A high-performance project team can produce dramatic results. However, like any good think, there is a dark side to a project team that a manager needs to be aware of. I referred to this phenomenon as projectitis in this article. Now I would like to examine in more detail some of the pathologies that a high-performance project team can succumb to and highlight what project managers can do to reduce the likelihood of these problems occurring.
Project Team Pitfalls
Janis first identified group-think as a factor that influenced the misguided 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. His term refers to the tendency of project team members in highly cohesive groups to lose their critical evaluative capabilities. This malady appears when pressures for conformity are combined with an illusion of invincibility to suspend critical discussion of decisions. As a result decisions are made quickly with little consideration of alternatives; often the practice leads to fiascoes that after the fact, appear totally improbable. Some of the symptoms of group-think include the following:
Illusion of invulnerability. The project team feels invincible. It is marked by a high degree of ‘esprit de corps’, an implicit faith in its own wisdom, and an inordinate optimism that allows group members to feel complacent about the quality of their decisions.
Whitewash of critical thinking. The group members discuss only a few solutions ignoring alternatives; they fail to examine the adverse consequences that could follow their preferred course of action; and they too quickly dismiss any alternatives that, on the surface, appear to be unsatisfactory.
Negative stereotypes of outsiders. “Good guy/bad guy” stereotypes emerge in which the group considers any outsiders who oppose their decisions as the bad guys, who are perceived as incompetent and malicious and whose points are unworthy of serious consideration.
Direct pressure. When a team member does speak out or question the direction in which the team is headed, direct pressure is applied to the dissenter. He or she is reminded that speed is important and that the aim is agreement, not argument.
Bureaucratic Bypass Syndrome
Project teams are often licensed to get things done without having to go through normal protocols of the parent organization. Bypassing bureaucratic channels is appealing and invigorating. However, if bypassing becomes a way of life, it results in the rejection of bureaucratic policies and procedures, which provide the glue for the overall organization.
A team that operates outside the organization may alienate other workers who are constrained by the norms and procedures of the organization; eventually, these outside bureaucrats will find ways to put up roadblocks and thwart the project team.
Team Spirit Becomes Team Infatuation
High-performance project teams can be a tremendous source of personal satisfaction.
The excitement, chaos, and joy generated by working on a challenging project can be an invigorating experience, Leavitt and Lipman-Blumen even go so far as to say that team members behave like people in love. They become infatuated with the challenge of the project and the talent around them. This total preoccupation with the project, and the project team, while contributing greatly to the remarkable success of the project, can leave in its wake a string of broken professional and personal relationships that contribute to burnout and dis-orientation upon completion of the project.
Going native is a phrase first used by the British Foreign Service during colonial times to describe agents who assumed the customs, values, and prerogatives of their country assignment. They did so to the point that they were no longer representing the best interests of the British government but rather those of the natives.
This same phenomenon can occur within project teams working abroad or in those who become closely identified with their customers. In essence, the customer’s interests take precedence over the parent organization’s interests. This change in viewpoint can lead to excessive scope creep and open defiance of corporate policy and interests.
Dealing with these maladies is problematic because, in most cases, they are a distortion of a good thing, rather than a simple evil.
Awareness is the first step for prevention. The next step is to take preemptive action to reduce the likelihood of these pitfalls occurring.
For example, managers can reduce the isolation of the project team by creating work-related connections outside the project team. These interactions naturally occur in a matrix environment where members on multiple projects and maintain ties to their home department. Likewise, the isolation of dedicated project teams can be reduced by the timely involvement of external specialists.
In either case, the active involvement of relevant project team members of the parent organization at project status meetings can help maintain the link between the project and the rest of the organization. If the team appears to be suffering from group-think, then the project manager can encourage functional conflict by playing a devil’s advocate role to encourage dissent or using a structured problem-solving approach like the nominal group technique.
Finally, formal team-building sessions may reveal dysfunctional norms and refocus the attention of the team on project objectives.