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Improving Project Productivity with Diverse Membership

By Michael Stephen Bird
Written April 2007

Abstract:

This paper will present evidence that taking action on managing diversity makes an important contribution to project team performance, which will lead to a distinct business benefit. As many project managers are facing project teams made of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics, they may feel that they are treading new territory. This research paper will present management steps that will provide assistance to the project manager leading culturally diverse teams, which will be their best chance for improving productivity, allowing for the successful completion of projects in an effective and efficient manner.

As many project managers are facing project teams made of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics, many project managers have the necessary management approach as they start treading this new territory. The application of the steps outlined in this research paper will help in the successful completion of many complex projects.

Introduction:

As many project managers are facing project teams made of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics, many project managers may feel that they are treading new territory. The problem is that they might not understand the techniques required to manage teams of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics. As a result, projects may not be managed efficiently and effectively; the team member motivation and satisfaction levels could also drop due to the lack of this knowledge.

In many corporations, information system projects have included team members who were born and raised in different cultures that celebrate various religions and traditions. This has become more evident as much of the programming is moving oversees to countries with lower labor costs. The make up of employees at the home office already reflect different ages, ethnicity, and sexual orientation due to the fact that organizations are growing more heterogeneous in nature. Additionally, more women are increasingly joining the technical and professional jobs that make up the project teams. While these cultures of project team members have become more diverse within the internal employees of the organization, it is further compounded by outsourcing certain portions of the project resources, especially the application programming portion.

The research question to be answered is, “In light of managing project teams with heterogeneous mixes of individuals, what organizational management approaches appear to be the best chance for improving productivity, allowing for the successful completion of projects in an effective and efficient manner?” 

Trend towards Heterogeneous Project Teams:

As the changing demographics and heterogeneous make up of project team members are reshaping the workplace culture, inclusive organizations could have the opportunity to create a favorable condition for team member retention, job satisfaction, and overall team motivation. This favorable condition could lead to a productive information system project that delivers a system product efficiently and effectively. It is imperative for project managers to understand cultures of diverse project teams, especially teams that span across the globe.  This has become important with the increasing number of programming resources being outsourced overseas, while the project managers, systems analyst, and the user community involved in the project team are usually located locally.

According to Iles and Hayers (1997), it is becoming evident that project teams are not homogeneous groups but now heterogeneous in nature (p. 95). In order to manage challenging projects, the leader must improve relations among the diverse participants in order to generate new solutions that lead to the team’s success against strategic goals.

There is an increase in the median age of project team members which will require new management practices. Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb) stated that the median age of the current workforce has increased tremendously over the last thirty years. The median age was only twenty-eight in 1970 and has risen to forty by 2000. From this research, one can see that employees older than forty-five will increase by thirty percent within the next few years (p. 68). With this trend, a lot of the members on project teams will be middle aged. This increase in older team members will require different motivational incentives and management techniques.  For example, older team members will require more time off for medical attention, family issues, and other personal concerns.  They will also be worried about paying for college of their children and saving for retirement.

While older employees require differing incentives than the younger counterparts, the difference in the various make up of the team members will result in the need of flexible incentives. Based on Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb), as more women and single parents enter the workforce, members of the project team will require quality time with their children and allowance will be necessary for child-related emergencies, regardless of the team member’s gender.  Disabled project team members are becoming more active due to new laws against discrimination of disabled workers. This will result in the manager having some project tasks redesigned to best utilize their competencies. These are issues that the current project manager has to consider that were not factors several years ago.

There are an increasing number of cultures that make up the membership of the project team environment, which makes it important to match rewards to the cultural values of heterogeneous team members. Project managers are now challenged to integrate the increasing number of cultures that make up today’s project teams.

While these diverse cultures of project team members have been increasing within the internal employees of the organization, these project teams are further compounded by outsourcing certain portions of the project resources, especially the application programming portion, according to Iles and Hayers (1997). These outsourced resources include members of various countries, such as India, China, Russia, and other countries with growing numbers of talented young engineers that can provide the same level of programming resources at a much lower cost. Iles and Hayers (1997) further states that due to differing cultures, the normal reward structures may not be effective across the international lines.

Matching Project Team Members and Jobs:

In light of the increasing heterogeneous project teams, it is important to match the rewards with the cultural values of different groups and successfully blend the culturally diverse team members. This includes all members regardless of gender, race, nationality, age, or disability. Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb) discuss the key to managing this type of human resources is flex-management (p. 69). This type of management is the establishment of core values that treats individual team members as critical assets to the project team that need proper development and maintenance. In flex-management, it is important that the project manager must compare the team member’s skills and abilities to the project task specifications, including the required behaviors, as well as skills and preferences.  Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb) points out that Debbie Biondolillo at Apple Computer feel “a match between company values and individual values is critical to success.”  The company may have to interview up to fifteen possible resources to ensure a proper match (p. 69). Progressive project managers, with the help of human resources, will identify those projects that team members feel most comfortable in order to provide the greatest potential to succeed. For example, 3M Corporation allows their researchers to spend fifteen percent of each week to work on projects of their choice (p. 69).

Redesigning project tasks will allow team members to fit their individual needs and goals. Then, each member will contribute their services to the team where the traditional methods would force the member to resign. Flexible work hours for completing the project tasks could let team members balance family and project task responsibilities. Additionally, if two or more project members share similar tasks, motivation of team members could increase which reduce turnover and heighten morale. The result would increase the overall project team’s performance. According to Kent (2005, Nov), people management becomes more demanding in the international arena where cultural differences can affect team member’s personal and business behavior (p. 6). Ian Henderson, director of SPC Associates, says “You need to have different styles of management and adapt your style to get the best out of every person you work with” (Kent, p. 6). Mr. Henderson continues by saying, “The attributes of the manager for the 21st century will be the understanding of that difference in behavior and the ability to respond to it.” (p. 6). In other words, best business practices might be viewed similarly across the world, but the way people operate is not the same. Redesigning jobs to better fit the team member’s differences and developing a better understanding of team member’s various cultures can aid in the overall performance of the project team.

Watson, Johnson, and Merritt (1998) reflect an assertion that heterogeneity of project team members can be a positive influence over problem solving tasks. Additionally, proper management approaches over heterogeneous teams can lead to improvement in trust, communication, and enhanced implementation, which will enhance this positive influence.  Team success can evolve from group discussions which stimulate the development of ideas, insights, and strategies that individuals usually cannot consider. Watson, Johnson, and Merritt (1998) provides an example of when diverse groups discuss problems, these groups tend to have been found to provide a larger number of crucial insights as to solving problems than did the individuals working alone (p. 162).  These authors also point out that groups are also more likely to identify and reject incorrect solutions to problems and they facilitate a higher motivation to achieve (p. 162). Therefore group synergy can be realized through cooperation of team members by promoting each other’s success.

A diversity advisory, Dianah Worman, wrote an article in Personnel Today supporting the theory that poor diversity management is bad for business and recommends that a diversity-balanced scorecard could be the answer to help project teams impact overall performance (p. 28). Managing diversity will allow the project teams to reach greater opportunities leading to improved performance. Additionally, it will pave the way for project teams to become more innovative and responsive in handling business problems. According to Worman (2005), there is growing evidence that links cost reductions, improved efficiency, and better team philosophy with proper management of diversity by the project manager (p. 28).

In an article from the Training Journal (2005, June), a diversity advisory, Dianah Worman, stated, “'A diverse workforce bringing different people together, with different views, ideas, experiences, and perspectives can bring real benefits for business performance. But managed badly, efforts to improve diversity can have the opposite effect, creating conflict and tension in the workplace” (p. 12). In other words, ignoring diversity can reduce productivity and performance. Also, badly managed efforts will only run the risk of team conflict and will also undermine the overall project team’s performance. In an effort for project managers to allow the benefits of diversity to be achieved, they will need to focus on changing team cultures and embrace the differences. Managing diversity is achieving a balance between differences of the individuals and the project task challenges at hand. How can this be achieved?  This balance can be achieved by utilizing the social psychology management approach.

Iles and Hayers (1997) reflect evidence from social psychology that national culture has an effect on perceptions, behaviors, and values in several ways (p. 95). Project managers adopting the social psychology approach will utilize the personality differences and other aspects of heterogeneity within the project team to positively influence the quality of problem solving within the group. Iles and Hayers (1997) also indicated much research has explored the role of diversity in group performance (p. 95). These authors also point out that the ability to learn through international project teams can become a significant developer in the international spectrum, where project teams help the organization share information, knowledge, and resources across the boundary lines that help reshape corporate culture, providing examples in best practices (p. 95). Therefore, it is important for project managers to accept the social psychology approach and encourage the differences in a manner to improve the overall success of projects across the multi-national lines.

Project managers can implement project policies and procedures that emphasize performance and individual differences in style and preferences. These project managers need to understand the process of treating diversity as an asset instead of an adversary. Based on the research that has been discussed in this section, it can be concluded that information and experiences can tap team member’s individual strengths and perspectives. This places a responsibility on developing managers to have good interpersonal skills and develop high tolerance of ambiguity. However, when a manager understands the social psychology approach and incorporate the flex-management approach, the project manager will find overall improvement in the project team’s success with team members’ higher motivation and zeal for improved performance.

Managing the Heterogeneous Project Team:

Understanding the differences that are natural in the heterogeneous teams and the advantages that can be recognized by the project manager when these teams are managed properly is only the beginning. The best practice management techniques must be explored and placed into practice by these project managers. Research has presented that there are five important steps to ensure project team success:

o                   Understand and define the membership diversity

o                   Understand the organization’s values and needs

o                   Plan and manage the resistance to change

o                   Review and evaluate results and overall team performance

o                   Refine and improve management techniques

According to Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb), it is important for project managers to understand and define the team members’ diversity (p. 70). This is done by taking an inventory of the approximate age (young, middle age, or older), ethnicity, gender, education (college graduate or not), nationality, and disability of each member. The project manager must be careful to not break any discrimination laws while generating this inventory and must be well-supported that the purpose is to serve the needs of all members. This inventory can only be at a high-level, and can be done by interviewing and observing. It is not necessary to document such an inventory and to be exact on the numbers, as the main objective is to have an understanding as to the diverse make up of the project team.

The next step is to understand the team member’s values and needs by performing research that will allow the project manager to build an understanding of the organization’s values and needs among the project team members, according to Jamieson and O’Mara (1992, Feb). There are management techniques to determine the needs, values, and potential goals in the consideration of the age, ethnicity, gender, education, and disability of the individual team members assigned to the project. The influences of culture on the team members’ perception and behavior are difficult, but the understanding of these influences is critical when managing culturally diverse project teams. A well-designed satisfaction survey of the team members at the beginning of the project can provide candid and objective feedback of the cultural expectations of each team member. The project manager can use a relevant, clear, and user-friendly survey instrument. The collection process could be a turnaround system on the intranet, form sent via email, or other such effective method. Understanding the team member’s diversity and individual needs is an important first step to the overall success of the project.

 Once you have defined the cultural differences and develop an understanding of team member’s values and needs, then the project manager can begin to match the project tasks effectively. Iles and Hayers (1997) states that utilizing the quantitative data from the survey will identify the team members whose culture are task oriented and who are more relationship-oriented (p. 97). This is important to identify in order to match the proper tasks to each member. A relationship-oriented individual will not be satisfied working with task-oriented project tasks and vice versa. The project manager can gain synergy from the differences when the project tasks are assigned in accordance to the individual’s belief system, as well as their core competencies.

Additionally, it is important to understand religious issues. For example, if the project requires tasks to be assigned seven days a week, some religions hold Saturday as an important religious day and others hold Sunday as important. Assigning staff accordingly will aid in project team satisfaction. Cultural awareness on the project manager’s part will be a major benefit to the success of the project.

The third step is for the project manager to implement techniques to aid in the elimination of team members’ resistance to change, which might have been formed by the team member while being a part of former homogeneous groups. A change in attitudes of these individuals will be necessary as they are reassigned to new homogeneous teams. Bagshaw (2004) indicates that a project manager can embrace the skills, experience, and ideas that result from the varying backgrounds that society offers today (p. 153). The manager can build on the areas of agreement than to identify what is not working. Bagshaw (2004) continues to say that the latter will cause resistance in the team members who appear to have a vested interest in the previous homogeneous teams (p. 153). Once the manager builds on the positive aspects, a greater acceptance of the team members will become evident, allowing the variety to produce a resource for innovation.

When tensions on the team build due to the heterogeneous nature of the team make up, the project manager must step in to take a leadership role. It is important to develop a sense of group norms that is acceptable by the consensus of the group members. This will build a better sense of trust, creativity, and accountability. It is extremely important to identify these group norms in the early stages of the project.  However, how does the project manager develop these group norms and build up the team trust?

According to Jung (2005, Dec), teambuilding is a response to reduce conflicts of heterogeneous groups and increase overall productivity (pp. 76 – 77). Once the teambuilding techniques have been implemented, the team can start to focus on a common vision, mission, and goal. As a result, the team can direct their primary activities toward that purpose. One technique of this teambuilding process as pointed out by Jung (2005, Dec) includes activities and exercises that have been included to recognize some contributions that individual team members bring to the team as a whole (p. 78).  Activities that involve affirming the different personality types and allowing for participants to begin communicating better will become effective. This will occur after the members build trust and understanding of each other.

Jung (2005, Dec) points out teambuilding activities require considerable attention to the infrastructure of the team and the overall project’s objectives (p. 78). This teambuilding process can be conducted in the beginning of any project of heterogeneous make up, especially if many of the team members are not use to working on such teams. Jung (2005, Dec) indicates that the members can be able to answer the following questions (p. 78):

o                   Why are we together on this team?

o                   What is our mission?

o                   What resources or external support do we need to be able to accomplish our goals?

  While these activities take some time to conduct in a usually tight schedule, ignoring these could be costly in the long run as team conflicts and miscommunication result from not conducting the teambuilding techniques.  Teamwork has many positive rewards as it becomes a useful tool to promote project productivity. Failure to build teamwork can result in lost trust, motivation, and poor communication among team members in the long term.

Bouley (2006, Feb), sums up this importance with a quote from Jim Pennypacker who is a director of the Center for Business Practices in Havertown, Pennsylvania. “A number of research studies have shown that one of the key success factors that may be the number one success factor in being able to lead project teams is the ability to build trust among team members and among stakeholders,” he says. “That's important in every team and project, but it gets more difficult with more complex teams, particularly virtual teams where there aren't necessarily face-to-face interactions. You have to work harder at building that trust” (p. 24). Therefore, investing in the time to build trust before a project starts will be a proactive start to prevent problems.

Bagshaw (2004) identifies four primary points to remember as the project manager works with heterogeneous teams (p. 153). These are:

o                   Check and test all assumptions of group members

o                   Communicate with empathy and respect

o                   Create a climate of inclusion

o                   Challenge inappropriate behavior of individual team members

These points are generally a part of the project manager’s overall approach during the teambuilding stage and consistently carried out throughout the entire project. The manager will discuss the project with some team members individually and as a group to determine if there are any assumptions that the team may have and will need to be corrected. This includes all aspects of group think, which results in reducing the number of ideas, ultimately to just one idea. Without considering quality alternatives, it is assumed by the group that they already have the best solution once groupthink sets in. Therefore, the project manager must eliminate groupthink by checking and testing all assumptions that the team members may have.

The manager will need to always communicate with empathy and respect to all team members. This is an important part of a leader that will also aid in creating a climate of inclusion. All ideas will be welcomed and no individual will feel afraid to express their ideas. If the team member’s idea is not utilized, the project manager will express his/her appreciation for receiving the alternative.

The manager must always be aware of inappropriate behavior of individual team members. Whenever a team member seeks to exclude other team members or try to create a climate of groupthink where his/her ideas are the only ones considered, the project manager must put a stop to this activity. This is done by communicating privately with the team member and encouraging the member to accept other input. This will be done in a positive manner and rewards can be provided to those who have appropriate group behavior. The rewards could be as simple as an expression of appreciation.

The fourth step is to review and evaluate results, including overall team performance. There are methods to monitor and measure the results and productivity of the project team to ensure success and determine any weaknesses to the overall effectiveness. Bouley (2006, Feb) explains that in a cultural diverse team, it can become difficult to control the progress of project tasks since each individual’s working style is different. For example, Robert J. Tarne, PMP, senior consultant with PM Solutions, states “The person might say they are 50 percent done, but without being there to check in on them, you have no idea how far along they really are or what the quality of the work is” (p. 24).  He continues to say, “Virtual workspaces can give you some ability to track progress, but there will always be some sense of the unknown” (p. 24).

It is important to establish a method of accountability from the start of the project. This can be done by developing a uniform method of measurement and apply it consistently throughout the project. For example, if the programming group is going to program fifty screens with an average of 2000 lines of code each, then the manager can use the lines of code completed to determine the percentage of each screen and then extrapolate it to the total number of screens. This will give a uniform status throughout the project development process. This will eliminate opinions or subjective progress reports. Instead, an objective measurement will be provided by all team members allowing the project manager to properly control the project.

If the measurements reflect a problem, the manager must determine if the problem is a result of cultural differences or other normal project management issues. For basic, non-culture issues that can arise during the course of a project, the manager should not have any problems because this would be a part of their normal training. However, when the issue is due to cultural differences, then the project manager must reevaluate their process and make the necessary adjustments. As with any management technique, the project manager must always continue to monitor and measure all elements to ensure that they are on the right track, including the heterogeneous management approaches being applied during the project phases.

During the project the manager can refine and improve management techniques. Additionally, after the project is completed a post evaluation period can be completed to measure the overall results of managing the diverse teams, which is the fifth step. After the evaluation process, the project manager will implement new approaches and techniques as a constant improvement process of the project team management process, which will ensure even better success on future projects.

Project team managers will need to adopt these innovative methods to effectively and efficiently manage project teams of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics. Managing diversity properly will lead to increased productivity in project teams that will be completed efficiently and effectively. There has been evidence reflected in this research paper that project teams will benefit from diverse talent, as long as they move away from the existing organizational culture.

Based on the research presented within the five-step management process, the following positive approaches can be adopted by the project managers leading such heterogeneous teams in order to seek positive effects of managing diversity in project teams effectively:

  • Recognize that diversity will bring a greater skills base when managed properly
  • Improve the overall climate on diverse project teams in order to improve satisfaction, reduce conflicts, and improve team member retention
  • Encourage creativity, flexibility, and innovation among the team members which will allow the injection of new ideas and challenge the normal organizational mindsets

Managing diversity will lead to the success of project teams by utilizing these positive approaches. Project managers who also understand these social psychology techniques of managing projects will be able to successfully manage and lead the project teams of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics. As a result, projects will be managed efficiently and effectively, as well as promote an increase in team member motivation and satisfaction levels.

Conclusion:

In conclusion, managing diversity provides greater opportunities for project teams. Based on the research presented in this paper, project teams can experience better performance, and greater strategic awareness, which enables them to be more innovative and responsive. There is evidence as outlined in this paper that it is a more effective business philosophy to embrace the proper management of diversity among homogeneous project teams.

In light of managing project teams with heterogeneous mixes of individuals, project managers can following an approach that will their be the best chance for improving productivity, allowing for the successful completion of projects in an effective and efficient manner. This approach can be implemented by following five simple steps, which include defining the team member’s diversity, understanding the organization’s values and needs, managing the resistance to change, evaluating the results and overall team performance, and refining the management techniques.

As many project managers are facing project teams made of individuals from different cultures, heterogeneous mixes, and differing demographics, many project managers have the necessary management approach as they start treading this new territory. The application of the steps outlined in this research paper will help in the successful completion of many complex projects.  

Reference Listing:

(2005, June). Employers ignore managing diversity at their peril, Training Journal, p. 12.

Bagshaw, Mike (2004). Is diversity divisive, Industrial and Commercial Training, 36, Issue 4, p. 153.

Booyzen, Tersia (2005, Dec/2006, Jan). Managing diversity, Accountancy SA, Johannesburg, pp. 10 -13.

Bouley, Jeffrey (2006, Feb). Leading versus managing, PM Network, Drexel Hill, 20, Issue 2, pp. 20 – 24.

Iles, Paul & Hayers, Paromjit (1997). Managing diversity in transnational project teams. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 12, 2, p. 95.

Jamieson, David & O’Mara, Julie (1992). Managing Workforce 2000, Small Business Reports, New York, 17, 2, pp. 68 – 71.

Jung, Rachel Anita (2005, Dec). Staff teambuilding: from theory to technique, Corrections Today, 67, Issue 7, pp. 76 – 79.

Kent, Simon (2005, Nov). Better behavior, PM Network, 19, Issue 11, pp. 4 – 9.

Oliver, Donald H. (2005, March/April). Achieving results through diversity: a strategy for success, Ivey Business Journal Online [Electronic], London, p. 1.

Watson, Warren E., Johnson, Lynn, & Merritt, Deanna (1998). Team orientation, self-orientation, and diversity in task groups. Group & Orginzation Studies, 23, Issue 2, pp. 161-188.

Worman, Dianah (2005, May 17). Is there a business case for diversity, Personnel Today, pp. 27 – 28.

 

© Michael Stephen Bird, 2007
This online published article

Dr. Michael Stephen Bird * South Florida * USA * Email: professor_mbird@yahoo.com or professormbird@gmail.com
© Dr. Michael Stephen Bird, 2010