Managing Project Risk By Looking Inside Your Team

In a September 2012 post I introduced the idea of “Implicit Metrics.” Implicit metrics are all about the nature and health of the project team operating environment and the ways in which it affects the interactions and knowledge transactions between the stakeholders. Although I think most project managers would agree that the health of the work environment is a factor in project success, I don’t think they really understand the connection, and we rarely see it discussed in project plans. In this post I’ll offer my thoughts on why a healthy work environment is directly linked to project risk, and I’ll provide some ideas on how project managers can get an indication of their internal environment risk level.

I’ll begin with a discussion of what I think are the attributes of a healthy project team environment.

Alignment. We want all team members to have a common understanding and belief in the mission, goals and objectives of the project. This is the foundational attribute of a healthy environment, and requires constant, consistent, and articulate communication with all stakeholders.
Belonging. Research has shown that the human brain is a social organ (Elaine B. Johnson, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Brain”, January 2012). Our brains not only like to interact with other brains, they demand. Being an accepted part of a group is a fundamental human need. A healthy project environment is one in which all of the members feel like they are valued and respected members of the group.
Fairness. Research has also shown that we are born with a fundamental moral sense. One aspect of this is an expectation of being treated fairly within a group. Inequities in the treatment of members of the team, whether real or perceived damages the health of the team environment.
Safety. I’m not just referring to physical safety, although, depending on the project, this is certainly critical to a healthy environment. I’m also referring to psychological safety. The absence of fear of retribution, arbitrary decision-making, and uncertainty, all contribute to project work environment health. The project manager may not be in complete control of some of these elements, but they can influence the extent to which external causes of these fears influence the behavior of their team members.
Leadership. Project teams expect and deserve leaders who are not only technically capable of planning and executing projects, but also are trust-worth, empathetic, fair, open communicators, and inspirational in the way the lead. Our brains are wired to respect, and to be responsive to legitimate leadership.
Resources. This goes beyond the obvious needs of physical, financial, time and human resources. It also means that the team members must have assured access to the training, tools and the necessary explicit and implicit knowledge resources required to perform their jobs. It also means they must have comfortable access to the project manager when they need direction, advice or help.

You may have additional team environment health attributes ideas, and I welcome your thoughts.

The degree to which any, or all, of these six attributes are missing from the team environment creates dysfunction and adds to the personal stress load of all of the team members, including the project manager. Project execution, with it’s challenging requirements, difficult constraints, and external risks is already naturally stressful, so we want to avoid adding any unnecessary work environment stress. Stress not only affects our physical health, it also affects our ability to think. Elaine B. Johnson, in her book “A Beginners Guide to the Brain,” describes research that shows that elevated and prolonged stress interferes with normal brain function, by inhibiting the communication paths between the parts of the brain that control our emotions and our reasoning. People in this situation are at greater risk of making mistakes, having lower energy, being more easily distracted, more withdrawn, and less empathetic. This of course translates into increased project execution risk. Here’s the way I think this works:

Deficiencies in the team health attributes create a dysfunctional project work environment. This elevates the stress levels beyond normal and interferes with brain function by impairing memory and cognitive capabilities. These impairments increase project risk because they increase the likelihood of people making mistakes of omission or commission, which can have unfavorable cost, schedule and quality impacts on the project. Further, the realization of those impacts and the additional work required for their resolution, adds more stress, and the continuation of the negative cycle.

OK, so if we accept the idea that dysfunction in our internal project environment is directly related to project risk, how can we monitor our work environment to assess the risk and determine what corrective or mitigating actions are necessary? I have used, and recommend a combination of two methods.

First and on-going methodology requires that the project manager and any other personnel filling project leadership roles, to be out amongst, and engaged with, the project team members on a daily basis. They must listen, watch and speak with team members regularly to “get a feel for how they feel” about the project and what is going on inside the project team. If behaviors or attitudes indicate problems with the health attributes, then project leaders must take positive, but not heavy-handed action right away. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

The second method is to conduct a survey to assess the work environment health. It’s more involved, but it provides real data to enable trend monitoring, reveal alignment issues, facilitate team discussion, and inform decision-making. Use of a third party is recommended, but not required. The advantage of using an objective third party to conduct the survey, collate the data and facilitate the communication of results is that enables people to be more open about what they really think about the operating environment. I also recommend that the survey be done in a way that preserves the anonymity of the responding team members. The survey must, of course, include the perceptions of the project manager.

Here is a process that I’ve used successfully in the past for this kind of survey.

• Design a survey, which allows people to express the degree to which the project environment attributes are healthy. Limit the survey to 5 to 10 questions, with provisions to add comments. Use a 1 to 5 or 1 to 7 scale for people to express their opinions. An example of a couple of questions is shown below, but clearly you will need to tailor the statements to fit your situation.  Here is an example:

Using a 1 to 5 scale (1. Strongly Disagree; 2. Disagree; 3. Neutral; 4. Agree; 5. Strongly Agree)  please circle the score which most closely represents your feelings in response to each of the following statements.

1. Our Project mission, goals and objectives are clear, consistent and credible.


2. I feel like a valued member of this project team.


3. Our project work environment is open, fair and without fear.


4. Clear, timely and logical daily direction is provided


5. All the needed resources and training to perform the work are provided.


The Survey Administrator first gives the survey to the Project Manager and anyone else in a project leadership role, and then gives it anonymously to all other project team members.
• The Survey Administrator collects and collates the data. The absolute values of the responses to the questions are generally less important than the relative gaps between the project manager and the team and spread between team member responses.
• Comments should be carefully reviewed and grouped as appropriate
• The Survey Administrator briefs the Project Manager on results with emphasis on any significant gaps between the their perceptions and those of the team members. Significant comments should be highlighted.
• The Survey Administrator then briefs the project team members. Emphasis here is on gaps between their perceptions and those of their leadership, as well as any significant spread in the views of the team members. Comments should be summarized. Although the survey is anonymous, respondents should be offered the opportunity to explain or expand on their scores and comments. Their willingness to give up their anonymity is in itself a measure of the trust level in the organization.
• The Project Manager and team members discuss the results, explore any resultant ideas, and agree on actions that should be taken to incorporate improvements.

I’ve also used this survey methodology to examine the variations in perceptions between the project manager and the team on the implementation effectiveness of the project management processes, tools and practices.


About donmcalister

I retired at the end of 2011, after a 39 year career in the Aerospace industry as an Propulsion Engineer, Engineering Manager and Program Manager. My professional interests and expertise is in the areas of Program, Risk and Knowledge Management. I'm passionate about life-long learning involving a wide variety of topics and I'm committed to sharing my knowledge and ideas with those who are interested. My primary hobby is performing jazz music. I'm a jazz keyboard player, and vocalist, and I'm on the Board of Directors of the non-profit Simi Valley Jazz Club, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of jazz music from the '20's through the 60's.
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4 Responses to Managing Project Risk By Looking Inside Your Team

  1. Pilar Gomez says:

    Hello Dom,
    I agree with your description of healthy project environment.
    Could you share with us more about your particular experience (results and actions taken) when you conducted that survey in the past? Was it helpful? Did you have unexpected results? DId the team engage in answering the survey and providing comments?
    Many thanks,

  2. donmcalister says:

    Hello Pilar,
    I used this kind of survey tool to with a large, technically focused project organization to assess both team operating environment and the perceived effectiveness of the application of their project management tools and processes. I conducted the survey as described in the blog. Results identified general good alignment between the project manager, his leadership team, and the members of the cross-functional organization. In addition, the general mood and behaviors of the organization were favorable. However, the survey also pointed out a couple of significant disconnections between the perceptions of the quality and quantity of communication team leadership, who thought it was very good, and at least some team members who felt it was inadequate. The perceived scoring gaps and related comments provided an excellent stumulus for a full team discussions and led to the implementation of improvements in the way project status information and help needed requests were communicated and coordinated. There was also a couple of unexpected results in the way that people were perceiving the effectiveness of the project risk management process. Exposure and discussion of this issue led to the resolution of some misconceptions about the process, and improvements in risk maangement training and use of the project risk managment tools. In addition, the project team was a matrix organization and the survey exposed and allowed resolution of several disconnects between the project leaders and the matrix reporting personnel and their functional discipline management. By the conclusion of the discussion of the survey results, all invloved thought it was very helpful.

  3. Sam Demuth says:

    Dear Don,
    The thrust of the article is excellent.
    The survey I think might benefit in a little refinement. As a first pass it should identify deficiencies, but you are then hostage to further co-operation in order to uncover any worms that might have been identified. Better to subdivide the questions to home in on any problem areas more precisely without having to go back to chew at the problem identification stage again.

    • donmcalister says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful feedback. You’re right, creating a survey is more art than science and the example I provided could definitely benefit from some additional artwork. They are also very context and time sensitive, so even arriving at a good survey today, doesn’t mean that it can be reused tomorrow.
      Thanks again,

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