As my colleague Jim Haack noted in last month’s article, 5 Insights from 10 Years of Project Team Alignment Meetings, the most consistent predictor of project team success is effective team communication. In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, the way teams communicate is a higher predictor of project team success than individual team member expertise, intelligence, and personality combined. The question then presents itself, how can an organization be more strategic in their project team forming stage in order to maximize effective team communication?
Bruce Tuckman, a psychology professor and expert in group dynamics, first defined the stages of group development in the 1960’s. Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing are the stages any project team will inevitably pass through along the way to successful project delivery. It is in the forming stage where the groundwork for effective team member communication is laid. The forming stage goes beyond the careful selection of individual team members based on area of expertise and responsibility. It is the project stage in which goals are identified, information is gathered, and team members begin to understand how they will work together to achieve an objective that is unattainable through individual efforts alone. Here are three ways in which project teams can align towards more effective communication.
Set Mutually Attainable Project Team Goals
Effective team member communication begins with a well-communicated project team goal. From here, individual team member goals and priorities must be aligned towards the overall project mission. Clear team member understanding of shared success and shared reward makes it quickly evident that the only way to communicate successfully on a project is with full honesty, frequency, and without withholding information. Clarity and visibility in goal setting ensures that no two team members have individual goals that could be in conflict with each other and thus create a barrier to open communication. When project goals are interdependent it is in each team member’s best interest to openly communicate project needs.
Nurture Personal Connections
Oh the dreaded team building exercise. A quick Internet search will yield dozens of pages describing various team building fails ranging from the hokey Trust Game in which a team member falls in to the arms of her waiting colleagues, to death-defying activities such as cliff rappelling. The problem with team building exercises is that they are often a violation of a team member’s personal space or comfort, or they have nothing to do with either the project itself, or the individual interests of team members. But strong relationships between team members are a vital component of effective communication. Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory showed that the best predictors of productivity on high performing teams were a team’s energy and engagement outside of formal meetings. How then to increase this type of energy and engagement? Corporate challenges, such as community service events and health and wellness competitions present an opportunity for team members to rely on each other as part of a shared experience and towards a common purpose, but outside of their day to day job responsibilities. According to Christine Riordan, Professor of management at the University of Kentucky, these types of challenges are embraced by many organizations in the pursuit of improved team camaraderie. Simply scheduling common team member break times has been shown to improve the overall productivity of a team. A successful camaraderie building effort will be more authentic than many of the contrived team building exercise we have experienced in the past.
During the project team forming stage, team members strive to gain acceptance and avoid conflict. Team members are more focused on themselves, gathering information, and plotting their individual project component delivery. They are striving to make new friends, a good thing in terms of improved personal relationships, but the desire not to offend one-another can significantly stifle the type of open and honest communication teams need to reach the highest levels of performance. Project team leaders can greatly accelerate team results by creating an environment in which members feel free to communicate their best ideas and expertise, especially that which is contrary to the views of other team members. By setting the tone and ground rules for communication, especially when supported by strong organizational cultural values of mutual respect and accountability, project team leaders can be assured that the best ideas make it in to the discussion and bad news is shared and dealt with as well. Our firm uses a formalized Issue Outline to deal with the stickiest project issues. By taking the time to ensure project issues are described in no uncertain terms, the potential project impact is known, background information is outlined, and potential solutions are identified, the team surrounds an issue with actionable context and alleviates potential interpersonal conflicts that could arise.
The most successful project teams are those that communicate with high consistency and frequency between all team members. To get your project team communicating at the highest level, align individual interests by setting mutually attainable project team goals. Create an environment that nurtures the interpersonal relationships of individual team members. Make sure your project team leaders set the ground rules for open and honest communication. Now sit back and watch your team accelerate towards even higher levels of success.