Team Culture on Your Project Team

The Team Culture on your project affects the team’s productivity, work attitudes and overall commitment to the project. It is affected by you as the project manager as well as the larger organizational culture. The key question is how does a leader affect the culture in positive ways and extinguish any negative aspects?   Project Teams Main Pageteam culture

Most of us in the workforce would agree that there is something we call “Team Culture” although we might not agree on what that means or whether a culture can be changed. But most of us would agree that the culture of a team is a major determinant of its potential for success. Managing a team takes dedication and skill, and there are lots of documented techniques and best practices that can be applied to doing it well. But if your Team Culture is working against you, you ignore it at your own peril.

What is Team Culture?

The concept of Team Culture has no accepted definition, it isn’t quantifiable, and it can’t be “found” anywhere in an organization. But it is nevertheless a powerful force in an organization. Briefly, an organization’s culture is the sum of its members’ attitudes, perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors. It is expressed by members as “how things are.” That shared culture runs deep and it can be a key influence on what an organization can achieve. If your Team Culture is great, then you should expend a fair amount of energy sustaining it. If it is poor or even destructive, you must make turning it around one of your top priorities. If you’re successful in improving a poor culture, it could even have a multiplier effect, reducing or eliminating other issues along the way.
The impact that culture can have on a team is most clear at the ends of the culture spectrum, and perhaps you’ve seen it (I have…more on that in a moment). A company or team with poor morale, a sense of hopelessness, poor leadership, lack of vision, low commitment, or similar collective attitudes has very little chance of achieving success. On the other hand, a company or team with an eager, positive, “we can do it” attitude tend to be creative, nimble, cooperative and highly successful. Companies like Southwest Airlines, Apple, Google, and even small startups seem to always have that special advantage over their competition and they work very, very hard to feed it.

Can You Change  Team Culture?

Yes, culture can change, but the process is slow and is accomplished through influence, never by decree. “The beatings will continue until morale improves!” is not the answer. But, I’ve too often seen well-intentioned leaders believe that just implementing a few cosmetic changes can turn the tide. If it is your intention (or possibly your task) to turn around your organization’s culture so that it doesn’t hold you back, you have a real challenge on your hands. But here are some ideas for you to think about and that may help you develop your strategy.

Factors Influencing Team Culture

First, you must try to understand the factors that are driving the negative Team Culture. Here are some common factors:

  • poor support for people (benefits, work hours, work environment, obstructive policies, etc.)
  • poor leadership (mismanagement, lack of vision, unclear direction, etc.)
  • intra-organizational competition (people/units working against each other to further their own goals)
  • poor communication (infrequent, incomplete, incorrect or confusing).

You can gain insight into the Team Culture through face-to-face meetings, trusted contacts in the organization, surveys, or whatever works for you. These help you get a sense of the Team Culture and what is driving it. The more tangible those drivers are, the easier it will be for you to define solutions. Make sure you are identifying the root causes and not just the symptoms.
Then, define your Team Culture vision and communicate it often. Identify who the key stakeholders are for your new vision, get them on board, and then use them to reinforce your message and intent. Begin to implement meaningful changes—changes that are significant and that target sources of discontent. You may not have the power to change everything contributing to a negative Team Culture. But the fact that you are trying establishes the right perception and should begin to influence employees’ attitudes.

You must be sincere in your efforts and use some of these proven tools of long-term persuasion:

  • enlistment of key personnel to your cause
  • appropriate actions
  • effective communications
  • believing in your vision
  • reinforcing and celebrating “right behaviors.”

You must be patient. Changing an organization’s culture can be like turning the Titanic.

Team Culture Example

Here’s a case in point. In a fine military unit early in my career, the newly installed Commander clearly communicated his only goal: his own promotion. To achieve his vision, he needed a sparkling facility, immaculate uniforms, operational performance, and an appearance of good discipline and order. He set about accomplishing all that by disregarding all major tenets of leadership, dictating self-serving work requirements and policies, refusing to delegate authority, and using his people as tools to accomplish his singular objective. In a word, our culture tanked practically overnight. But surprisingly, from this disastrous situation there emerged a number of outstanding second-tier leaders who sympathized with the rest of us “subjects of the realm.” And THEY were able to motivate the members of this unit to accomplish all the boss’s goals; not for him, but for us. Incredibly, the unit’s culture began to shift toward collaboration, shared vision, camaraderie and mutual support  and it was all forged by these capable junior leaders. Our vision? Be so successful that the boss gets promoted out of the unit in record time. In six months, we’d done it. And, significantly, only the negative layer of our new culture left with him. The great sense of common purpose and optimism created by our junior leaders persisted, making this fighter squadron eventually one of the best I ever served in.

What is Scope Creep?

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

What is scope creep? It is a parasite which, if the project manager and sponsor let it flourish, busts budgets and overruns schedules. It doesn’t attack the project once, it attacks dozens or hundreds of times. In each of these attacks, a good idea is added to the project that increases the amount of work to be done as well as the deliverables that must be produced.  However, the approved schedule and budget are not increased to accommodate these additions. Every individual scope creep attack seems innocent but it is not.   Scope Control

What is Scope Creep?: A Good Idea to Add to the Project

Let’s look at a common situation. A project stakeholder says, “Hey there, project manager. I think it would be a good idea if we added foreign language training to the class we’re going to give our customer service reps. I was thinking Laotian and Vietnamese; a lot of customers speak those languages.”

Now the project manager can go one of two ways. First, she might say, “Well that is a good idea. But it’s not in the budget and the customer service reps don’t need those language skills to hit our project’s scope. I’ll write up an analysis of the additional cost of that language training and how much it will delay our completion date. I’ll be happy to go over it with you before we go talk to the project sponsor. But to be honest, I’m going to recommend that the sponsor not approve that addition. The schedule and budget are very tight so there’s just no room.”

That approach often works and the stakeholder says, “Okay forget about it”

What is Scope Creep When There’s No Crystal-Clear Scope?

The project manager is stuck if there is not a good scope definition. She says, “No we can’t make any changes to the project at this point. It’s just too late. It’s a good idea but I’m sorry.”

The stakeholder says, “Oh I’m sure you can squeeze it in. You’ve got all these people working on the project.”

The project manager replies, “I’m sorry but I can’t. The schedule is just too tight.”

The stakeholder scoffs at the project manager and says, “All right, I’ll just go see your boss. He obviously has a better perspective on things than you do.”

If the project sponsor reacts in the customary way, he will tell the project manager, “Oh come on, you’ve got plenty of slack in the schedule. Go ahead and add it. We need to keep the stakeholders happy.”

How Does Scope Creep Begin?

The project manager adds the foreign language training to the project but, most importantly, doesn’t receive any approval for finishing later than planned or spending more budget than originally approved. Without some support from the project sponsor, it’s unlikely that the project manager will continue to battle with the stakeholders over the “good ideas” they want to add to the project. Eventually, it’s just easier to add them even though the project manager knows they will make the project finish late and over budget. On some projects there are scope changes every week, or even several times a week.

what is scope creepBut the project stakeholders are not the only source of scope creep. The project team may add their own “good ideas” to their tasks without the project manager knowing about it. If a more elegant technical solution occurs to the system developers doing a task, they may just add the new features. This source of scope creep can be even more costly than the additional tasks stakeholders want to add. If the project manager has not done a good job of clearly defining the deliverables the team members have to produce, the door to team members’ scope creep is wide open. Once team members and stakeholders understand that they can add to the scope of the project or their task, the volume of scope creep increases. Some project managers think if they approve just the first couple of requests scope creep will go away. Feeding a shark doesn’t make it go away either.

Reporting Scope Creep Variances to Schedule and Budget

The project manager’s next, and possibly last, opportunity to stop scope creep is in the status reports. The project manager gets up and says, “I am forecasting a three-week delay on the project completion date and a $22,000 overrun on the budget as a result of scope changes that have been approved over the last couple of weeks.”
This strategy of reporting schedule and budget variances brings the scope creep into the light of day. It may possibly get the attention of senior management and other stakeholders. On the other hand, it may make the project sponsor very angry because he knows he approved those changes. In that situation, it’s not unusual for the project sponsor to demand that any mention of approved changes be removed from the status reports. That’s a serious ethical issue for the organization. Reporting the schedule and budget impacts of scope creep publicly and quantifying the impact of these approved scope changes may be the only way to tamp down scope creep.
One of the ways that people try to end scope creep is by saying things like, “There will be no changes to this project plan or schedule.” Dramatic statements like that never work. The additions to the project scope will start immediately after those words are spoken (and often by the executive or sponsor who said them). What that person meant was that no one besides them could make any changes to the project scope.

Trying to prohibit all changes to the project is fruitless and actually has very adverse consequences. Changes will be made to every project. The challenge is to avoid scope creep which adds things to the project without any additional budget or duration.

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Poor Performing Team Member

Sooner or later, every project manager will encounter a Poor Performing Team Member who is just not cutting the mustard. They may be a once good team member whose performance has fallen off or a new employee who is failing to meet expectations. I’ve had to deal with Poor Performing Team Members on several occasions, and although for me the experience was always unpleasant, having the situation resolved was worth the investment. In a couple of cases, employees who were offered multiple opportunities to correct their performance but failed to were let go. And happily, in other cases, employees were able to recognize and improve their performance deficiencies with effective encouragement and coaching. If you manage people, it’s a reality that a Poor Performing Team Member awaits you at some time. Project Manager Skills Main Page

The natural human tendency for problems such as a Poor Performing Team Member is to pretend it doesn’t exist or will get better on its own. But neither response benefits your project and will eventually harm it. As a project manager, one of Poor Performing Team Memberyour responsibilities is to identify when a performance problem exists. This person you once believed in now threatens the health of your project and you must act promptly to limit the damage their poor performance may inflict. When the day comes that you find yourself in this situation, if you follow a deliberate, thoughtful process you may find the actual experience to be much less daunting than you imagined.


Assess the Poor Performing Team Member Situation

First, keep your radar on all the time. You can’t deal with a problem by wishing you didn’t have it. So through your own observation, customer or team feedback, or unsatisfactory deliverables, be open to recognizing and confirming that you do have a Poor Performing Team Member.

Assess the situation as best you can. Are there obvious indicators of the root problem, such as whether it is a motivation vs. an ability issue? Gather clear indicators of the problem, such as failure to meet deadlines or product quality, unexcused absences, inappropriate behavior, etc. You need to have and document concrete examples of failure to meet performance expectations or job requirements.

Confront the situation promptly. Most performance issues don’t resolve on their own but worsen over time. You must meet with the employee without delay (one-on-one, if within organizational guidelines) to discuss your concerns with their performance. There are several fairly critical factors to be considered in this step:

• Be positive. Convey your concern, rather than your displeasure. After all, you both have an issue: the employee’s performance does not support retention, and you have a productivity issue you have to address. Fixing the problem is in both your best interests.

• Go over your evidence. Rather than arguing whether the problem is real or not, the concrete examples of performance shortfalls you gathered let you focus on what to do about it.

• Whose problem is it? You mustn’t assume that the problem is the fault of the employee. Through your dialogue with the employee, you need to find out whether the problem is originating with personal issues (family, health, etc.), work-related issues (job skills, a change in the task, conflicts with coworkers, task management, etc.), or external factors neither of you control (regulatory interference, resource availability, suppliers, employment conditions, etc.). This step is clearly the most important in terms of defining a “get well plan.” In my experience, understanding the root cause of poor performance is a great relief to both parties. That’s because in most cases, a path forward can be quickly determined and a partnership formed to make things right.

Create and Monitor a Performance Improvement Plan

As a project manager, your job is to achieve your project’s objectives. And to do that, each team member must meet theirs. You and the poor performing team member must agree to specific, measurable performance improvements. All the factors that contribute to those goals must be supported, including any for which you may be responsible. These may include necessary training, process improvements, resources, HR assistance, priority-setting, and so on.

Projects almost always operate on a timeline, and so must performance milestones. Be sure that you and the employee both understand what the performance improvement metrics are in both substance and time. Both of you must agree that your expectations are reasonable and fair. Your management “deliverables” that make performance improvements possible must be part of this equation.

As the project manager, you will monitor and measure progress against the improvement plan. Acknowledge progress and provide encouragement. As the employee’s performance improves, provide feedback and advice. If the employee believes that you have faith in their recovery, he or she will be much more likely to keep reaching for the next rung.

Evaluate Compliance with Performance Improvement Plan

You must make the final determination. Did your plan succeed or has the team member’s response fallen short? You and your HR department will likely be involved in making this final judgment together and it must be as objective as possible. An employee who, for whatever reason, cannot meet the job requirements must be replaced for the sake of the project. Although it is difficult, if you have been deliberate and objective, you will find arriving at this decision something you can do without self-doubt.

A final message: In one case where I followed this process and still could not rectify the situation, the employee reached me months later to thank me for my sincere but failed attempt to stimulate a satisfactory work ethic in him. Being fired, he said, was the wake-up call he needed to see past the false impression he had that he was indispensable. He now views his new job as a privilege he re-earns every day.

Critical Path Resources – Early Warning on Variances

The critical path is the longest sequence of tasks through your network. Therefore, the critical path tasks control the duration of the entire project. One day of slippage on a critical path task means your project will finish one day later. With that definition in mind, I’d like to talk about managing your critical path resources. That is, the people who are assigned to work on your critical path tasks.

We want to assign proven performers to critical path tasks. Other tasks in your project may have slack or float which allows those tasks to finish later than currently scheduled without affecting the duration of the entire project. But as I said before, if a critical path task finishes later, the project finishes later. If you have the flexibility to assign different people to critical path tasks, you should assign trainees to tasks that are not on the critical path. And the best people are your critical path resources. These people should be your early warning system about problems on critical path tasks. You want every team member to report a problem as soon as it comes to light. But on the critical path tasks, you want to be notified as soon as the faintest glimmer of a problem shows up so you can act to fix it.

Accordingly, managing critical path resources efficiently is a key design issue. Here is an example from my experience. I am an IT Project manager and during a planning phase, I was trying to write a perfect plan for a project to upgrade a system. There was a task on the critical path called “Final Upgrading System on the Live Server.” The duration of this task was two days and during that time, users would not be able to work on the system. Project Schedule & Software Main Page

Critical Path Resources To investigate, I spoke to the upgrading system implementer who said during those two days, we would enable the backup system on the backup server and make it ready for users to enter their daily work. However, he added, users would need to redo their work transactions on the live production once it was ready. Redoing transactions might require users to work more hours to enter the back load. I was thinking about utilizing the weekend to finalize this task so I contacted the Human Resources manager. I explained the issue and asked him for a solution. The HR Manager suggested paying overtime for the implementers. I said over time is a bad idea for managing projects because it increases the budget and the project management methodology does not recommend it. But I continued, I could talk with the implementers and suggest we give them with another two days off that they could add to another weekend. That would give them a long weekend vacation. We would count the business hours they spend during the weekend. The HR manger said it was a good idea. I told him I would also get approval from their direct manager. I got approval and commitment from the critical path resources, the HR Manager, and the functional department manager and documented all those commitments.

Consequently, the project plan was executed successfully within its planned budget, duration, scope and risk. Users did not redo their data entry work load and implementers went for a long weekend vacation. The case was archived as a lesson learned.

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