I was recently having a robust debate with an alliance manager I work with about whether you can measure the culture or ‘health’ of a project team in an evidence based cost effective manner rather than purely basing your decisions on your experience and intuition.  As the discussion developed we explored both sides of the coin…. You just know when things aren’t on track and when it comes to team health and culture the writing is usually on the wall prior to major challenges coming to the surface!

What are your thoughts? Should project team health be assessed through the experience gained from being on the project, should we trust our gut, or should there be an evidence based approach?

To me, the answer lies in both sides of the argument.  Having worked on securing and setting up large collaborative projects for a number of years, I can walk in to a project office and assess fairly accurately where a team is at by the office setup, visible posters or lack of them and the general vibe and interaction with the project team.  The culture of a place is something that can be felt… The more experience you have in a variety of cultures with numerous project officers and organisations, the more quickly you can read precisely where the culture is at along the high performance curve!

To back up the ‘writing on the wall’, information can also be gained through discussion with various people about what is working well and what is not.

Key questions I generally ask are as follows:

  • How is the project tracking?
  • Are people clear on their roles and the expectations and key timeframes needed to deliver on this project?
  • What are we doing to regularly communicate to the team?
  • Are people working as a one team or within their respective silos?
  • What needs to be achieved in the next 6 months and how clear are people on these milestones?

This straightforward approach is useful, but it can be quite subjective, depending on who you talk to and what areas of the project they are involved in.   It can also lack focus and may be scrutinised by the team for not being backed by tangible evidence, facts, and examples to support conclusions. Let’s face it, it can get personal and people can get defensive!

The flip side is to identify the success factors that drive positive team health and high performance and survey people confidentially at the governance board, management team and project team levels on a regular basis.  15 – 20 well designed questions will allow you to identify gaps, highlight areas you are doing well in, and provide individuals with an opportunity to provide open ended comments that gives everyone a solid understanding of what we should stop, start and continue to do to deliver high performance on the project or bid submission.

The advantage of a more measured approach is it only takes about 5 minutes a month to capture the feedback in a confidential manner. It promotes openness, encourages feedback, and ensures that evidence not assumptions guide decisions for change.  This approach will also highlight different challenges and perceptions arising at different levels. For example the governance board will identify different areas of focus to the management team who will see it differently again from the project team!  These differing viewpoints provide opportunity for focused and constructive incremental improvements.

Independent data on where the team is at and where the focus needs to be provides enormous confidence for board members and senior leaders of consortium organisations who are not connected to the project on a day to day basis.  This type of tracking can literally be the difference between a successful project and one that cannot be corrected in a timely manner due to a lack of data.

For someone who has predominately trusted his gut instinct, my approach has been altered and now I always combine both.   An evidence based approach is how we address technical challenges on a project….  So why wouldn’t we do the same for something as important as team health!? Trust your gut but gather the evidence to support your conclusions.

For a copy of our recent paper on designing and delivering high performance on infrastructure projects, please see below.

Designing and delivering high performance outcomes on infrastructure projects
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