December 2016

Building and maintaining effective project teams

  • By Richard Dewhirst FAusIMM(CP), Managing Director, Limehurst Consulting; Ken Thomas, President, Ken Thomas and Associates Inc; John Wells, Consultant, Alquimia Conceptos; and Andrew Roberts, Psychologist and Facilitator

Effective project teams are essential for project success – how should owners and project managers form the right team for the job?

Several factors contributed to the severe cost escalation in the first decade of the 21st century. Some relate to increased complexity and massive infrastructure requirements due to location, challenging metallurgy and significant environmental and social requirements. However, many problems were laid at the feet of ‘people’ and the falling skills and experience available, running counter to the increase in the amount and cost of engineering work that goes into studies and projects. In short, a question of ‘whatever happened to the “A” team?’

Technical fundamentals aside, the experience and effectiveness of project teams continues to have a major impact on project cost, schedule, ramp-up to nameplate capacity and meeting operating parameters.

Arguably, far too little effort goes into people, and particularly team, development. Given its importance to project success, understanding how project teams grow and become efficient and productive is an essential part of good project management. Reasons for suboptimal team, and hence project, performance are discussed in this article, as is how best to build and then maintain project teams. Tuckman’s (1965) model of group development – Forming–Storming–Norming–Performing – is used as a framework. Although first proposed some 50 years ago, it remains seminal in understanding how teams function and grow.

Overview: the need for good teamwork

The effort and cost required to design and build projects has increased markedly. In boom times, ‘speed to market’ was the overwhelming driver, creating huge demand for good people. Having struggled to secure people, too little attention was paid to developing them and the teams to which they belonged.

On the positive side, good projects do happen, and common themes emerge of their ability to create healthy working relationships between owner and engineer teams and a combined sense of purpose. Project success correlates well with the strength and effectiveness of the whole team, the balance and quality of people and positive relationships between the different parties.

Fifty years ago, psychologist Dr Bruce Tuckman proposed a model showing how teams went through various stages of development before they became effective and productive units, whichhe called Forming–Storming–Norming–Performing.

While Tuckman’s model (Figure 1) is not the only way of illustrating what happens, it can prove valuable in understanding how teams function. The ultimate aim is to use this to get better results from teams, avoid getting ‘stuck’ in the early phases and move rapidly into working together effectively.

Click for larger image.

Stage 0: Pre-forming

Although not part of Tuckman’s original model, this initial phase takes place before the study or project formally commences (ie at ‘proposal’ stage), and can lead to the seeds of future problems being sown. Assuming that an owner wishes to select an engineer to execute and/or manage its study or project, a well-defined scope of work has to be produced. However, all too often scopes are ill defined, provide relatively little guidance and offer minimal information, with the hope that engineers will ‘work things out for themselves’. During the brief response period, bidders have to manage resources, propose a project team, evaluate the work schedule and deliverables, derive work hours, provide a commercial bid, respond to the various schedules and write an attractive proposal to convince the owner to select their company.

From past experience, there may already be a lack of trust between the parties at both personal and corporate levels, such as a view that engineers always overcharge, aim for scope creep and have to be closely managed. If the work has been won with a very tight budget, the engineer will be under pressure from their own organisation right from the start to recoup costs.

Although these may be perceptions and preconceptions,  if the project starts on such a footing, it is little wonder that the honeymoon period is brief. ‘Trust me, I’m an engineer’ simply isn’t enough!

Stage 1: Forming

Recognising shortcomings in proposals, time is needed to refine scope, clarify understanding and set a baseline budget and schedule. It is essential to start with some form of ‘kick-off’ meeting that provides  an opportunity to align overall vision, project charter, methodology, approaches and key objectives and fix schedule, milestones and budget. Owner and engineer project managers set the tone and must plan and ‘stage manage’ proceedings to stamp their authority and leadership positively on the project.

Equally important is building the appropriate culture so that people get to know each other, ask questions without fear and begin to understand their roles, responsibilities and budgets.

Although skilled at evaluating their technical skills, we seldom recognise that people in teams need other skills to get the job done, such as being used to working with others, appreciating the impact of their workflow and decision-making on others and understanding that they are part of a team rather than operating in isolation.

Productive teams don’t just happen and ‘stars’ alone don’t bring success, especially if the team as a whole is not in balance and pulling together. Belbin recognised this in the 1970s, and his seminal work using an inventory of psychometric tests found that balance rather than straight intellect enabled a team to succeed. Successful teams employ a mix of people with different, but complementary, behaviours.

Choosing the right location and layout for people to work together is important. A more integrated layout improves communication and creates the sense of a common purpose, loyalty and commitment to the project.

Teams are usually composed of core permanent members, as well as those required for specific tasks or deliverables that are only associated with the project for part of the time. The project manager has to ensure that they are available when needed and must fully integrate the team when present. The engineer’s team can typically comprise 30 to 50 people for studies and consist of several hundred for engineering, procurement and construction management projects, so people management and leadership
are essential skills for any good project manager.

From the owner’s side, the owner’s team can vary from a handful of individuals to very large teams. In some countries, ‘man marking’ is common, with large teams overseeing the engineer. Smaller teams arguably achieve better results, but this depends upon the quality of the engineer’s team and the complexity of the project itself. The owner’s team directs and controls the engineer but should avoid becoming engineers themselves and unnecessarily duplicating efforts.

Stage 2: Storming

Finding a ‘common language’ in projects is often contentious. This is about both the language of engineering (design criteria, standards, terminology and acronyms) and the mother tongue (and culture) of different parties. In this increasingly global world, teams can be very diverse.

In health and safety, shared values have to be front of mind for team members. This is the time to establish non-negotiable protocols such as safety systems, agreeing definitions and metrics, setting personal protective equipment standards, communicating progress and sharing areas of risk and concern.

An alignment meeting involving senior representatives from the engineer, owner and others is valuable here. This is similar in intent to the kick-off session, but now people know each other and the project better. This session is held one or two months into the project, and a trained facilitator often aids the process. At least a full day in a location out of the regular office seems to work best.

By now, the need to address social/community and environmental issues should also be impacting strongly on the project. Potential community resistance to projects cannot be ignored, and the term ‘social licence to operate’  well describes how the owner is expected to assist the community to elicit their support. Many project teams include personnel engaged specifically to work on such issues and provide guidance to their technical counterparts. Relevant social issues impact and constrain technical decision-making, particularly in contentious matters such as tailings dam location, overland pipelines, roads, powerlines, vehicle routes and the use and distribution of scarce water resources. Purely technical or low-cost solutions on their own are no longer acceptable.

In addition, to ensure that practical solutions are derived, it has become the norm for study phases to bring specialists with execution and operations experience into the study team early on.

This phase can be difficult and sometimes confronting, and knowing how we are doing is important. Why not ask the team? Various forms of survey options can be used. Surprisingly candid comments can give the project manager a good idea of where problems may lie and allow timely and appropriate actions to be taken to address them.

To help the transition from this phase, symbolism can be important. Whether it is in having jackets, mugs or t-shirts specially made, or simply having a unique style of literature, stationery and noticeboards, it is about creating a sense of belonging and identification with the project as a whole. This can also be extended to the style of meetings and to functions that celebrate meeting milestones or achievements.

Stage 3: Norming

The clarification of key project parameters and early ‘freezing’ of design criteria, standards, flowsheets, specifications and other key documents and drawings is crucial. This ensures that clear directives are given to the various disciplines, and establishes budgets and deliverables used to control schedule
and expenditure.

Constant changes to philosophy, equipment choice, flow sheets or specifications beyond the first few months are extremely disruptive. This is a critical issue for the project manager as it will cause budget and schedule over-runs. What-ifs and trade-offs should be sensibly managed, particularly after prefeasibility, which by definition should carry forward a single project configuration.

Much has been written about the importance of ‘front-end loading’, and comprehensive research demonstrates the value of doing sufficient work up front before jumping into execution. The authors go further in advocating that those who will build and operate the facilities must be involved as early as possible in studies.

A contentious issue is the euphemistically termed ‘value engineering’ meeting that often occurs during this stage. After months of careful engineering, the capital cost may be unpalatable and a meeting is called with the objective of a cost reduction of 10 per cent or more. Value engineering does have a role to play, but trying to do it late in the project does not generate the ‘value’ expected, and hypothetical savings often come back to haunt in the form of a failure to meet performance standards or higher operating and capital costs creeping back in.

Stage 4: Performing

This is the upward sloping part of the curve in Figure 1, showing the team and the project being effective and efficient. Previous stages should have been progressively leading up to this, but it can still be a troublesome phase.

The frequency, content, style and culture of a myriad of meetings are particularly important. Meetings are essential in communicating, reporting progress and agreeing actions. Good meetings allow for honest and open communication, and participants leave with a sense of commitment and enthusiasm. Bad ones engender a sense of futility and depression. Project managers should thus pay particular attention to the quality and frequency of their meetings.

Risks still abound and need to be clearly defined, along with appropriate mitigating measures. Macro risks often involve social and environmental issues. Technical risks are usually easier to define, but discipline engineers need the necessary experience to manage the risks and accept ownership for mitigating appropriately.

Given that people are the key ingredient to project success, risk is best reduced by getting excellent owner and engineer teams in place, ensuring that they remain on the project for the duration and having them work cooperatively and always doing what is right for the project.

A significant cause of conflict arises when there is a lack of transparency about real progress. Project managers are prone to over-optimism, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. Transparency is about open sharing of information. Project bulletin boards, particularly highly visual ones, are valuable in keeping people informed, highlighting progress, celebrating success and stimulating debate.

None of this underestimates the challenges in building new projects. The world has become a more complex place, and there is a tendency to try and deal with it contractually or to micro-manage it with additional structures and procedures. However, there is evidence that suggests that allowing people to act independently and cooperatively to eliminate silos is a better approach.

Despite best efforts, it is a fortunate project that does not encounter setbacks. When things go wrong, teams have to be strong enough to deal with the challenges and work together to develop a recovery plan to get the project back on track. Vigilance is needed to stay on the performing part of the curve.

Stage 5: Re-forming

Some large companies have adopted a program approach of moving key staff from one study or project to another, thereby corporately and individually maintaining skills, learning, project knowledge, familiarity with procedures and relationships. This worked well when there was a project pipeline, but now that the flow has dried up, it is even more essential to spend time developing effective teams from groups of people who have not previously worked together.

One large company applies an independent project completion review process. Formally structured, this process specifically compares outcomes with the original project objectives and justification and uses an analytical framework, including extensive interviews with team members from both sides, to elicit lessons learned and opportunities for improvement. These are then formally fed back into the project management system for future teams to learn from.


Projects have become more complex in the sheer number of interfaces and size of teams involved, and are complicated by the need to integrate technical with social and environmental issues. Greater complexity has added to cost and timescale.

Productive and aligned teams have proved their worth, yet companies devote insufficient attention to their development. Good teams are created – they don’t just happen. Recognising that a team is essentially a group of strangers that have to be shaped into a united group sharing common goals and purpose must be acknowledged and addressed.

Project personnel should be both well qualified technically and emotionally suited to working in the hothouse of project environments. The ability to work cooperatively, share ideas, communicate widely and do what is best for the project are equally as important as their technical proficiencies.

Tuckman’s model of how a team develops over time and must work through distinct stages before becoming productive is worth considering and can assist in understanding where a team is at a given point in time to guide the necessary interventions to keep it on track.

As the industry bumps through this painful downturn, much experience residing in the hands and heads of the older cadre can easily get lost. While nothing presented in this paper is earth shattering, it remains remarkable to the authors that the same basic mistakes keep being repeated. By articulating some of these points, they hope to help the next generation of project people avoid their own painful experiences.


Tuckman B, 1965. Developmental sequence in small groups, Psychological Bulletin, 63(6): 384-399.

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