When Simple is Difficult


The ugly truth is that some projects feel like they are cursed to fail, run over budget and never reach production. Despite having some of the smartest people, patient leadership and a reckless disregard for the business case the project is an investment black hole that never quite delivers the goods.

The underlying chaos and dysfunctional state all big projects seem to face is never due to finance, strategy or technology.

Teamwork is the rare and most powerful competitive advantage that few projects possess.

Sound familiar? Or maybe you are there now? Managing or working in a team where infighting, a lack of accountability or everyone is protecting their own position is the norm. It’s like a dysfunctional family, except worse, because we spend so much more time with the dysfunctional work family — at least 40 hours a week.

The Norm

Large organisations are often a breeding ground for project teams that under-perform. Although it isn’t easy, it is possible to overcome. Dysfunctional team behaviour follows a set rhythm and with a little developed awareness, logic and communication, even the most disharmonious, ego rampant teams can synchronise and work harmoniously together to achieve a common goal.

Why are teams so dysfunctional? Most teams are doomed to be dysfunctional because they are made up of individuals with varied interests, strengths and weaknesses. You know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” — the same is true for human behavior. Even the most well-intentioned people can slip into unproductive and unhealthy behavior.

No Trust

Most project team members are strangers who occasionally attend a teleconference or share instant messages. Teams are spread across the globe and there is very little foundation of trust to build upon. Attempts to build trust and relationships are difficult as team members are task oriented and only talk to each other because there is pressing deadline or need for help. Often teams do not appreciate the capabilities or personal circumstances of others to assist us. As a result, teams adopt a defensive fortified position to avoid conceding ground or delivering on any commitments. 

Shifting the team from a transactional task based culture to one where we acknowledge and publicly show appreciation for the efforts of others helps us set a good example. Rewarding positive behaviours encourages trust and openness. This is the first step towards admitting our weaknesses and limitations, and proactively owning up to a mistake rather than burying the problem for a later time that will hurt the project. Take the lead and adopt authentic behaviours and others will follow. Slowly, these habits will become culture and the team will begin to build the first unshakable brick in the pyramid — trust.

Fear of Conflict

When teams are incapable of engaging in unfiltered debate about key issues we see situations where conflict can quickly turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. Teams that lack trust are usually bogged down by escalations to engage senior leaders to help them resolve a difficult situation. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, there is a lot of posturing and precious time is wasted, resulting in delays and poor decisions.

Conflict and debate should be a welcome and positive aspect of the project dynamic. Healthy conflict should be encouraged by praising good examples or giving corrective feedback if conflict veers towards unhealthy. A good health check is to seed a meeting with an obviously “bad idea” to see if everyone will agree to avoid conflict, and use this as a litmus test to open up healthy discussion. Seeking the pros and cons for ideas will allow teams to open up by sharing differing perspectives. 

Lack of Commitment

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can alienate employees, particularly high performing employees.

Setting clear deadlines, reviewing key decisions at the end of meetings as well as what should and should not be communicated to other staff and contingency planning can help alleviate fears by creating clear plans and facing potential pitfalls and the fear of failure head on so everyone can commit.

Avoidance of Accountability

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team. Mediocrity and poor performance becomes the norm and the leadership team become the soul source of discipline.

With trust and commitment, with clearly communicated expectations and deadlines means that poor performance can be challenged without it being seen as a personal attack. Difficult issues should be confronted to hold each other accountable. Clear standards, progress reviews and team rewards are also important to make sure that healthy and positive balance is maintained.

No Objectives

Team members tend to put their personal needs (interests, career goals, recognition, training etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. Ultimately, If a team loses sight of the need for achievement, the business will suffer.

When teams have a solid base of trust, healthy conflict, commitment and team accountability and are recognised and rewarded for their performance, it will be easier for team members to put their own needs aside for the sake of the team. With these solutions, teams should be able to retain top performers, handle failure with resilience and stay focused.

Tear down walls, build a foundation and synergy, you will benefit not only from collective progress and rewards, but a more enjoyable atmosphere to spend 40+ hours a week.

avoid dysfunction – communicate clearly & maintain accountability.

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