project. Most projects, due to their complexity, are divided into smaller portions of work where it is natural to create a group or a team to do the work. In this relation it is clear that individual teams that do not accomplish their task will give a negative impact or delay to the whole project. We can thereby emphasize the importance of high performing teams in projects, which is a reason for project managers to facilitate the creation of effective groups and high performing teams in their organisation.
Knowledge about high performing teams is important when managers form teams. Project managers benefit from having an understanding on how individuals behave in teams (Maylor, 2010, p.255). In this way they can put together teams with abilities to adapt to these seven guidelines. This includes having a nice balance of diversity and a nice distribution among skills and characteristics among the members, adjusted for the tasks they are assigned to.
An example of a management issue of balancing several high performing teams is matrix management and distribution of resources in an project. The reader should seek knowledge of this topic from other sources. The seven guidelines for effective groups require a lot of time, dedicated- and motivated members. These are scarce resources in a project. It is reasonable to say that the benefits of high performing teams in a project must be balanced against other concerns in the iron triangle of time, cost and quality. Project managers need knowledge about groups and teams when deciding how much time and energy each employee should be allowed to spend on different teams in projects. This is important when managers design and manage the organisational matrix and an aggregated plan of resources. This means that sometimes it is reasonable for managers to limit teams and groups to be other types of lower performing groups. Knowledge about performance in teams is therefore a nice tool to include in these kind of evaluations.
Team performance is also a focus in the standards of Project Management Institute (2017). In section 9.4 and 9.5 the focus is on how management facilitate the team to improve results through improved teamwork. Project managers use knowledge about effective teams to select the best strategies for obtaining their goals. This project manager-approach is a nice add-on to the seven guidelines. More or less, project managers try to push their team into a suitable environmental and cultural frame. This is to give the team a climate of trust. To obtain this Project Management Institute (2017) introduce tools and techniques that help facilitate this environment described in the guidelines. When the environment is good, the team is more likely to be able to focus on developing and applying the seven guidelines in their project.
Discussion and limitation
The seven guidelines for high performing teams are useful in many ways, but they are not a tool that can be used alone. This is because it only guide parts of the problem regarding team performance. For instance, it does not describe derivation of culture or motivation, only that it is important. The guidelines do not guide the reader on how the group should fulfill the guidelines through activities or phases in a project. The guidelines are intended as a guiding tool for team activity and assignments to teams, but in many situations they need additional tools to fill the missing aspects. Phases and activities have been mentioned. Learning and managing knowledge can also be included in the list of aspects missing out.
A challenge in terms of project management is the relationship between a project manager and the members. The guidelines state that power in the group should be distributed equally and come from a natural distribution within the group, and not from a hierarchy. This does not mean that managers are useless, but that managers and leaders should be aware about their position in the team and what benefits or boundaries this can put on the team.
Another issue with the guidelines is the applicability in an organisational context. Previously, the balance of the guidelines have been put against other tools like matrix management and time, cost and quality. Projects have a constant pressure on their resources. High performance teamwork takes a lot of time and may not always be the best solution for the organisation as a whole. The high performance must be weighted up against effectiveness and allocation of resources and can therefore not be seen as complete.
To summarise the concerns of the guidelines in a project management context they are now compared to project management standards. "Managing the project team requires a variety of management and leadership skills [...] to create high-performance teams. Team management involves a combination of skills with special emphasis on communication, conflict management, negotiation, and leadership" (Project Management Institute, 2017, p.346). And "Managing is a term that implies capability to direct and administer the work of others" (Maylor, 2010, p.268). In project management we need both good managers and well functioning teams. Project managers need to recognize their role in the team according to local adaptions and find a nice balance between applying their duties as project managers according to the standards from Project Management Institute (2017) and the guidelines for self management of high performing teams from Johnson & Johnson (2013).
In Johnson & Johnson (2013) the reader can have broader explanation of the seven guidelines for effective teams through research and explanations. Each of the seven guidelines have their own chapter where the focus is on the basis of the guideline and skills for applying them in practical situations. This is a brilliant way to get a better understanding for the seven guidelines as the presentation of them in this article is basic.
Maylor (2010) describes the role of groups, teams, leadership and management in projects. Chapter 11 is about designing, selecting and monitoring effective teams in appropriate situations. Maylor balances the principles of effective teams in organisations and reflects on how persons and teams should be managed in different situations to give the best result in an organisational context, not only in teams alone. This reference gives a nice edge to this article about high performing teams as it puts it in a practical context that is relevant to PPPM in a bigger picture.
Wheelan (2016) is about effective teamwork from the members perspective. It already exists a big amount of research and literature about effective leadership and management, but not so much about membership. Wheelan battles this and focuses more on how behavior of members support a high performing team. This does not exclude leaders and managers from being a part of the team, as they also can be seen as one of the team members. This source is therefore a nice extension to the guidelines presented in this article, as it has a members perspective on team performance and not only team behaviour.
Project Management Institute (2017) focus more on how management can facilitate the team to improve results through better teamwork. You can read more about PMIs standards for developing and managing teams in chapter 9.4 and 9.5. They, more or less, agree on the guidelines mentioned in this article. These standards for project managers focuses on creating environments that facilitate good teamwork. They do this by continually motivating the team by providing challenges, opportunities, timely feedback, support as needed, recognition and rewarding of good performance. This point of view gives the article on high performing teams a nice edge with the perspective from the project manager.
Beauchene & Cunningham (2020) take a look into the future of traditional management in organisations. They predict fewer middle managers and a focus centered around agile teams. Traditional management has reached a breaking point and this source look into agile management structures for organisations as a solution to these problems. This source and its further readings substantiates the growing importance of teams, and high performing teams, in a PPPM setting.
Beauchene, V. & Cunningham, M. (2020). The End of Management as We Know It. Boston Consulting Group. https://www.bcg.com/publications/2020/end-management-as-we-know-it.
Hjertø, K. B. (2013). TEAM. Fagbokforlaget, first edition.
Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2013). Joining Together. Group Theory and Group Skills. Pearson, twelfth edition.
Maylor, H. (2010). Project Management. Prentice Hall, fourth edition.
Project Management Institute (2017). Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). Project Management Institute, Inc. (PMI), sixth edition.
Solem, A. & Hermundsgård, M. (2013). Fasilitering. Gyldendal Akademisk, first edition.
Wheelan, S. A. (2016). Creating Effective Teams. A Guide for Members and Leaders. SAGE, fifth edition.
Wilemon, D. L. & Thamhain, H. J. (1983). Team building in project management. Project Management Quarterly. https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/team-building-development-project-management-5707.