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How to Manage the Complexities of Large, Diverse Project Teams

LargeDiverseTeams1The Good, the Bad and the Complex

In earlier articles in the Complex Project Management, series, we introduced the topic and discussed Complex Project Management (CPM) evolution and trends, and we presented the new, validated project complexity model.  The model consists of nine complexity dimensions that may (and often do) exist on highly complex projects and programs.  In this and subsequent articles we will discuss each complexity dimension in detail. 

This article considers the unique complexities of projects with large, diverse and often virtual teams that pose challenges to project success, and offers both old and new management strategies to handle the complexities.  Refer to Table 1: Team Composition Complexity Profile to examine the nature of these project characteristics as team complexity dimensions increase. 

Complexity Dimension: Team Composition

Independent Project PM: competent, experienced
Team: internal; worked together in past
Methodology: defined, proven
Moderately Complex Project PM: competent, inexperienced
Team: internal and external, worked together in past
Methodology: defined, unproven
Contracts: straightforward
Contractor Past Performance: good
Highly Complex Projects PM: competent; poor/no experience with complex projects
Team: internal and external, have not worked together in past
Methodology: somewhat defined, diverse
Contracts: complex
Contractor Past Performance: unknown
Highly Complex Program
“Mega Project”
PM: competent, poor/no experience with megaprojects
Team: complex structure of varying competencies and performance records (e.g., contractor, virtual, culturally diverse, outsourced teams)
Methodology: undefined, diverse Contracts: highly complex
Contractor Past Performance: poor

Table 1: Team Composition and Past Performance Complexity Profile 

Great teams, like all great organizations, are those that make a distinctive impact and deliver superior performance over a long period of time.[i]  For a project, performance is typically measured in terms of on time, under budget, with full scope of features, meeting quality specifications, and delivering the business benefit that was expected.  Project teams do not need to be big to be great…big does not equal great.  But all too often contemporary project teams are too large, too dispersed, too diverse, and just plain too complex to manage using typical project management techniques alone.  So how can we be successful when a project demands complex teams?  Success in the 21st century demands that we acquire new competencies to form, manage, and use large, diverse teams as a competitive advantage.

The Good:  Great Teams are Powerful – Very Powerful

Transformational projects in the 21st century almost always involve multiple forms and types of teams. Applying the effective team management practices to diverse groups at the right time is in itself a complex endeavor. Successful teams are the result of many elements coming together, including adaptive team leadership, optimal team structure, just the right team composition, a disciplined culture, co-location of core team leaders, effective collaboration, communication, and coordination, and patience to steer the groups as each evolves from a collection of people, into a good team, and finally into a great team.

Since projects involving significant change in the way business is conducted are almost certain to involve complex team structures, it is not unusual for project teams to have sponsors, customers, architects, and developers sprinkled around the globe.  It is too expensive, and simply too exhausting, to continually travel around the world to meet with team members in person.  To reap the rewards of significant changes to optimize business and technology, we must find new ways to manage complex teams, complementing face-to-face sessions with robust virtual exchanges[ii].

The demands of the twenty-first century are requiring businesses to reject traditional “command and control” management structures and reach out into the virtual and physical world to create innovative approaches to team composition.  To remain competitive, companies are establishing inventive, but also complex, organizational communities.  These alliances may be with strategic suppliers, networks of customers, and win-win partnerships with key political groups, regulatory entities, and yes, even with competitors.  Through these inventive alliances, which manifest themselves in both physical and virtual models, organizations are addressing the pressures of unprecedented change, global competition, time-to-market compression, rapidly changing technologies, and increasing business and technological complexity.   

Geographical diver­sity and dependency on technology for communication and collaboration dramatically magnify the challenges of leading teams.  Applying the appro­priate team management techniques to multiple parties at the right time is a complex endeavor.  The project leadership role becomes as much about team leadership and group development, as about project and requirements management.

We will first explore the nature of the complexities that come into play when managing complex teams with dissimilar cultural norms, complicated contractual agreements, and multiple methodologies, including:

  • Teams as complex adaptive systems
  • Interactional uncertainty
  • Integration challenges

We then examine the use of sophisticated team management techniques, while at the same time establishing an environment of adaptability, innovation, and creativity.  Areas that will be examined include:

  • Leveraging team potential
  • Becoming a team leader
  • Using team collaboration, communication and coordination tools and techniques.

The Bad: Teams are Difficult to Manage – Very Difficult

There are many complexities that come into play when managing complex teams with dissimilar cultural norms, complicated contractual agreements, and multiple methodologies.  Here, we explore just a few.

Teams as Complex Adaptive Systems

As complexity science teaches us, human behaviour is complex because humans are always reacting to their environment, and therefore human activity is impossible to predict.  In addition, teams are complex adaptive systems within the larger program; the program is also a complex adaptive system operating within a complex adaptive organization; the organization is trying to succeed (by changing and adapting) within a complex adaptive global economy. As a leader of a new complex project or program, you cannot predict how your team members will react to each other, to the project requirements, and to their place within the program and the larger organization. So, complex team leadership is hard, very hard.  Stop thinking of yourself as a project or program manager, and begin to hone your team leadership skills, for you are now managing through teams.  When managing a complex project, you are a team leader, not a project manager.

Interactional Uncertainty

At first glance, it appears that team members who have worked together in the past will evolve into a high performing team quickly.  However, they may have baggage and bring biases or resentments toward one another to the new team. Whereas, team members who have not yet worked together are likely to hold back until they learn about each other, the team dynamics, the task at hand, and their expected role and responsibility. This concept, referred to as “interactional uncertainty,”[iii] recognizes that if there is uncertainty in a relationship, the participants will tend to withhold information and calculate the effects of sharing information. The project leadership team must guide members through the inevitable early stages of team growth toward “interactional certainty” that leads to trust. Then, team members can focus their energies on positive interactions.  When working in a virtual environment, it is very challenging to establish a trusting environment, achieve “interactional certainty” and therefore, foster trusting relationships.

Integration Challenges

Working with many disparate teams almost always leads to integration issues, making it difficult to amalgamate interdependent solution components that have been designed and constructed by different teams.  Teams often use dissimilar procedures, practices, and tools which results in work products of varying quality and consistency.  Finally, deficiencies in many project management techniques, e.g., risk management and complexity management can lead to unknown consequences requiring rework to resolve.

The Complex: Great Teams are Complex, Very Complex

To lead complex layers of teams, project leaders must leverage the potential of teams, master team leadership, and learn to use sophisticated collaboration, communication, and coordination systems.

Teams are a critical asset used to improve performance in all kinds of organizations. Yet today’s business leaders consistently overlook opportunities to exploit their potential, confusing teams with teamwork, empowerment, or participative management.2  We simply cannot meet 21st century challenges, from business transformation to innovation to global competition, without understanding and leveraging the power and wisdom of teams. 

Leverage the power of teams to achieve results unavailable to individuals

“Teams help ordinary people achieve extraordinary results.”

—W.H. Murray, Scottish Himalayan Expedition

Successful complex project managers appreciate the power of teams. Success stories abound: Motorola surpassed the Japanese in the battle to dominate the cell phone market by using teams as a competitive advantage; 3M uses teams to reach its goal of generating half of each year’s revenues from the previous five years’ innovations. High-performing teams are all around us: U. S. Navy Seals, tiger teams established to perform a special mission or attack a difficult problem, paramedic teams, fire fighter teams, surgical teams, symphony orchestras, and professional sports teams. These teams demonstrate their accomplishments, insights, and enthusiasm on a daily basis and are a persuasive testament to the power of teams. Clearly, we must learn how to form, develop, and sustain high-performing teams if we are to deliver on complex projects.  Teams are powerful.  Use your teams to achieve exceptional results!

Harness the wisdom of teams to get great people to get great results

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”

—Ken Blanchard, Consultant, Speaker, Trainer, Author

Warren Bennis talks about team members who along the way provide support and camaraderie for each other. Foster these characteristics in your teams described by Bennis: 3

  • They have a shared dream.
  • They abandon individual egos for the pursuit of the dream.
  • They are isolated and protected from political influences.
  • They are united against a real or imagined enemy.
  • They view themselves as winning underdogs.
  • They are willing to pay a personal price.
  • They are strong leaders.
  • They are the product of meticulous recruiting.
  • They deliver the goods.

The successful complex project managers strive to understand the benefits of teams and learn how to optimize team performance by developing individual members, fostering team cohesiveness, and rewarding team results. Since teams are the primary building blocks of strong organizational performance, complex project managers cannot ignore the power and wisdom of teams.5

Exceptional team leadership leads to exceptional results.  So how do we groom ourselves to become exceptional team leaders?  There are a few “must haves” including experience, team development and nurturing, exceptional team composition, and an optimal team structure.

There is no substitute for experience

Projects fail because of people, not science or technology. Team leadership differs significantly from traditional management, just as teams differ from operational work groups. The complex project manager leads through others; it is those “others” who actually manage the project. Team leadership is more of an art than a science and is fraught with trial, error, and experience. Expertise in communications, problem-solving, and conflict resolution and other so-called “soft skills” are essential. Leaders of complex projects derive their power and influence not so much from a position of authority in the organizational hierarchy, but as a result of their ability to build relationships. These leaders must be expert, influential, well-connected, held in high regard, indeed, considered indispensable.

Learn how to build and nurture your team

Leaders of complex teams must have an understanding of the dynamics of team development and how teams work; they develop specialized skills that they use to build and sustain high performance. Traditional managers and technical experts cannot necessarily become effective team leaders without the appropriate mindset, training, and coaching.  Make a concerted effort to develop team-leadership skills and dedicate considerable energy to transition your team members into a cohesive team with shared values, beliefs, and an ethical cultural foundation. The best teams are collaborative and share the leadership role, depending on the precise needs of the project at any given time. The situational team leader understands that varying leadership styles are appropriate depending on the different stages of team

Get the “right stuff” on your team – recruit meticulously

Selecting the right members for your team is perhaps the most important decision you will ever make.  When you enlist team members, do so not only based on their knowledge and skills, but also because they are passionate, strategic thinkers who thrive in a challenging, collaborative environment. Conventional wisdom tells us to determine what needs to be done first and then select the appropriate person who has the knowledge and skills required to do it. However, in his book Good to Great, Jim Collins emphatically tells us: first who . . .then what. Rather than setting a direction, a vision, and a strategy for your project and then getting people committed and aligned, Collins and his research team found that great companies did just the opposite: They first selected the people who had the “right stuff” and then collaboratively set their course.9

Establish an optimal team structure

Structure matters! Typical contemporary team structures suggested by gurus like Jim Highsmith[iv] and Jim Collins[v] include:

  • A core team or “hub” structure. This structure reflects aspects of both hierarchical and network structures. This model is often comprised of several customer teams, numerous feature teams, an architecture team, a verification and validation team, and a project management team. Teams take on all possible configurations: virtual, co-located, or a combination thereof.
  • Self-organization extensions. As the number of teams within the project expands, the organizational structure transitions from a team framework to a project framework within which multiple teams operate. Creating a self-organizing team framework involves: (1) getting the right leaders, (2) communicating the work breakdown and integration strategies, (3) encouraging interaction and information flow between teams, and (4) framing project-wide decision-making. Obviously, as more teams are formed, complexity increases. Managing inter-team dependencies is critical; teams need to fully understand their boundaries and their interdependencies.
  • A culture of empowerment and discipline. Behaviors required of teams when working in this structure include: (1) accept accountability for team results, (2) engage collaboratively with other teams, (3) work within the project organization framework, and (4) balance project goals with team goals.

For effective team collaboration, communication, and coordination of complex team structures, consider the following practices:

  • A standard methodology 
  • Collaborative planning and decision making 
  • State-of-the-art collaboration tools 

A standard methodology fosters discipline and facilitates communication

For complex projects, using a standard methodology—while encouraging each team to tailor it as needed—goes a long way toward eliminating unknown cross-team dependencies.  However, a word of caution: Do not overly burden the various teams with standards, but do insist on those that are needed to provide a realistic view of the overall project and to manage cross-team dependencies. Enforce the use of standard collaboration procedures, practices, and tools.

Collaborative planning and decision making promotes commitment

Involve all core team members in the project planning process and seek feedback often to continually improve the performance of the team. There is no substitute for face-to-face working sessions during planning meetings, especially for brainstorming, innovating, analysing feasibility of potential solutions, scoping, scheduling, identifying risks and dependencies, and conducting critical control-gate reviews. When preparing your project budget, be sure to include adequate time and budget to bring core team members together for these critical sessions.  Be firm about establishing decision checkpoints that involve all core project team members at critical junctures.

State-of-the-art collaboration tools facilitate consensus

Secure best-in-class software tools to enable collaboration and document-sharing. Two general types of collaboration tools are available: professional service automation (PSA), which is designed to optimize service engagements; and enterprise project management (EPM) tool suites, which are used to manage multiple projects.

In addition, provide your team members with personal communication and telecommunications tools so that they feel closely tied and connected. If these tools are an unconventional expense item for projects in your organizational culture, educate your project sponsor on the criticality of collaboration, stressing the need to manage the cross-project interdependencies that are known at the start of the project, as well as those that will emerge along the way.  Also, experiment with social networks and communities.  This computer-mediated communication has become very popular with sites like MySpace and YouTube and has resulted in large user bases and billion-dollar purchases of the software and their communities by large corporations.


So there you have it: the good, the bad, and the complex of 21st century teams.  There is no stopping a great team. However, great teams do not happen by accident. Hard work, planning, and disciplined effort are required to convert a group of great people into a great team. For complex projects the effort is magnified because multiple large, geographically dispersed, and culturally diverse teams are involved. Leaders of complex projects cease to be project managers and become leaders of teams. Both conventional and adaptive approaches are needed for large, long-duration projects to be successful (Table 2).

Managing Large, Dispersed, Culturally Diverse Project Teams

  • Many complex adaptive teams
  • Human behaviors impossible to predict
  • Multi-layered, interdependent teams
    • Geographically dispersed
    • Culturally diverse
    • Virtual
    • Multi-skilled
  • Dissimilar procedures, practices, and tools leading to integration issues
  • Risk management inadequacies and inconsistencies, leading to unknown events
  • Integration of interdependent components produced by different teams
Management Approaches
  • Adaptive
    • Establish an experienced core leadership team
    • Leverage the power of teams
    • Build great teams
    • Use edge-of-chaos management when innovating and experimenting
    • Empower agile teams
    • Instil teams with a culture of discipline
    • Use virtual teams as a strategic asset
    • Insist on face-to-face meetings for key planning and decision-making


    • Lead, don’t manage contractor teams.
    • Insist on standard procedures and tools when appropriate.

    Establish a culture of collaboration and open communication.

Table 2: Approaches for Managing the Complexities of Large, Dispersed, Diverse Teams

Adapted with permission from Managing Complex Projects, A New Model, by Kathleen B. Hass. ©2009 by Management Concepts, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Kathleen B. (Kitty) Hass, PMP, is an Award Winning Author, Consultant, Facilitator, and Presenter, an IIBA Board of Director and Chair of the IIBA Chapter Governance Committee and Chapter Council. Kitty is the president of Kathleen Hass and Associates, Inc., a practice specializing in business analysis, complex project management, and strategy execution. Download free information about business analysis at or contact her directly at [email protected].

[i] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Why Some Companies make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.)
[ii] See Use Virtual Teams as a Competitive Advantage, by Kathleen Hass in the March issue of the IIBA Newsletter.
[iii] Christian Jensen, Staffan Johansson, and Mikael Lofstrom, Project Relationships – A Model for Analyzing Interactional Uncertainty  (International Journal of Project Management, Vol. 24, No. 1, 2006) 4-12.
[iv] Jim Highsmith, Agile Project Management: Creating Innovative Products (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 2004), 235-251
[v] Jim Collins, Good to Great, Why Some Companies make the Leap and Others Don’t (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. 2001.)

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