The People Side of Project Management

By Larry Chester

Failure can be avoided if you carefully address the task issues of a project. But success can be guaranteed when you address the people aspects of a project!

We have discovered three minimum conditions for any project team to work:

Common purpose: We share common project goals and objectives. We are moving the same direction. All stakeholders have a common understanding of what the project will deliver to the customer or end user.

A sense of interdependence: We know that we cannot achieve the project objectives by ourselves. We have different but equally important roles and responsibilities. We have different skills that are collectively needed to achieve the project objectives. We provide mutual support and encouragement to each other. We succeed or fail as a team.

Common language or process: We speak a common language. We share a common process for initiating, defining, planning, implementing, and evaluating a project. We are on the same page of the hymn book, singing the same note at the same time.

Many project management models fail to adequately address the people side of project management. And when they do address the people aspects, they do so at the very end, almost as an afterthought. A better model is needed to integrate the task and people aspects.

The group development model, originally developed by L. E. Jones, provides an excellent balance between task and people/team skills and shows their respective contributions to project success.

(Show diagram)

Let’s first examine the task axis.

The first phase is Orientation. In this phase, we get the project team all facing the same direction. We determine the project mission (key result, cost, and timing) and the project objectives. This phase is similar to the project definition phase.

Once the team is oriented, we can enter the Organization phase. In this phase we identify the project tasks, determine what resources are required to do each task, determine who will do each task, and determine when each task will start and stop. This phase mirrors the project planning phase.

Once we are organized, we can begin implementation. We enter the Monitoring phase to determine what we will monitor, how we will monitor it, who will monitor, and when we need the information to ensure that the project is on track.

And, if we get off track, we enter the Resolution phase to determine how to get back on track immediately.

That is the task axis. Let’s now examine the team axis.

Assume for the moment that you are attending a project kick-off meeting. You do not know the other players. You may not even know why they were chosen. The following questions are probably top of mind:

  • Why are we all here? What is the purpose of this project?
  • Why am I here? Who chose me and why?
  • Why are these others here? What are their skills?
  • What is my role on the project team?
  • How will we work together?

Until these questions are answered the team is in the Dependence phase. They are looking for leadership. If they do not get the leadership they can remain in this phase for a long time.

These two axes work hand in hand. As we try to get oriented and organized:

  • Do all team members agree with the overall project purpose and goals?
  • Do they agree with the approach taken to achieve the project deliverables?
  • Do they agree with their roles and responsibilities?
  • Do they agree with the tasks they have been assigned?
  • Do they agree with the resources available to achieve the tasks?
  • Do they agree with the timetable for each task?

If the answer to any of these questions is No, you have disagreementc which can manifest itself as Conflict. Conflict is not necessarily bad—it can result in the sharing of information, ideas, and new approaches—but it must be recognized and resolved. If not resolved it can result in team failure. Every project has a Conflict phase. At issue is: How long does it last? Does it last for a short time or does it last for the entire project?

Once we deal with the major up-front conflict that can occur, we often move into a calmer phase, the Cohesion phase—often called the Cooperation phase. In this phase, the team feels comfortable with the project manager and the rest of the project team. They feel warm and comfortable together. They cannot wait until the next project meeting. But, this has also been called the Delusion phase. The delusion is almost always around progress. They think that because they are warm and comfortable and cozy in the project meetings that they must be making progress.

The final phase is the one we want to reach, the Interdependence phase, in which we share a commitment to the same objectives, we know our roles and responsibilities, we are monitoring and controlling the project, we are making progress, and we are supporting and backing up each other. We have jelled as a team.

We must, of course, deal with both task and team issues. The ideal project will move smoothly up the optimal performance line, dealing with task and team issues at the same time. But some teams never move smoothly up that line. They alternatively progress and regress: two steps forward and one step back. They zigzag up the line. Or, they adhere to one of the axes.

For example, some project teams move straight up the task axis, not considering the team issues. And, when the project manager looks for the project team, what does he see? Nobody! The team has disappeared. Have you ever started a project with ten people, but one week later are down to six? And, a week after that, are down to only you? You have not been paying attention to the team axis.

The opposite can occur when we only pay attention to the team axis. We loves the team meetings, we cannot wait for the next meeting, but we don’t make any progress. We need to consider the task axis. Both axes are equally important to make projects succeed.

The group development model has great power as both a diagnostic and a prescriptive tool. Once the group development model has been explained to a team, they usually have no difficulty in determining exactly where their project has become stuck. And the following table will confirm where it is stuck.

Show symptoms…

Once they know where they are stuck, they also know how to get unstuck. For example, if you find your team stuck near the task axis, you need to address team issues. And, if you find your team stuck near the team axis, you need to address task issues. The following table suggests how to get unstuck wherever you happen to be in your project.

Shows how to address symptoms

In subsequent articles, we will discuss:

  • how to select team members
  • how to get commitment
  • how to recognize and resolve conflict
  • how to build a sense of interdependence
  • how to manage the performance of team members who do and do not report to you.

“First published in Project Times Spring 2001” (Project Times link

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