Road Rules, Not Road Rage


I had the opportunity to speak at the PMI Congress this year.  My presentation, called Expected Behaviors for Project Team Performance:  Road Rules, Not Road Rage introduced a set of ‘good behaviors” for teams to consider and an easy way to enable team members to reduce the “noise” which occurs among team members.

Determining the “right” set of behaviors to support productive teamwork is never easy, as team dynamics are intricate and difficult.  Defining a set of behaviors to best support teamwork must be articulated in a universal language, ideally because these behaviors need to be owned by the entire organization, not just project teams.  When set at the enterprise level, the introduction of expected behaviors sets the framework for ensuring these behaviors are a means of conducting business, not just a set of words hung along corporate walls.  Ideally, the entire organization must believe in the power of teamwork and to experience improvements in project outcomes and project performance as a result of strong teamwork.  If the company as a whole isn’t quite on board, start without them –introduce the behaviors to your project team.

 These Expected Behaviors have universal appeal, regardless of company size or corporate culture.  In other words, this set of team behaviors appeal to a broad audience because they are clear, easy to understand, and are comprehensible to diverse project teams, regardless of member position or title. 

The set of expected behaviors that have universal appeal to project teams are:

  • Treat others with dignity and respect
  • Support and promote intra- and inter-departmental teamwork
  • Understand and consider the needs and impacts of your own work on others
  • Demonstrate an ability to problem-solve and make timely decisions
  • Actively seek and receive feedback for improvement
  • Consistently share knowledge and information

 Introducing Expected Behaviors to project teams has a simple premise:  Project work is conducted through groups; groups tend to be complex challenges from a management and communications point of view; if project teams come up with some ways to improve group dynamics, they can enhance group performance.

Conducting a Rules of Engagement exercise will allow team members to develop an initial contract that describes how they will treat each other with dignity and respect.  Since the meaning of “treating others with dignity and respect” varies from individual to individual, this tool will help the team identify and discuss the various elements of behavior that are critical to the success of ongoing interactions.  The Rules of Engagement exercise focuses on six key areas of behavior:

  • Basic Courtesies
  • Operating Agreement
  • Problem-Solving and Decision-Making
  • Accountability
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Leader’s Role

In a team meeting, schedule extra time to focus on this.  If a team does not dedicate time to this exercise, it will never happen.  Many teams schedule a special session dedicated solely to Rules of Engagement.  In this meeting, team members brainstorm and record a list of key behaviors that are important to them and that best support operating agreements.  Consider asking such questions as, How do you like to work?  What is your work style? What strengths do you bring?  What type of behaviors annoy you?  What kinds of behaviors take us off track or reduce our effectiveness? Allow time for discussion of the key areas and behaviors that the team wants to adopt.  Ensure all voices are heard.

Run through each of the six key areas; all are important.  However, teams may find that not all have equal weight.  For example, Conflict Resolution may be more important to the group than Operating Agreement.  Focus on getting through all areas while seeking common ground for consensus.  Be sure to confirm that each area is complete before moving on.  A team leader may need to solicit input from quiet team members; not everyone will have the same voice.  As facilitators, it is important that team leaders acknowledge others’ contributions to the discussion before relating their own remarks.  Never distort others’ views in order to advance your own.  To be successful, the results of this exercise must represent the team’s collective input.  It is not unusual to invite an external party to facilitate this discussion; having a non-biased, unattached person lead the Rules of Engagement discussion often frees participants to share opinions freely.

Once the group decides on the key areas of behavior, they document and post their Rules of Engagement at every meeting as a reminder.  Depending upon the duration of the team, the group can decide if the agreement needs to be refreshed; often teams do not return to their agreement unless there are challenges in a particular area or significant turnover in project team membership. 

For skeptics who perceive this activity as nonsense and a waste of time when there is constructive and important project work to deliver, keep this in mind:  Teams who conduct this exercise indicate their teams are positively impacted by the experience.  Communication and working relationships improve; team members become more aware of behaviors toward others, more aware of others’ roles, and better at seeing different points of view.  Team who adopt Expected Behaviors say the exercise creates a more comfortable working environment, meetings are more productive, and teams are more efficient in meeting deliverables.  The big surprise for most team leaders is the realization that the activities are not time-consuming, do not slow down work, nor do they stifle team energy or limit lively and productive discussion.

According to organizations who have introduced Expected Behaviors on project teams, participants say it has made a difference.  Follow-up survey results suggests the Expected Behaviors Team Survey tool very easily identifies team strengths and weaknesses and the Rules of Engagement exercise enables project teams to flag and fix team behavior smoothly.  Taken together, this is an effective preventive course of treatment for successful team dynamics.

 Lisa DiTullio, Principal, Lisa DiTullio & Associates, LLC


1 thought on “Road Rules, Not Road Rage”

  1. Good article – I particularly like the picture at the top! As with all areas of project management, team-building requires its own rigidly defined areas of uncertainty.

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