Team Building, Collaboration and Communication


Why, What, How?

Brady and Joe getting things right Building a good team is the single most important thing a Project Manager can do to achieve a successful project. With the right attitude, a team will overcome almost any difficulty to succeed in its goals. In most projects there will be times when only the determination of the team can overcome the difficulties and carry the initiative through to success. Even when there is no pressure, the team's spirit and enthusiasm will be reflected in the quality of the solution and the extent to which other people buy-in to it.

There is a whole area of academic study and practical experience about building good teams. Business psychologists present many theories concerning the way in which people interact. A world-class Project Manager needs to be an amateur psychologist and a manipulator of human behaviour. Here are some of the factors which generally lead to a good team:

To achieve this collaborative team style, the Project Manager usually needs to behave as one of the team - collaborative, supportive, friendly, etc. The Project Manager should be the best of friends with each team member to the extent that each participant would go to great lengths to help the project succeed.

It is interesting to compare this project management style with the traditional view of the Project Manager. Often the best recognised Project Managers are those who make a lot of noise, bang the table, make snap judgements, are tough with their people, "crack the whip" and generally drive people to perform through the exercise of power. These behaviours are very visible and it is common to find managers with this personal style do get recognised and promoted.

A regime of terror can only succeed so far and for so long. There comes a point where the participants give up trying and no amount of pressure can persuade them to increase their contribution. Beyond that point, people will leave and the project will fail. Conversely, in a collaborative team the participants feel that the team's success is their own personal mission. They will respond ever more determinedly as the pressure rises.

The Project Manager who has created an excellent team will find the team performing optimally with very little intervention. Herein lies the dilemma for a career-minded Project Manager. In good projects the Project Manager does not need to (and should not) exhibit dramatic, powerful, personal characteristics, but the organisation's leadership may be more likely to recognise the talents of a manager who creates a lot of noise.

The stick and the carrot - also available as a PowerPoint slide The reality is that a sensible balance achieves the best results:

reward vs punishment

pleasure vs pain

opportunity vs threat

encouragement vs coercion

The classic analogy is the donkey, motivated by the promise of a carrot and the threat of a beating with the stick. Most psychologists believe that the positive experience of the carrot is much more successful than the negative threat of the stick. They would argue that the stick should be applied only on rare occasions with good cause - or, maybe, never at all. The carrot should be offered as a constant reward for performance.

Threat vs Opportunity - also available as a PowerPoint slide A similar balance should be achieved between the stimulus generated by the availability of opportunities versus the instinctive survival reaction to threats.

The best compromise can sometimes be achieved by people taking on different "good guy" and "bad guy" roles. Think about the "headteacher sanction". In a school class, children should be exposed for most of their time to a friendly, helpful, collaborative teacher. If they behave badly, it is unwise to damage the teacher-student relationship so the threat of pain and punishment takes the form of a trip to the headteacher. If you apply this logic to a hierarchical structure, the conclusion is that each person more than one level from the bottom needs to be a friendly, collaborative, supportive mentor to their immediate subordinates, but a tough, demanding figure in the eyes of those below. Each manager needs to be able to play both roles.

Human behaviour is driven by a combination of many factors - some controllable, some not. The inherent nature of each individual is something the Project Manager can do little about. The way participants are assigned to roles and sub-teams can be controlled. In an extreme case, the Project Manager might choose not to use a given individual if their character would not fit in. Look for a good balance of personalities as well as skills when building the sub-teams and the working relationships within the Project Team. This is an area where considerable psychological research has been performed - many publications and training programmes are available.


Building a collaborative team

But who said teams need to be hierarchical? Within a team you will find a mixture of different people with different assignments - but that does not necessarily require a hierarchy. The best team cultures develop where team members recognise that everyone else also has important value to contribute.

For each issue someone needs to be the recognised leader; someone has to believe it is their responsibility to drive an issue otherwise it may become forgotten. For each issue there will be a sub-set of people most appropriate to make contributions. "Appropriate", here, means a combination of capability, resource scheduling/availability, and the need to build a good team.

Collaborative teams - click to see PowerPoint version The team structure that develops (either formally or informally) will be flexible such that the right people work together for any given topic. It also means that a leader for one issue might be only a contributor for another - and vice versa. A can be B's "boss" in some aspects of the teamwork, but B might be A's boss in others.

In this example, see how the Applications Development Team Leader is an important contributor to the Solutions Architecture Team and also to the overall project leadership team. In fact, all the leaders can be a leader in one context but a contributor in others.

Collaborative Team design - see PowerPoint versionIf we expand this thinking, it is possible to generate a highly collaborative team where every member has at least one issue to lead upon. In this table, we see how the Project Manager has assigned staff to the various issues. Even the most junior team member, Pat Sapphire, has a team leader role to play - Pat is responsible for organising the team's social events.

Notice how Jude Jade, the Change Management leader, works for Jo Green as part of the Solutions Architecture Team, but Jo defers to Jude when dealing with Change Management issues. By respecting the specialist skills, roles and responsibilities of other team members, a strong, collaborative team spirit can be created - each person recognising the value of others and the value of working as a team.

It is a good idea to give everyone responsibility for some aspect, major or minor, of the overall success of the project.


Planning for a first-class team

You might be able to build a good, effective team based on your own instinct and personality. If, however, you apply your wisdom you will realise you need to plan your approach in advance of building the team. Team-building considerations will impact your decisions on such things as:

The project's sponsors should also understand the importance of building a good team. Make sure they support the measures and approaches you plan. For example, if you feel it would help to allow the team to wear jeans, work from home and have free drinks every Friday - you could get in a lot of trouble unless the senior leadership understand and agree.

Routine activities and special events should be included in the overall high-level planning for the project and in the detailed plan for each phase.


Mobilising the team

You should begin to build an effective team culture as (or even before) the individuals join the project. This is a combination of attitude and specific actions. All people in leadership roles should make each individual feel a valued part of a team with a clear and important mission.

Key message to convey to all team members are:

There will also be a large number of specific things the team members need to understand, eg:

Some of this can be conveyed to individuals personally as they arrive. To handle the bulk of the information you should prepare:

Remember that the emphasis is to build a good team. The right attitude can be promoted throughout all these activities. In addition, you should plan appropriate formal and informal activities that build the desired attitudes and behaviours. In most cases, some form of team social event should be held early in the project. Informal social activities can also be planned - even where they are intended to look unplanned.


Team-building and social events

Most Project Managers view activities involving alcohol as the easiest way to win over the hearts of the team members. Remember to be generous! There are many other options. You need to give careful thought to the desired team culture, the norms of the organisation, and the background of all team members. Please remember that just because you think a good fun night out involves a large amount of beer and loud dance music, it does not follow that all your team members would enjoy it. Avoid activities that only appeal to a sub-set of the team, eg go-kart racing, paint-ball battles, golf, opera, wine tasting, etc. If you organise such activities, make sure the next event appeals to a wholly different group. Be particularly careful to avoid developing a team culture where you socialise with a group of friends who regularly enjoy all your social activities but you find there are other people who never want to join in. What you are doing is dividing the team into your friends versus the people who do not share your interests.

Here are some ideas:

  • Provide food and refreshments for team meetings
Particularly useful if you want to encourage people to attend inconvenient or unwelcome meetings.
  • Lunchtime drinks and meals
Used to be very common - but the damage you do to the progress of the project can be very visible. In general, it is best to reserve this for special celebrations.
  • Evening drinks, meals, etc
A majority of project team members may enjoy the socialising - even if they are not interested in drinking or staying late.
  • Clubs, dancing, theatre, etc
Typically any such event appeals to a minority of the team. Try to choose something which will be interesting to most and tolerable to everyone
  • Day trips
Often most effective if achieving a serious business goal as well as being fun. For example, take the team to an "away-day" at a pleasant location to hold an event such as a briefing, training, symposium, think-tank, etc.
  • "Macho" pursuits - eg go-karts, paint ball, abseiling, climbing, racing cars, driving off-road vehicles, parachuting, bungy jumping, etc
These activities are often the most popular, but there is a major risk that a significant part of the team will not enjoy such activities and feel annoyed that their interests are not being considered. Make sure there is appropriate insurance cover.
  • "Off the wall" fun - ie strange things you never thought you would do as an adult, eg murder mystery, quiz competitions, karaoke, trivial pursuits, ten pin bowling, badminton, sports day, pony trekking, etc
These work well provided the style changes with each event. People will enjoy most novel activities once (and once only). Look for activities that anyone could enjoy - previous experience not required.
  • Community charity - eg clean up a canal, paint the Boy Scout hut, coach at the local school, etc
Usually excellent team-building activities that do good as well. Somehow, the messier you get the better they seem to work.
  • Charity events
Again, good team builders provided a large number of people participate.
  • Training courses
Training can be fun as well as serving a more serious purpose. Investment in training also emphasises the importance and value you place on the team members. It works particularly well if several team members attend the training together.
  • Training days
Gather together the team or sub-teams as appropriate for regular training or briefing sessions - say once a month. These are opportunities to convey general information and specific knowledge. They also provide an excellent opportunity for team building.



Any activity that costs money or detracts from normal working time must be agreed by the project's sponsor and senior leadership. Observe any legal or cultural restrictions. What some nations, industries and organisations see as normal, desirable business behaviour can be seen by others as immoral, illegal or devious.

Any activity outside normal working practices and/or locations may require special insurance.


Case Study

A senior public sector IT manager was given a free place on a training course that was relevant to his work. He was dismissed for accepting the supplier's hospitality.


Team building, meetings and communication during the project


Team-building should continue throughout the project. As with the events during mobilisation, these would normally be a mixture of directly work-related activities, and other social, team building.

Building good team spirit is not just a matter of organising entertainment for the team. As well as the special events, the routine work of a project typically gives rise to many opportunities for human interaction - meetings, informal discussions, chance encounters, written messages, etc. Each of these is an opportunity to enhance the effectiveness of the team by displaying the right attitude and saying the right things.



MBWA is a famous management theory - it means "Management By Walking About". What it means is that a good manager operates, at least in part, by getting out to see what the team is doing whether or not there is a specific reason to do so.

It is very easy for a busy Project Manager to shut the door and concentrate on consolidating the plan or reviewing the deliverables. You must reserve enough time for direct interaction with the team. It should be a two-way, collaborative process. Here are some of the things you should be aiming to achieve:


Brownie points

It may be possible to promote good team behaviour using recognition and reward mechanisms. In most organisations there will be some form of formal performance assessment and reward process. This would normally address the major objectives of the individual. The current project might, or might not, be one a significant factor in those objectives and/or the performance assessment. It may also be possible to introduce additional incentives directly relating to the project, for example, bonuses paid for beating deadlines.

Formal reward processes usually focus on the individual's prime objectives. They are rarely able to promote good behaviour across all aspects of the work - to do so would require complex analysis of all desirable behaviours and a carefully constructed performance measurement system to balance the competing goals. The Project Manager may be able to find other ways to recognise, promote and reward good behaviour, particularly where it lies outside the individuals' main reward system.

Recognition itself is very valuable in promoting good behaviour. Remembering to say "thank you" is the cheapest and easiest way to improve team performance. Make sure it sounds (and preferably is) genuine: "thank you, that was really useful".

In the right situations, secondary recognition mechanisms can be administered by the Project Team. Where there are significant financial rewards involved, this must be done properly with the agreement of the project's sponsor and the overall organisation. It will normally be subject to tax and legal requirements. It is also important to ensure that it is acceptable in the overall organisation and environment; for example, do people not working on the Project Team consider it unfair?

One potential solution is to use rewards and recognition with no direct financial value. There does need to be some belief that the reward or recognition has value - but value can be established in many ways.

For example:

  • the Project Manager guarantees to communicate positive feedback to the individual's line management
  • fun fantasy league table of sub-team or individual Brownie Point performance
  • token gifts or treats (subject to whatever financial limits are appropriate in the environment) eg bottle of Champagne, shopping voucher, airline ticket
  • bonus payments


Brownie a junior Girl Scout
Brownie Point English colloquial expression:

A recognition of merit which could seemingly be added to the individual's overall merit score, but which, in fact, has no real value so collecting them is equally pointless.


A "Brownie Point" system, if it is to be taken seriously, needs to be administered by the Project Office. Members of the team at any level can nominate a colleague as deserving a number of Brownie Points for doing something special which contributed towards the success of the project. It could relate to the quality of the work, getting things done on time, the social life of the team, relationships with external parties, etc. You might also set up tariffs for specific actions you wish to encourage, for example, the submission of issues or completing timesheets on time. The nomination or submissions would be scrutinised by the Project Office to make sure it is genuine and appropriate. Individual scores feed into whichever for of reward mechanism is in operation.



Two common complaints from project teams are: "too many meetings" and "not enough communication". Senior management often react to the latter of these by organising more meetings.

Let's distinguish between formal meetings and the gatherings of work groups. Some rules about formal meetings can be found in the Control and Reporting section.

The gathering together of people for the practicalities of working together is bound to involve a large number and wide range of meetings over the life of a project. In some cases, regular scheduling makes sense in order to overcome natural reluctance to communicate, to share knowledge, and, in particular, to admit to failings. Some people inevitably feel that any disturbance from their main task is unwelcome and/or unhelpful. Group members frequently dislike interaction with others outside that group.

Here is a typical pattern of recurring Project Team meetings...




Full Project Team Briefing, plenary session, and team-building social event Approximately once a month, preferably coinciding with major milestones
Project leadership (PM plus team leaders) Progress, issues, actions Weekly
Team leader plus sub-team Specific tasks, progress, problems, estimates, help wanted Daily

In other cases, meetings will be arranged around specific activities or issues and will involve only the people concerned. If you take another look at the picture of the collaborative project team, you will see that there will be many different workgroup relationships and consequent needs to gather together the right people. Here is the ideal (but unachievable) mental picture of how the collaborative team works:

At any instant I can share my thinking with precisely the right group of people - those who can help and those who benefit from understanding.

The fundamental rule should be to get optimum value from people's time. Do not have meetings where the presence of certain attendees adds no value for a majority of the time - maybe separate meetings or approaches would work better. Do not waste time on routine matters that could effectively be conveyed in a more efficient way. Avoid the tendency to involve every possible person in every discussion - you will make more progress with a small number of the right people.

It is not just a waste of time, resources and money. Wasting time at meetings often leads to cynicism, demotivation and a lack of confidence in the leaders.



Much productive time can be lost travelling to meetings. Face-to-face meetings usually provide the best channel for discussion, information exchange and relationship building. These benefits should be balanced against the lost productive time. In general a mixture of physical and virtual meetings provides the best compromise.

Arranging telephone conferences should be simple. Most major organisations already have facilities available. Alternatively, the telephone service provider should be able to make the arrangements.

There are two main styles of Videoconferencing: using specialist videoconference facilities or using desktop software from your PC. The ideal scenario is to be able to hook up with other participants through the network at any time without leaving your desk. Although this is technically feasible, relatively few organisations have the bandwidth and controls to operate it efficiently.

The alternative is for attendees to gather at their nearest video conference suite (internally or externally - eg conference centres, press agencies). Two-way links are just dialled directly. Multiple link ups can be achieved through "bridges" - everyone connects to the bridge which combines and controls the multiple video and audio links.

Here is a project meeting with participants at five locations in four different countries.

Videoconference links are combined through a "bridge" provided by the external telecomms provider.

Further participants are connected to the bridge through audio channels (ie normal telephone dial in).

As well as the videoconferencing, the participants are connected through the organisation's global network. They are able to:

  • view presentations

  • share applications

  • share text messages, diagrams etc


Non-verbal communication

There will be a range of channels available for communication within the project team and with external participants. The objective is to share information, knowledge, thoughts, concerns, feelings, etc in the most efficient way. Remember that people often feel they have insufficient time to read all the written material that is sent to them - at least with face-to-face communication you can see that they can hear you (but not necessarily whether they are listening).

Some of the uses and channels of communication would normally have been considered and agreed as part of a Communications Plan and, generally, as part of the Change Management process. This is particularly the case where communications are made to people outside the Project Team.

Here are some tips...



EMail Undoubtedly the conveyor of most ad-hoc written messages. Not everyone reads all their mail, so make sure its content and importance is clear in the title. For those people who like to scan message previews, make sure the most important facts appear in the first few words (don't waste the first two lines with "Dear Fred" and a blank line). For important communications, track that recipients have read and/or responded as required.
PC / web chat services Real-time brief text messages exchanged between two or more participants. Can be very useful for brief exchanges. Provides instant check that the other person has read the message and responded. This works best if team members have access to a directory of chat addresses for all project participants. If something important or relevant to others comes up, copy and paste the text into an EMail or document.
Circulars There will be frequent needs to communicate messages to sub-sets of the Project Team - whether by paper, by EMail or by other methods. The Project Office would normally maintain circulation lists and other contact information. Make sure you communicate valuable information to people who need to know, otherwise your messages become resource-wasting junk mail.
Team newsletter Can be motivating, fun, informative, etc. The two main uses are to build team spirit and to communicate general information about the project. There is a danger that they achieve neither of these goals and become a waste of resources. Encourage people to read them with useful, valuable content - eg social calendar, bonus dates, competitions.
Project newsletter This is primarily aimed at participants outside the team. The objective will be to raise awareness and support for the project. In the latter stages of the project, more specific information, instructions and schedules will be conveyed. The use of external communications should be agreed as part of the Change Management planning.
Project Website Many projects create a web site to hold a wide range of information that participants may wish to access. On the front page will be headline messages. Reference information would be accessible through indexes. Communication through this channel will be particularly effective if participants have to visit it - for example, if the (compulsory) timesheets are entered through the same portal.
Documentation All projects generate great volumes of documentation, hopefully in a sharable electronic format. Easy, controlled access to the project documentation is the best way to enable communication of detailed information. Where there is something new or amended that particular team members need to be aware of, a process should be in place to draw their attention to it.
Formalised communication Certain forms of communication are controlled through specific processes and media, for example timesheets, progress reports, change requests, issues, etc. See the specific guidance for these.


Phase-end and project-end activities

Celebrating the completion of major phases of work or the overall project is an important element of team building. In some cases it might be argued that it is too late to affect outcome, but there are still good reasons to celebrate.

A key element of building an effective team is to focus the group on their goal. The importance of the goal is reinforced by the idea that it is a cause for celebration and a time to applaud the team's achievements. This understanding will help to motivate and focus the group. It is an implicit promise that completion will be celebrated and a wise manager will not break a promise even if there is no reason to believe the same people will work together again in the future.

Project celebrations are also a valuable tool in spreading the message of the project's success. To achieve a successful business solution, the organisation, senior leadership, end users, management and interested third parties all need to believe in its achievements, importance and relevance.

As with any other team-building event, ensure that the plans and expenditure are appropriate and agreed.





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