Leadership

Turning around a dysfunctional project team

Taking over a challenging project is difficult enough. Throw in a disgruntled team, and you have other issues to consider. Tom Mochal offers a member advice on how he could become his company's newest hero and turnaround artist.
Editor's note: This article originally published October 23, 2002.

Question

I recently took over a project from a manager who had been terminated. The project team seems to be doing everything wrong: Productivity is low and many of them don't get along. We're missing our deadlines, and our customers are unhappy and unsupportive. Every team I have ever been on has had problems, but not to this extent. I don't know if the project can be saved. How do I begin to turn this mess around?

-Daniel

Answer

It sounds like you're going to have a few challenges ahead of you, and your success is uncertain. You can look at your situation in two ways.

You can consider yourself on a train that is heading for a certain wreck. If you're thinking of the project this way, the best actions to take may be to minimize the damage, see what can be salvaged, and try to keep from having the company throw too much good money on top of what has already been spent. You might be considered a hero in some circles if you recommend canceling the project.

On the other hand, there are project managers that are known as turnaround artists, and they love to take over projects like yours. For many of them, the worse shape the project is in, the better they like it.

Based on your information, it's impossible for me to make that judgment call for you, or to know if the first option is even a choice. The project may be such that it must be completed regardless of the cost in terms of dollars and human relationships. Let's assume for now that you'll try the latter course of action -- the project turnaround.

Assess the situation

The first thing you want to do is assess the current state of the project, including the project schedule and the project team dynamics. Your response to the project team's problems will first depend on your progress with the schedule.

If you have 30 days of work remaining on the schedule, you'll have less ability to affect the team. In this case, the best course of action may be to try to motivate the team for the final push, and watch the schedule like a hawk. On the other hand, if your project has many months to go, you need to see what can be done to repair the damage on the team as well as replan the schedule to deliver on a new realistic timeframe.

Although this might not necessarily apply to your turnaround efforts, any plan is going to include the following items.

Communicate well

Have you been on a project where the project manager is a poor communicator? This trait usually results in a miserable project experience for everyone. Teams with poor morale tend to have poor communication channels. Don't let rumors and uncertainty fester. Share as much information as you can about the project status, and anything else that may affect the project team.

Praise and compliment

Another cause of negative morale is poor or no positive feedback or recognition. When people on your team do a good job, make sure they know it. People don't expect money or gifts when they do a good job, just a pat on the back and a "well done" by their manager. Give it to them, both informally and formally.

Set clear expectations

People like to understand what is expected of them so that they know the challenges they need to meet. Give clear instructions when you hand out work so that people understand what they're expected to do. When you hand out work assignments, give a deadline date. When a team member is creating a paper deliverable, such as a testing plan, give them guidance on how it should be prepared.

Don't overcommit your team

As you work to improve morale, you also need to be careful not to overcommit the team. Determine what exactly is required to finish the project, and remove anything that is extraneous or can be done after implementation. Make sure you manage scope tightly, and try to defer all changes until after the original project is completed.

A missed deadline can cause more pressure and degrade morale even further. The opposite is true as well: If the team can start hitting some interim deadlines (and you communicate this fact and praise them), the team morale should improve, which may make it easier to hit your next deadline.

Summary

These are some ideas for turning the project around. First, make sure you understand where you are in the schedule, so you know how much time you have to make significant changes. Also make sure you work to identify as many team problems as you can, and the root causes. Then put together an action plan based on how much work and time is remaining on the project.

If you don't have a lot of time remaining, focus on the schedule. If you have more time, focus on repairing the project team, and completing the schedule. There are many areas to look at as a part of repairing damage to the project team. Communication, timely performance, feedback, and clear expectations will be a part of every turnaround plan. Go out of your way to start building some successes, even interim ones. These general ideas, along with others that you will identify, will give you a fighting chance to turn things around.

Who knows, if you're successful and you enjoy the challenge, you might become known as a turnaround artist within your own organization.

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20 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I got tired of holding everyone's hand and having to do psycho-analysis to get my job done. When I am approached to run a team, I don't accept unless I get in writing that I can have a totally free hand and get a ton of money up front for the trouble and hassle. This usually stops half stepping on the company's part. Management "gets" the fact that I am serious and understand that "blood will flow" most likely when I am done. I come in as a "contractor or clerk etc." and observe as a "fly on the wall" what is happening. Then I usually come in as the "new" boss and fire a handful of people and hire the right people. I don't have enough time to "get their head's right." In these times it makes this task easier, since I have a whole host of people to choose from.

xavier_talla
xavier_talla

Without having to go again over all that have already been said, I would invite all of us to review the following definitions, bearing in mind that something went wrong somewhere and that "wrong" first of all, needs to be identified, prior to providing a solution: 1- A project is "a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result, "in which temporary means a finite (fixed) duration and unique denotes a set of circumstances (the project) that, although resembling similar circumstances in many aspects, have not been previously encountered (PMP). 2- A Project Manager is the individual accountable for the successful delivery of a project (usually from inception to completion). 3- To succeed, it is essential to develop an effective leadership style which facilitates successful delivery through team management. 4- Leadership is a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organisation in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent In view of the above definitions, I would rather recommend the combination of Tom Mochal and Steve Romero's solutions. They have separately broken down the issue and displayed the step-by-step measures to take for the "turn around". Tom provided an overview of the problem foundation and an approach to the solution, while Steve went straight to the solution. BRAVO...

daileyml
daileyml

The attitude of the Project Manager is the key to the solution. Some folks replying here have already started off on the wrong foot. If a PM walks in to a team meeting with the attitude that he/she is "in charge" the battle is already lost. As a PM the first thing you must realize is that you are not "in charge" of anyone. Your job is only to move the project forward. You are not the line-manager, technical manager, director, or CIO of the people on your team. The moment you try to assume that role you lose. PMs need to think of themselves at "PLs". You are not a "project manager", you are a "project leader". Management and leadership are two completely different things. Effective leaders win by building relationships, influencing good decision making, and building teams. If you approach the team in this fashion it is much easier to earn their respect and cooperation. -Mike D http://www.daileymuse.com

lmherrick
lmherrick

Excellent article, but I disagree with the idea of giving a deadline date. Teams function at their best when the person doing the work is provides the effort estimate - usually in collaboration with the PM (and often with others as well).

jimatmdch
jimatmdch

One other important aspect of managing a project is not only communicating information to the team, but receiving their feedback and input into projet decision-making. They all have a stake in the project'ssuccess or failure and should have involvement with decisions affecting the project at alevel appropriate to them.

Steve Romero
Steve Romero

I agree with many of the comments to this post. The answer does not necessarily resolve the question. The title of the blog is "Turning around a dysfunctional project team", it was not "How to complete a project with a dysfunctional project team. So I am going to assume project circumstances match the title, and my objective is to turn arond that dysfunctional team. STEP 1 - I like the answer in the post. Evaluate and understand the circumstances of the project. FAST! STEP 2 - Pull the team together (physically or virtually) and "call a spade a spade." Be frank about your evaluation and your findings. If they are dysfunctional, tell them they are dysfunctional. Many will argue with this approach but I don't think you can resolve this without them knowing it. If you have any hope of success, everyone better know what problem you are solving. Ensure everyone is assured you are talking about dysfunctional "behavior", not dysfunctional people - NO LABELS! STEP 3 - State your goal and objectives. Ensure everyone understands the goal of the project effort and the intermediate objective of resolving the dysfunctional behavior. STEP 4 - Specifically describe the behavior you want from the team. Then monitor, measure and respond CONSISTENTLY and IMMEDIATELY to behaviors - this means good behavior (rewards) and bad behavior (consequences). Lastly, I want to include the list of behaviors I use when managing any team in any effort. This list has served me well in the past, as long as you first sit down with each individual and discuss and agree on how these behaviors manifest themselves in their specific roles. (Keeping the "customer first" will be different for a Developer than it will for a Network Implementor. Yes, it is a lot of work, but turning around a dysfunctional team is not an easy task and there are no shortcuts. If you have some shortcuts, please share them with me. I would love to hear them because I could sure use them. Value 1: CUSTOMERS FIRST - Keeps commitments to customers - Understands and anticipates customer needs - Understands and promotes products and services - Acts in the best interest of the enterprise Value 2: INTEGRITY - Behaves in an honest and ethical manner - Embraces diversity by treating each individual with dignity and respect - Acts in an authentic, truthful, and straightforward manner - Actions are consistent with words - Deals with conflict in a timely and constructive manner Value 3: COLLABORATION - Thinks and acts beyond one's own work group - Puts enterprise needs and goals ahead of individual objectives - Takes responsibility to help others succeed - Freely shares information - Celebrates success Value 4: ADAPTABILITY - Willingly seeks and considers new ideas, approaches and best practices - Anticipates and embraces change - Willing to challenge current practices - Overcomes obstacles to meet goals Value 5: ACCOUNTABILITY - Accepts responsibility for individual and group decisions and actions - Holds self and others responsible for achieving results - Takes initiative to solve problems personally and avoid unnecessary handoffs - Acknowledges and learns from mistakes - Takes personal responsibility for the organization's success Value 6: EXCELLENCE - Consistently strives to deliver superior results - Demonstrates a sense of urgency regarding implementation - Seeks continuous learning and improvement - Sets and achieves high standards of performance Steve Romero, IT Governance Evangelist http://community.ca.com/blogs/theitgovernanceevangelist/

wparke
wparke

Tom's answered the question "How do I save a train wreck of a project?" not "How do I deal with a dysfunctional project team?". The dysfunctional team contains elements like these: 1)"I know more about the business need than the users do." 2) "I can design it or I can code it but I don't have time to do both, so I'm going to begin by writing code without specs." 3) "I don't like the code my teammate writes so I'm going to re-write it before beginning my piece." 4) "My database work is done - too bad if I missed a field you need." 5) "It works fine as long as you don't make any data entry mistakes." These are the things that make up dysfunctionality. Tom's direction won't solve these issues. The project manager must overcome the personalities by skill and will to survive!

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Different organizations have different structures and different cultures and therefore different needs. In some cases, you are correct ... the Project Manager isn't. The proper term in this case is scapegoat. In many cases, you are not correct ... the Project Manager is as much the manager as the resource manager. In some cases, the project manager is, in fact, more the manager than the resource manager. This latter is quite often the root cause of a dysfunctional team ... the (previous) Project Manager is not recognized by the team as the manager and the resource managers have abrogated their responsibilities for the success of the project. The result is a power vacuum which allows the growth of individual agendas. Add to this the different structures possible for both the client and the performing team and the situation can become quite complex. Not to mention the third layer which is the expectations of the project manager's management which may have no relationship to the teams' power structure. Having said that, all managers (operational, strategic or project) need to think of themselves as leaders first. Management is a responsibility of the position. Project Managers have to have team building as a major strength. (In line with my above comments about presuming a structure, I was going to state that this was because of the need to build a new team for every project. However, I have been project manager on standing teams - where everyone reported to me permanently or to the sponsor permanently and the team members did not change from project to project. Even in this case, there was a need to be a strong team builder.) Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNOW.ca

tobenour
tobenour

From my prior experience the root cause for many dysfunctional project teams is the fact that technically the project team still works for various other functional or staff managers. It is important to understand that dynamic and realize that there me be significant back channels that are being worked or counter directions given to the team. It's not only important to address the team and their issues, it important to get behind the team and make sure that their management is aligned and giving you full support. Ted O

gale.wang
gale.wang

I support Steve's opinion. Very helpfull for me. Thanks!

sbmknight
sbmknight

I've just been put in charge of a team that needs a lot of help in this area and your post is very helpful.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

The title says it all ... BTW, the only shortcuts I've ever found are: 1) Already have a MAJOR level of respect built up in the team (that way they listen when you explain the NEW way). 2) Listen - after all communications is a two way street. Be an active listener. 3) Don't underestimate the power of guilt. People often act in dysfunctional ways because they know they have done wrong. If you overcome this behaviour you'll often short circuit the rebuild process. 4) Don't presume you know the answer. You'll often find that politics has gotten into the documentation and into your briefing. (It's always easier to blame the other guy). 5) The only real shortcut I've ever found is to fire the lot and replace them with your own people. (Not a recommended solution but required in some cases). One final comment ... often dysfunctional teams aren't ... the problem is that someone thinks they should be performing when they actually are/need to be storming. (Process of team building = storming, forming, norming, performing.) There is always the possibility that someone tried to short circuit the team building process and failed or the expectations are not realistic. Glen Ford, PMP http://www.TrainingNow.ca

avidtrober
avidtrober

The example in the article states the project has to get done, but that doesn't mean there's an organization capable of doing it. So, I'd like to add that to the list. For starters, there has to be top-down support, someone with authority has to be supporting the project and in a reasonable way. Anyone considering taking a turn-around PM job, first find your top-down authority, then you yourself will have to determine "reasonable", because of all the myriads of possibilities that make a project impossible. For example, one exec asking me to take on a turn-around had another manager doing v2 of the same product, WHILE V1 DIDN'T EVEN EXIST YET! The v1 team was morale was in the gutter, the v2 team was, too, knowing their mgr was really a snake in the grass (and siphoning off all the specs/docs/code from the v1 team to figure out which way is up), and the exec over it all was totally clueless, but willing to approve funds, staff, etc. "to just get this done ASAP!". The list could go on as to all the possibilities; experience has taught me by the time a project is in turn-around mode, the odds are the real problem is not getting fixed when they're looking for a turn-around project mgr.

oberois
oberois

Right on. Project manager has to watch out for the ?premadonas? who for whatever reason consider that they know the best and ignore instructions or the desires of end-users. This type of attitude is more prevent that we would like to admit and results in redos, rework and delays. Here is another common line I often hear - ? this is not the only project I am working on?. Team members and stakeholder must be made clear that not respecting commitments is unacceptable. Giving someone completion date wont guarantee on-time completion. Critical time-sensitive deliverables must be tracked closely and all excuses eliminated.

melanie
melanie

WPARKE, I am totally "there" with you. That's the type of dysfunction that I have to deal with almost on a daily basis.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Tom does appear to have answered the writer's question ... but the title seems to be different from the question. There are many things (beyond what was mentioned by wparke) that characterize dysfunction. A dysfunctional team is one symptom/cause of a problem project. Not all project problems are caused by dysfunctional teams just as all dysfunctional teams do not result in problem projects. There is a high correlation between them however. Having said that, most of the solutions Tom suggested will also work toward solving the dysfunctional team issue. Specifically, setting expectations and improving communications are keys to the solution. However, Tom did miss the one solution that must be faced. Specifically, "STOP THE PROJECT!" and it's lesser version "change the team". Unfortunately, it's a solution that management often is afraid to face (management = sponsor & the PMs managers). Despite this it often is necessary to give the participants a break. Sometimes this is because everyone is fighting (usually over nothing) but frequently because (bad) politics has reared its ugly head and the "team" has fractured into temporary alliances. Sometimes it's because a leader has emerged into a political vacuum. This latter can be okay if that leader has a project positive agenda, but if their agenda is personal this can be the most disruptive situation possible. In all of these cases, it is necessary to allow the situation to calm down. Only by stopping the project is it possible to obtain this respite. If the project is important, then it can be restarted later (perhaps with a different mix of members). The key is for the turnaround PM to quickly identify causes and solutions. And for the management to have the courage to make the required response (including stopping the project either short term or long term). Glen Ford, PMP http:www.Can-Da.com

stephane.kiraly
stephane.kiraly

Part of the assessment work consist in identifying clearly what are the deliverables, the work packages required to produce them, the time estimates and not the least, the resources assigned to the work. You must have a clear understanding of how your RAM (responsibility assignment matrix) is designed and wether it's satisfying with you. Next, you must negociate, with your project team, this work assignment. And they must endorse it or raise concerns. The key here is commitment, individual and collective. Your job as a PM is to get your team to aim in the same direction. You must adress concerns and provide solutions. If resource A doesn't believe resource B can provide quality code, you might want to find out if resource B is appropriate for the woork or wether a personal conflict exists between the two. Etc... Make your team accountable for their deliverables. If they outsmart the end-users, have them participate in the design with the end-users. You might want to reward ($$) your team on their individual performance but also on the collective performance and outputs. It might create accountability for the end results as well.

dharminderm
dharminderm

Tom highlighted some important 'project' level issues. To fix a 'dysfunctional' team invariably comes down to motivation, cross team working and direction. Depending on the time available the strategy varies: If time is short: Try some quick things to get the team working together (meet and address individuals' issues, create a bunker mentality to finish off the job etc). If these don't bare fruit, then recognise this quick and go for senior management intervention, in order to help break down any barriers to finishing quickly. (if the senior level support isn't there, then invariably its unlikely the project will never succeed) If you have time to help build the team, then meet and address individual issues/team interworking issues. Also make clear that you recognise issues under past management, and you are willing to implement a clean slate. Also re-iterate senior level support to get the project done and back up the team. Its also important for you to understand the project intricately, so that you can lay down clear responsibilities to people in the team and clear deliverables (which if late, team members can't blame on others in the team, because you understand who does what). If there are issues between team members, you need to react quickly and impartially, and clearly communicate why you have taken an action. Ultimately, as project manager it is down to you to bring the team together (being personable and clear on what you want). Theres no simple answers, but i have always found that if you like and respect someone, you'll put in the extra effort.

xavier_talla
xavier_talla

Without having to go again over all that have already been said, I would invite all of us to review the following definitions, bearing in mind that something went wrong somewhere and that "wrong" first of all, needs to be identified, prior to providing a solution: 1- A project is "a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result, "in which temporary means a finite (fixed) duration and unique denotes a set of circumstances (the project) that, although resembling similar circumstances in many aspects, have not been previously encountered (PMP). 2- A Project Manager is the individual accountable for the successful delivery of a project (usually from inception to completion). 3- To succeed, it is essential to develop an effective leadership style which facilitates successful delivery through team management. 4- Leadership is a process by which a person influences others to accomplish an objective and directs the organisation in a way that makes it more cohesive and coherent In view of the above definitions, I would rather recommend the combination of Tom Mochal and Steve Romero's solutions. They have separately broken down the issue and displayed the step-by-step measures to take for the "turn around". Tom provided an overview of the problem foundation and an approach to the solution, while Steve went straight to the solution. BRAVO...

al_cross
al_cross

With out senior management buyin and support the whole project can be for naught, and painful.

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