Barriers to Project Team Development

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Most people within project-driven and non-project-driven organizations have differing views of proji management. Table 5-1 compares the project and functional viewpoints of project management. The; differing views can create severe barriers to successful project management operations.

Perhaps the most common barriers occur as a result of the need to delegate. The following results, identified by MacKenzie, apply to project management:7

• Barriers in the Delegator

• Preference for operating

• Demand that everyone "know all the details"

• "I can do it better myself" fallacy

• Lack of experience in the job or in delegating

• Insecurity

• Fear of being disliked

• Refusal to allow mistakes

• Lack of confidence in subordinates

7 R. Alec MacKenzie, The Time Trap (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), p. 135. Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from The Time Trap © 1972 R. Alec MacKenzie. Published by AMA-COM, a division of the American Management Association. All rights reserved.

• Perfectionism, leading to overcontrol

• Lack of organizational skill in balancing workloads

• Failure to delegate authority commensurate with responsibility

• Uncertainty over tasks and inability to explain

• Disinclination to develop subordinates

• Failure to establish effective controls and to follow up

• Barriers in the Delegatee

• Lack of experience

• Lack of competence

• Avoidance of responsibility

• Overdependence on the boss

• Disorganization

• Overload of work

• Immersion in trivia

• Barriers in the Situation

• No toleration of mistakes

• Criticality of decisions

• Urgency, leaving no time to explain (crisis management)

• Confusion in responsibilities and authority

• Understaffing

The understanding of barriers to project team building can help in developing an environment conducive to effective team work. The following barriers to team building were identified and analyzed in a field study by Thamhain and Wilemon.8 They are typical for many project environments.

Differing outlooks, priorities, and interests. A major barrier exists when team members have professional objectives and interests that are different from the project objectives. These problems are compounded when the team relies on support organizations that have different interests and priorities.

Role conflicts. Team development efforts are thwarted when role conflicts exist among the team members, such as ambiguity over who does what within the project team and in external support groups.

Project objectives/outcomes not clear. Unclear project objectives frequently lead to conflict, ambiguities, and power struggles. It becomes difficult, if not impossible, to define roles and responsibilities clearly.

Dynamic project environments. Many projects operate in a continual state of change. For example, senior management may keep changing the project scope, objectives, and resource base. In other situations, regulatory changes or client demands can drastically affect the internal operations of a project team.

8 For detailed discussion see H. J. Thamhain and D. L. Wilemon, "Team Building in Project Management," Proceedings of the Annual Symposium of the Project Management Institute, October 1979.


Line-staff organizational dichotomy

Scalar principle


subordinate relationship

Organizational objectives

Unity of direction

Parity of authority and responsibility

Time duration

Vestiges of the hierarchical model remain: the line functions are placed in a support position. A web of authority and responsibility exists.

Elements of the vertical chain exist, but prime emphasis is placed on horizontal and diagonal work flow. Important business is conducted as the legitimacy of the task requires.

Peer-to -peer, manager-to-technical expert, associate-to-associate, etc., relationships are used to conduct much of the salient business.

Management of a project becomes a joint venture of many relatively independent organizations. Thus, the objective becomes multilateral.

The project manager manages across functional and organizational lines to accomplish a common interorganizational objective.

Considerable opportunity exists for the project manager's responsibility to exceed his authority. Support people are often responsible to other managers (functional) for pay, performance reports, promotions, etc.

The project (and hence the organization) is finite in duration.

Line functions have direct responsibility for accomplishing the objectives; line commands, and staff advises.

The chain of authority relationships is from superior to subordinate throughout the organization. Central, crucial, and important business is conducted up and down the vertical hierarchy.

This is the most important relationship; if kept healthy, success will follow. All important business is conducted through a pyramiding structure of superiors and subordinates

Organizational objectives are sought by the parent unit (an assembly of suborganizations) working within its environment. The objective is unilateral.

The general manager acts as the one head for a group of activities having the same plan.

Consistent with functional management; the integrity of the superior-subordinate relationship is maintained through functional authority and advisory staff services.

Tends to perpetuate itself to provide continuing facilitative support.

Source: David I. Cleland, "Project Management," in David I. Cleland and William R. King, eds., Systems Organizations, Analysis, Management: A Book of Readings (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1969), pp. 281290. © 1969 by McGraw-Hill Inc. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

Competition over team leadership. Project leaders frequently indicated that this barrier most likely occurs in the early phases of a project or if the project runs into severe problems. Obviously, such cases of leadership challenge can result in barriers to team building. Frequently, these challenges are covert challenges to the project leader's ability.

Lack of team definition and structure. Many senior managers complain that teamwork is severely impaired because it lacks clearly defined task responsibilities and reporting structures. We find this situation is most prevalent in dynamic, organizationally unstructured work environments such as computer systems and R&D projects. A common pattern is that a support department is charged with a task but no one leader is clearly delegated the responsibility. As a consequence, some personnel are working on the project but are not entirely clear on the extent of their responsibilities. In other cases, problems result when a project is supported by several departments without interdisciplinary coordination.

Team personnel selection. This barrier develops when personnel feel unfairly treated or threatened during the staffing of a project. In some cases, project personnel are assigned to a team by functional managers, and the project manager has little or no input into the selection process. This can impede team development efforts, especially when the project leader is given available personnel versus the best, hand-picked team members. The assignment of "available personnel" can result in several problems (e.g., low motivation levels, discontent, and uncommitted team members). We've found, as a rule, that the more power the project leader has over the selection of his team members, and the more negotiated agreement there is over the assigned task, the more likely it is that team-building efforts will be fruitful.

Credibility of project leader. Team-building efforts are hampered when the project leader suffers from poor credibility within the team or from other managers. In such cases, team members are often reluctant to make a commitment to the project or the leader. Credibility problems may come from poor managerial skills, poor technical judgments, or lack of experience relevant to the project.

Lack of team member commitment. Lack of commitment can have several sources. For example, the team members having professional interests elsewhere, the feeling of insecurity that is associated with projects, the unclear nature of the rewards that may be forthcoming upon successful completion, and intense interpersonal conflicts within the team can all lead to lack of commitment.

Lack of team member commitment may result from suspicious attitudes existing between the project leader and a functional support manager, or between two team members from two warring functional departments. Finally, low commitment levels are likely to occur when a "star" on a team "demands" too much effort from other team members or too much attention from the team leader. One team leader put it this way: "A lot of teams have their prima donnas and you learn to live and function with them. They can be critical to overall success. But some stars can be so demanding on everyone that they'll kill the team's motivation."

Communication problems. Not surprisingly, poor communication is a major enemy to effective team development. Poor communication exists on four major levels: problems of communication among team members, between the project leader and the team members, between the project team and top management, and between the project leaders and the client. Often the problem is caused by team members simply not keeping others informed on key project developments. Yet the "whys" of poor communication patterns are far more difficult to determine. The problem can result from low motivation levels, poor morale, or carelessness. It was also discovered that poor communication patterns between the team and support groups result in severe team-building problems, as does poor communication with the client. Poor communication practices often lead to unclear objectives and poor project control, coordination, and work flow.

Lack of senior management support. Project leaders often indicate that senior management support and commitment is unclear and subject to waxing and waning over the project life cycle. This behavior can result in an uneasy feeling among team members and lead to low levels of enthusiasm and project commitment. Two other common problems are that senior management often does not help set the right environment for the project team at the outset, nor do they give the team timely feedback on their performance and activities during the life of the project.

Project managers who are successfully performing their role not only recognize these barriers but also know when in the project life cycle they are most likely to occur. Moreover, these managers take preventive actions and usually foster a work environment that is conducive to effective teamwork. The effective team builder is usually a social architect who understands the interaction of organizational and behavior variables and can foster a climate of active participation and minimal conflict. This requires carefully developed skills in leadership, administration, organization, and technical expertise on the project. However, besides the delicately balanced management skills, the project manager's sensitivity to the basic issues underlying each barrier can help to increase success in developing an effective project team. Specific suggestions for team building are advanced in Table 5-2.

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  • jakub hunter
    Which of the following are not common barriers to project team building?
    10 months ago

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