TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

Our project team has a hard time working together, and it is affecting our project. We have eight people in the group. Some of the team members have strong opinions about how the project should be managed, and others don’t say too much. On the surface, everyone gets along okay, but comments on the side lead me to believe that there are some conflicts under the surface. What should we do to improve our ability to work together as a team?


You have hit upon an area that can sink a project: team effectiveness and cohesion. Most of you have heard of high-performing teams and may have even worked on some. Yours is a situation in which the opposite occurs. You have a group of people, each of whom is a good performer. However, when they get together on the same team, the whole is not as effective and productive as the individual performers.

Many factors can cause this:

  • Personality conflicts
  • Lack of project manager leadership
  • Poor work processes

One of the big problems with dysfunctional teams is that much of the trouble lies just under the surface. I have a group exercise that allows the team to critique itself in a safe environment and then come up with some potential solutions.

An independent facilitator is not mandatory, but one might help people open up more. If the project manager takes a lead role, the discussion might be more inhibited, especially if the team views the project manager as a part of the problem.

The exercise
First, participants write on Post-it notes the top five problem areas that they think make the team less effective. This is a brainstorming effort with no right or wrong answers. Team members should feel safe that any comments made will stay inside the room.

The facilitator gathers the cards and posts them on the wall. Problem areas that are related should be grouped together. The team should end up with some general areas, such as lack of leadership, poor planning, and personality conflicts.

Next, the team ranks the general problem areas in terms of importance. Since the original list was built through a brainstorming process, now is the time to try to identify those areas that are most important. One way to prioritize is to give everyone five sticky dots that they can place by the problem groups they think are the most important. The number of dots by each area will indicate its ranking compared with the other problem areas.

Look at each problem area individually, starting with the most important. The facilitator should ask each person to write down a few ways that the problem could be remedied. All of these potential solutions should be constructive and as practical as possible. When possible, they should also include details. These solutions are again posted on the wall by the facilitator.

The group should discuss the pros and cons of each solution so that everyone understands what is involved. Some solutions may be similar and can be grouped together. For example, sometimes the solution requires people to think and act differently; other times, a solution may require getting others involved outside of the immediate team. After everyone understands the various solutions, the team again votes on which recommendation(s) make the most sense to implement.

When the recommendations have been voted on and accepted, the team should be specific in terms of the action plan that will solve the problem. There should be a set of activities, people assigned, and end dates. It might make sense to create a section on the project workplan to account for this time. (Depending on the time involved, you can also create the action plan offline, after the meeting.)

The team should continue with this process until all important problem areas are discussed and solutions put into place. Normally, the project manager is responsible for assigning and following up on the work assignments. Another process or person can be made accountable if the team feels that the project manager needs to be more hands-off for this effort.

The team should set up one or more subsequent meetings to evaluate whether the work is being completed, and whether the team is performing more effectively.

Team-building benefits
This problem-solving meeting in itself can provide a valuable team-building opportunity. When you have a team that is dysfunctional, this type of approach can be used to address the problems and resolve them. You’ll also find that once you start to address the problems in a safe and respectful manner, the team should feel more and more comfortable addressing the fundamental problems they see.

To a certain degree, the exercise is therapeutic. It helps just because it allows people to talk about what is on their minds. But don’t leave it at that. Make sure that the team executes the action plan, and schedule the follow-up meetings to make sure the team is moving toward the performance level they are capable of achieving.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and lifecycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

What do you do when you’re done griping?

Do you use similar exercises to clear the air with a conflicted project team? Is it easier or more difficult to resolve problems as a consultant? Post your comments below.