Effective Project Communications

With Project Definition, Structure, and Teams covered, Dawie Steenkamp (our guest writer and PM extraordinaire) will focus the next few articles on Effective Communication within Project Teams.


Communication is “a social process that involves the social exchange of symbols or behaviors (translatable into symbols) between two or more people” (Sullivan & Short, 2011, p. 471). Since the focus of this article is on project teams, it will be appropriate to narrow down the scope and focus on communication as it is observed in a group context. Beebe and Masterson (2012, p. 3) define small group communication as “communication among a small group of people who share a common purpose, who feel a sense of belonging to the group, and who exert influence on one another”. Paul Glen (2003, p. 35) provides insight when he describes effective communication as a process “when a thought of one person is translated into words, expressed, heard, and translated back into an identical thought in the mind of another”.

Communication in general is an indispensable aspect of teamwork, but effective communication translates to high performance and achieving goals. In the past, communication research has focused on goals, individual roles, and group norms. In more recent years, there has been an increased awareness that not all groups develop to the level of effective functioning prescribed in group development theories, and that perhaps most groups never reach those desired levels. Effective communication is one of the indicators of a cohesive team and is essential for project success; in fact, 95 percent of project problems are related to poor project communication. Pentland (2012) confirms this observation in his research by presenting data showing that established patterns of communication is the single most important thing to measure when gauging the effectiveness of a team. Communication Theories, Factors, Skills, and Roles will be discussed in the next few articles.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.


Diversity in Project Teams

The final step of the project manager before assigning specific people to the identified project roles is to consider the diversity of the planned team members. Group think must be avoided within the team to allow healthy project discussions. Sociocultural and individual diversity are some of the factors that will have an influence on group behavior. Building relationships are crucial to the newly-formed team, and the more diverse a team is, the more challenging this task will be. If diversity is managed strategically, it can increase the effectiveness of the team significantly.


The following factors must be considered by the project manager:

Culture. As companies increasingly include virtual teams in their organizational makeup, they also increase the levels of diversity. This will have an impact on whether information is communicated implicitly or explicitly; whether conflict is addressed directly or indirectly; whether decision-making is expected to be collaborative or by those in power only.

Gender. Gender stereotyping has its foundation in a cultural approach: it is suggested that men and women have different communication styles, which impact interactions in a team. Even though these perceptions have changed over years and it is now believed that there are more similarities than differences between the two genders’ communication styles, it may pose a challenge in some teams. Teams should, therefore, be aware of the potential for people to be stereotyped into a particular role based on their gender.

Age. It is very likely that project teams will be formed with individuals representing members from three or four generations (Seniors, Baby Boomers, Gen -Xers, and Gen-Yers), and flexibility will be of great value in the intergenerational trust-building process. Building an understanding of the diverse values and personal needs of the team members representing the generational span will be a challenge in most project teams. Teams that contain marked age differences must work harder to find social conversations that will serve as a common denominator by which team members can share their experiences.

Education. It is generally assumed that there is a connection between academic achievement and the ability to perform the necessary skills in day-to-day discussions. If members of a team have a more homogeneous education, the socialization process is more easily facilitated.

Professional Diversity. Professional background, organizational standing, and expertise can have an impact on the productivity of teams. People in the highly-skilled professions may be perceived to hold stereotyped views of less-qualified workers’ intellectual abilities. The tension usually is reduced by finding some basis of equality outside team members’ occupations.

Interpersonal Needs. The Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation (FIRO) theory assumes that individuals in a small group pursue the satisfaction of interpersonal needs. Individual personalities and cultural backgrounds are determinants in the level of need, and as the group becomes more comfortable with each other, shifts on the continuum occur.

Managing the different characteristics of teams and the factors that contribute to team effectiveness, poses challenges in organizations. Even though there may be less conflict in homogeneous teams, task performance may not be as effective as that of a heterogeneous team. Therefore, investment in management awareness of and sensitivity-training in diversity will reap significant organizational benefits.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Team Characteristics

After the project has been defined and the project team structure finalized, the project team characteristics must be considered by the project manager. The following characteristics are considered central to small groups and teams. How these characteristics and traits present themselves in team settings have an impact on the level of motivation, the quality of communication, and the effectiveness of the transfer of knowledge in project teams.


Communication. Verbal and nonverbal communication are considered some of the most fundamental behaviors associated with a team’s actions and are often the first indications of the presence of a team. True team communication is not random, but purposeful interaction where problem solving, role playing, team building, and trust building occur.

Structural patterns of talk. This characteristic is considered an indirectly observable communication characteristic. If an individual understands the four types of communications (problem-solving talk, role talk, consciousness-raising talk, and relational talk) of the team, it is sufficient for participation as an effective team member.

Space. Even though physical proximity of individuals previously indicated the presence of a group or team, the emergence of new technologies has changed this indicator significantly. Integrated communication systems have modified the understanding of face-to-face and virtual communication between team members and the challenges around these environments, and will continue to do so.

Time. A group of individuals typically have to communicate with one another for some period before the discussion can be considered team communication. This time period will vary depending on the unique situations within the team

Size. The definition of a team should include the characteristic of size, but scholars have not been able to agree on the exact parameters of team sizes. The optimum size of a team must ensure enough diversity of opinion, knowledge, and roles to prevent group thinking within the team while still being productive.

Interdependence. True interdependence occurs when the tasks of the team are complex and of such a nature that the team cannot divide into separate, parallel teams. The achievement of the common goal of the team through interdependency is the key characteristic that distinguishes a team that is a team in name only vs. a cohesive team.

Norms. Team norms are shared ethics, convictions, behaviors, and procedures regarding the team’s purpose, which usually is agreed upon subconsciously by the team. Once the team has established a history, new group norms will begin to emerge.

Goals. Teams are held together by their commitment to cooperate in the achievement of a common purpose or goal. A group of people can only become a team when the common goal is sufficiently attractive for the individual to set aside personal goals for the sake of team goal achievement.

Shared Identity. Another way to identify a team from a group of people is to determine whether there is a perceived line that separates the insiders from the outsiders. This characteristic of a team refers to the process when people come to think of themselves as members of the team, and see other people as not being members of the team.

Team characteristics are not the only factors that impact project teams; the individual and sociocultural diversity of team members also play a role in the effectiveness of teams.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Team Structure

Depending on the organizational structure and project specifics, the project team structure can have different formats. Although there are a variety of tools available for the delivery of information relevant to the project team, the actual transfer of knowledge is a deliberate act of communication. How to become successful as a project team and stay successful in a constantly changing business environment is directly related to capable employees, and more specifically, how these individuals function as a team. Newly-formed project teams often consist of a group of individuals organized in a novel way with a specific project goal.


When the Project Manager (PM) is assigned, the first action he or she must perform is to create the best possible Project Management Team for the specific project. This must include roles such as Vendor PM (if required) and Business Analyst. The next action is to create the Core Project Team structure which must include roles such as Executive Sponsor, Business and Technical Owners, Business, Technical, and Testing Leaders, and Vendor Lead if required. When the Core Team structure is completed, the rest of the project team roles must be created, which should include all the relevant Business, Technical, and Testing Subject Matter Experts. The relevant Project Stakeholders must then be identified which should lead to the creation of the Project Steering committee. This team should include all relevant decision makers for the project and chaired by the Business Owner.

These individuals typically represent different organizational departments such as Information Technology or any of the business functionalities. As individuals, they come to the project team with unique skills, values, characteristics and individual personality differences. Research has shown that projects fail largely not due to a lack of professional skills, but due to a lack of social intelligence – that is, the ability to effectively function in intricate social relationships and environments. The complexity of the project, organizational structures, technology, or the required skills and experience may, however, require teams to be geographically or functionally dispersed. In these situations the project team may become partly virtual, or even fully virtual, creating another layer of potential challenges.

Being in the same physical location with most of the other team members has been indicated as a contributing factor to project success: it facilitates communication that is necessary for project execution, increases opportunities to apply motivational strategies, creates a sense of camaraderie, improves communication and allows for personal interaction. Even though the advantages of virtual teams seem to be obvious (such as a large knowledge pool and lower project costs), there are risks associated with this team structure. Results from a study by Andres and Shipps (2009) show virtual teams have difficulty with social context: members were unaware of colleagues’ professional needs such as clarification, recognition, and feedback. This might adversely impact knowledge transfer and the productivity of virtual team members. Whether team members are virtual or non-virtual, the composition of these teams is crucial to the success of projects. As such, the characteristics and factors that impact project teams must be acknowledged and managed if a project is to be successful.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Teams


The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individuals in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” ~Babe Ruth

The biggest mistake any Project Manager can make (even if they are the most experienced and knowledgeable project manager AND they follow all the correct methodologies and procedures) is to believe that they can successfully implement a project alone. The first and most important step is to create the CORRECT project team structure and to get the correct people assigned to each role within that structure.


Recent research has shown, however, that IT professionals, including supervisors and managers, continue to place a far stronger focus on technical skills than interpersonal skills. Teams are comprised of individuals, each of them contributing in a unique way to the overall effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the team. Therefore, it only seems logical to carefully consider the human aspect when building team structures and role assignments for project development. DeCarlo (2004) defines a project team as “a small number of people with complementary subject matter expertise who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and a common approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable”. Teams do not function in a bubble; the newly constructed project team in an organization reflects the complexity, diversity, challenges and interdependence of modern society. They come to the team as individuals, but they also come as representatives of a variety of functionalities in the organization – and often from outside the organization. As such, they typically do not have a history of working together. They have not had the time to identify or assess the social dimensions associated with successful interaction in a team environment before productivity demands must be met.

The mitigation of the challenges faced by newly-formed teams is crucial to ensure the success of the team. This has to be done not only through the various project management methods and tools, but also by ensuring that the appropriately skilled and experienced resources are assigned to the right project roles for the full time period required. Since each project can be defined as a unique process, the composition of the team for each should be carefully considered to ensure optimum project performance.

The next few articles will focus on team characteristics, diversity, and structures.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

Project Implementation Within Organizations

Due to the high economic value of Information Technology (IT) and Information Systems (IS), organizations have an insatiable appetite for them. Despite the significant amounts companies invest in projects, the Standish Group (2013) published that only 39 percent of all projects in organizations succeed (delivered on time, on budget, with required features and functions).

A clear scope and charter, appropriate project resources, effective knowledge management, effective project communications and motivation, and skillful project management are all elements identified not only as best practices for project managers and Project Management Office (PMO) leaders, but also as crucial to project success. The reason why teams are successful or unsuccessful when participating in team activities has become a topic of significant interest in organizational settings. To plan, execute, and implement projects in a manner conducive to a successful outcome obviously requires substantial levels of knowledge. In recent years there has been an increasing awareness that the extent of expertise related to project success is not only limited to technical knowledge, but also requires knowledge about the human side of project management.


Failed projects are often the result of organizational and management issues, rather than the technology used. A majority (about 80 percent) of projects fail not because of a lack of technical knowledge, but because not enough emphasis was placed on the role of the “soft skills” in the project environment. Project managers are typically highly skilled in applying standardized project management frameworks, but they are not necessarily equipped to manage the subjective aspects of human interaction, which can adversely impact knowledge transfer and subsequently the project outcome. A PM certification tests the traditional process or methodology knowledge of the project manager but not really the soft skills of the person that is needed to manage the team to ensure a smooth project implementation. These soft skills and practical experience of the project manager must be used to ensure that the correct process for each specific project is followed. These processes are Project Management techniques, Team Composition and Structures, Effective Communication, Motivation within the team, Knowledge Management, Estimates and Budgeting, System Development Methodology, Risk Management, and Project Management Methodology. These topics will be discussed in more detail in future posts.

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP.

The Pragmatic PM(P) – Project “Defined”

Before I can start with any of our upcoming Project Management (PM) topics, I have to address the old “Us vs. Them” mentality within projects and PM.

The definitions of projects have changed over the years, and project teams and Project Managers must change accordingly. These changes have occurred in two ways:

The first view that changed is the general understanding of some that projects are executed primarily by Information Technology (IT). The reality is that projects are much more broad in nature and may or may not have a significant IT component. Regardless, each person brings unique skills and experiences to their role within the project. And, upon joining the team they must function as part of the whole with the same set of goals as the rest, no matter from which department they were assigned.

The second view that changed relates to the skills needed from each team member to be successful as an individual, as well as to enable the project team to succeed as a whole. In short, it is crucially important for team members (most importantly, the project manager) to exhibit highly effective soft / interpersonal management skills in addition to specific technical or business skills and knowledge.


In contrast to the earliest definitions of a project, which focused primarily on time, budget and scope (related to the more technical requirements), more recent definitions include references to the human component. Chapman and Ward (2003) define a project as “an endeavor in which human, material and financial resources are organized in a novel way, to undertake a unique scope of work of given specification, within constraints of cost and time, so as to achieve unitary, beneficial change, through the delivery of quantified and qualitative objectives” (p. 5). DeCarlo (2004) defines an extreme project as “a complex, high-speed, self-correcting venture during which people interact in search of a desirable result under conditions of high uncertainty, high change, and high stress” (p. 7).

Both of these definitions differ from most others, insofar as they emphasize human interactions. For example, Wysocki and McGary (2003) define a project as “a sequence of unique, complex, and connected activities having one goal or purpose and that must be completed by a specific time, within budget, and according to specification”. The latter definition shows similarities to the often-used definition found in the PMI Guide (2008, p.442): “A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result”.

In summary, the pragmatic project manager epitomizes highly effective interpersonal management skills. This can be observed by the ease and finesse by which they interact with and engage the team during all phases of a project.

By addressing the human factor, the PM ensures the team becomes unified, with no divisions between members, and the entire team works together from the start to achieve project objectives.

The remaining topics in this series will cover all parts of the PM picture which are necessary to enable team members to work productively as one, towards a successful outcome, all under the leadership of The Pragmatic PM(P).

Dawie Steenkamp, PhD, PMP