What you need to know about team building in project management

While the term team building is often used to refer to intra-company activities that extend beyond the confines of work — such as partying, sporting activities, or engaging in competitive mini-games like Tug of War, quizzes, etc. — that’s not the real definition of the term.

The folks at Berkley define team building as “an ongoing process that helps a work group evolve into a cohesive unit.”

The goal is to create a team where “team members not only share expectations for accomplishing group tasks, but trust and support one another and respect one another’s individual differences.

This definition stays the same within the context of project management.

The team building process in project management is everything that’s done in pursuit of increasing cohesion and collaborative productivity within the project’s team.

To shed more light on the matter of team building in project management, in this blog post, we’ll explain:

  • Why team building is important in project management,
  • The barriers to project team development,
  • How teams develop, and
  • How to foster better project management teamwork via team building.
Team building in project management

Why team building is important in project management

Projects — especially large-scale ones — often demand that employees from different departments band together to form the project team. 

While these employees likely already have a good rapport with peers within their respective teams and departments, the project team is different.

It’s like when, after building strong friendships with your classmates in high school, you are suddenly thrust into a university. Chances are that you’ll find no familiar faces among your new peers — but you’ll have to form new relationships with them regardless of this.

In such cases, friendships and rapport don’t form overnight — things tend to be awkward at first, as everyone tries to get a feel for who they’ll get along with. Project team members find themselves in a similar situation, but they don’t have nearly as much time to form functional relationships as students do.

This is why actively facilitating team building is important in project management — the project team needs to be cohesive and productive if the project is to stand a chance at success.

As further stated in the Berkley definition of team building, “your role as a team builder is to lead your team toward cohesiveness and productivity.”

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

Successful social integration should start as soon as the new member joins the team — that’s why employee onboarding plays an important role in building a cohesive team. More on the topic at the link below:

How teams develop (and what this means for successful team building)

It’s unrealistic to expect that the project team will mesh well immediately.

To set the right expectations, project managers should look at Tuckman’s teamwork theory which states that team development happens in 5 stages:

  1. Forming, 
  2. Storming, 
  3. Norming, 
  4. Performing, and
  5. Adjourning.

Funnily enough, these stages of teamwork can be seen in most superhero ensemble movies.

That’s why, once we’ve explained the theoretical basis for each stage, we’ll point to where you can find this in the forming of the Avengers.

The 5 stages of team development as explained through Marvel’s “The Avengers

The Avengers” — the 2012 Superhero blockbuster that forever changed the landscape of cinema — shows us exactly what we should expect when forming a project team.

Stage 1: The forming stage

In the forming stage, the team is assembled, but there’s no camaraderie — to one another, the team members are still strangers so they remain formal and restrained in communication. 

You could say that avoiding conflict is the name of the game in the forming stage, so most people tend to remove their emotions from the equation.

Example: The forming stage is when Nick Fury calls in the Avengers. They shake hands and chit-chat, sizing each other up. At this point, they’re still staying civil.

Stage 2: The storming stage

Team members start communicating with less restraint and more emotion in the storming stage, most commonly in hostile and argumentative ways. 

This is because they still don’t see themselves as team members at this point — they are but individuals working separately on the same project. 

It doesn’t help that they probably don’t agree on how the job should be done. 

Example: In the storming stage, the Avengers bicker and fight. This is most pronounced in the relationship between Captain America and Iron Man, both of who wish to assert their methodology as the team methodology and thereby take the role of team leader.

Stage 3: The norming stage

The norming stage is where we finally see the individuals start to form a team

With the conflicts and clashes behind them, they are ready to focus on the objective and understand that they can get the job done if everyone plays into their strengths.

Example: Eventually, the Avengers get their act together in the norming stage. The iconic scene where the camera circles around the full team in battle attire is the textbook example of norming. With leadership issues resolved, everyone is ready to follow the Captain’s orders. He tells each team member what to do (and knows how to put everyone’s skill set to good use), ending with the instruction for Hulk to “Smash”.

Stage 4: The performing stage

The performing stage is where team cohesion and effectiveness get dialed to 11.

Unfortunately, not all project teams reach the performing stage. In truth, you can get the job done with norming. 

But, performing is a step beyond that, when everyone is zoned in on the objective and openly communicating in search of creative solutions. 

Moreover, the performing stage is characterized by:

  • Trust, 
  • Honesty, and 
  • Respect firmly established among team members.

Example: The performing stage is reached when the heroes not only work towards the same goal but display striking cohesion. Through constant communication, they begin darting around the battlefield and synergizing their efforts — Captain America reflects Iron Man’s energy beam at the enemies with his shield, Thor hammers the nail that Hulk previously rammed into the enemy vehicle, etc. These actions weren’t part of the plan explicitly — but the team was able to pull them off through communication, trust, and respect for each other’s strengths.

Stage 5: The adjourning stage

Finally, there is the adjourning stage, where the team celebrates a job well done with a palpable hint of sadness that their time together as a team has come to an end.

Example: Finally, when the job is done, the Avengers eat shawarma to celebrate — and then go their separate ways. These departure scenes show the mutual respect that has formed among the Avengers as they’ve gone full circle from a group of individuals to a performing team whose time has come to an end.

The barriers to project team development

Standing in the way of project team development are several barriers, all of which inadvertently inhibit team building.

David L. Wilemon and Hans J. Thamhain have identified 11 major barriers to project team development, but many of these barriers feature extensive overlap.

So, instead of presenting these 11 barriers separately, we’ve used their commonalities to arrive at 4 overarching obstacles to team development: 

  • Undefined or inept leadership,
  • Senior management meddling,
  • Poor communication, and
  • Lack of commitment.

Barrier #1: Undefined or inept leadership

Whether or not they’re formally referred to as a project manager, the fact of the matter is that every project requires a leader.

The project manager’s role includes project planning and execution — but, they are also involved in facilitating team building within the project team.

However, it’s not uncommon for projects to not have clearly defined leadership. This can have any number of undesired consequences, including but not limited to:

  • Mass confusion — where team members aren’t aware of the project objectives or the extent of their responsibilities.
  • Competition over team leadership — as different team members seek to fill in this power vacuum (often to serve personal interests).
  • Role conflict — which is likely to occur in environments where a project team is so ill-defined, it doesn’t even have a leader. Alternatively, we have cases where a project manager is defined, but where their credibility as a leader is called into question. This can occur because team members see the PM isn’t adept at all required project management skills, or because someone in higher management (whom the project team members respect and turn to) doesn’t think highly of the PM’s skills.

Whatever the case may be, it’s unlikely that teams suffering from any of the issues outlined above can come together to form a cohesive and productive unit.

Barrier #2: Senior management meddling

We’ve already seen bits of senior management meddling in the previous example — but those were more indirect compared to what we’re about to talk about here.

For example, it’s not uncommon for senior management to alter the project environment in disruptive ways. This often manifests as scope creep — i.e. increasing the project requirements beyond what was originally agreed upon — but, it can also come in the form of altering the project timeline or budget.

More importantly, it’s often senior management that’s responsible for selecting the team personnel. Now, instead of hand-picking the best people for the job, the criteria management uses generally revolves around assigning available personnel. This results in both a lack of motivation and a lack of commitment to the project.

There is a correlation between effective project team building and the influence the project manager has over the choice of team members. Stripping them of this influence inevitably puts a hamper on project team building.

Now, you may think that limiting the role and influence of higher management would somehow be the answer to overcoming all project team building barriers — but this isn’t the case.

This is because the lack of senior management support is also stated to be a huge barrier to project team development.

Namely, when senior management takes a detached stance toward a project, the project team members are likely to mirror this stance and completely drop their enthusiasm. This leaves the project without the commitment from either management or the members actively working on it.

Barrier #3: Poor communication

A lot of obstacles that stand in the way of project team building stem from poor communication.

This includes both:

  • Communication among team members, and
  • Communication between the project manager and the project team.

Most frequently, these problems take the form of team members not being kept in the loop about key project developments.

Poor communication between the project manager and the client or senior management can also exacerbate the situation, but within the team, this registers as poor communication between the team and the project manager.

Barrier #4: Lack of commitment stemming from internal factors

Since there’s a lot of overlap in the barriers to project team development, we’ve already covered several causes that result in a lack of commitment to projects, just to name a few:

  • Lack of senior management support,
  • Questionable credibility of the project manager,
  • The management-oriented team selection process, and
  • Lack of clear project objectives.

These are all external factors that can hamper team members’ commitment to the project.

However, the authors who identified the 11 barriers made it clear that this lack of commitment can stem from internal factors as well.

They state that team members have varying professional objectives and interests, which makes some reluctant to put the needs of the project first.

Likewise, some people just aren’t suited to project work. As they put it:

Some [team members] can’t stand the ambiguous, fluid nature of projects while others simply rather work alone or within a small group of colleagues they’ve developed close working relationships with over a period of years.”

— David L. Wilemon and Hans J. Thamhain

The best way to overcome this barrier is through meticulous project team recruitment. Project team members should not only be capable, but also ready to accept the PM’s project vision and thrive in project environments.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here — as tips for overcoming barriers and facilitating project team building are covered in the next section of this article.

How to foster better project management teamwork via team building

Now that we know what project team building is, why it’s important, what barriers stand in its way, and what we can expect team development to look like, it’s time to offer some concrete tips on how to facilitate team building in project management.

Here are our 6 tips for project team building:

  • Handpick the project team,
  • Be transparent,
  • Create a WBS with the team,
  • Celebrate achievements,
  • Use project management tools, and
  • Always communicate.

Let’s look at the details.

Tip #1: Handpick the project team

We know that project managers aren’t always in a position to choose who they want working on their team — but they should try their utmost to influence this decision.

Building trust goes a long way, but for the team to reach the performing stage of team development, you need motivation, commitment, and competence.

When management assigns who gets to be on the team, you’re more likely to end up with team members who don’t carry their weight because they’re: 

  • Unmotivated (they didn’t choose to be here),
  • Uncommitted (they don’t care about the project or don’t think it important), or
  • Incompetent (they were selected based on availability rather than merit).

It’s like if, in a heist movie, the client hired the mastermind, but didn’t let the mastermind choose the other crew members (hacker, driver, safecracker, brute, etc.) Instead, the hacker is the client’s son because they’re “always playing on their computers” while the brute is their second cousin who recently started doing push-ups so “surely they can intimidate someone if need be”.

Conversely, when the project manager picks the team, they know what skills they need — so they’re more likely to pick the right person. 

Feeling valued, the team members accept (or decline) the invitation of their own accord, making them motivated and committed.

In cases where you can’t handpick team members, try to sell them on:

  • Why the project is important, 
  • Why they’re important for the project, and 
  • What their rewards might be. 
Creating a project team in Plaky project management tool
Creating a project team in Plaky project management tool

Tip #2: Be transparent

The goal of team building in project management is to have the team reach a high level of cohesiveness and productivity — i.e. the performing stage of team development.

As mentioned, this stage is characterized by communication, honesty, trust, and respect.

Therefore, the project manager needs to foster these values if they expect the team to adopt them.

This means being transparent — you should assign well-defined roles and responsibilities and keep everyone in the loop.

Team members should know how the project is progressing and how their job affects the other cogs in the machine.

Tip #3: Create a WBS with the team

Counted among the most important documents in a project is the work breakdown structure (WBS), which outlines all tasks within a project.

The WBS can then be used to calculate the project deadline and create the task schedule using algorithms such as the Critical Path Method (CPM).

While it’s not uncommon for the project manager to do this themselves, getting the team involved in the creation of the WBS and the project schedule can boost motivation and commitment. 

Moreover, this leads to more accurate schedules, as team members responsible for a job are most likely to accurately predict how long their tasks will take to complete. 

If you’re using CPM — an algorithm that relies exclusively on task duration to create the project schedule — this kind of expert input is invaluable.

Example of a Work Breakdown Structure
Example of a Work Breakdown Structure

Tip #4: Celebrate achievements

The adjourning stage isn’t the only time when the team should actively celebrate.

The reason most people associate team building with parties is because parties are effective catalysts for building team cohesion.

Our advice is to define project milestones — i.e. critical tasks, key objectives, or different project stages — and use them to maintain motivation within a team.

Defining milestones helps teams celebrate their accomplishments without losing sight of the end goal

And the actual celebrations provide team members with bonding opportunities that transcend what’s possible while merely doing their day-to-day activities.

Of course, you can encourage celebrations that aren’t necessarily tied to the project, like birthdays. Every celebration is a chance to strengthen interpersonal relationships among project team members. Provided the team is receptive to this idea, non-project-related celebrations can also be helpful.

Tip #5: Use project management tools

It may seem like project managers need to be heavily involved in facilitating team building — but much of this can be streamlined simply by using the right project management tool.

For example, teams that use modern project management software like Plaky can:

  • Centralize all of their project communication on one platform,
  • Keep task-related communication organized by commenting within appropriate task cards,
  • Provide insight into all project tasks and their progress, and
  • Transparently show who’s working on which task.

By streamlining task management and communication in this way, the project manager has more time and energy to focus on guiding their team through the 5 stages of development.

Example of task communication and collaboration in Plaky
Example of task communication and collaboration in Plaky

💡 Plaky Pro Tip

Different projects require different tools. To make sure your team is always equipped for the project, check out these lists:

Tip #6: Always communicate

Communication is, in some ways, tied to all previous team building tips.

However, it merits being highlighted separately since communication accounts for 90% of what project managers do.

One of the reasons the storming stage lasted so long in “The Avengers is because higher management assembled a team without clearly defined roles or establishing leadership — both clear barriers to team development.

But in project management, project managers occupy the role of leaders from the get-go. They can then resolve most — if not all — team development barriers by communicating.

For a more detailed guide on how to facilitate effective communication in project management, follow the link at the beginning of this tip.

Conclusion: Team building efforts must be made to reach the performing stage of development

In a time-limited environment that characterized most projects, working to turn the project team from a group of individuals into a cohesive and productive unit is essential for increasing the chances for project success.

By following the tips outlined in this blog post, you can kickstart your team building efforts by avoiding some of the common barriers to team development and nudging the team towards the norming and performing stages of development — i.e. the stages when teams and projects thrive.