4. TEAMWORK AND COMMUNICATION

4.1 Team Project Management Tools and Strategies

Suzan Last and Candice Neveu

Teamwork is a key component of almost any workplace, but it is essential in engineering and software development environments where you often find yourself working as part of a team on large projects. Imagine for a moment how many people must work together to designs a product like Skyrim (click here if you want to know: Skyrim development team).

It is is widely accepted that team synergy and team intelligence lead to greater efficiency and better results in most situations. Why, then, are some people reluctant to engage in teamwork? Perhaps this reluctance stems from ineffective or dysfunctional teamwork experiences in the past. Often the culprit in these situations is not a “poor team player” or an “inability to get along with others.” More likely it was caused by one of two things:  misaligned goals or confusion over roles. For teamwork to be effective, all members of the team must understand and share the goals of the project, and all members must fully understand their roles—what is expected of them, and how they will be held accountable. An effective team leader will make sure that goals and roles are fully understood by all team members.

“Introduction to Teamwork,” a section in Designing Engineers, by Susan McCahan et al.[1] provides a detailed description of the stages of the Tuckman Team Formation model and the need for effective communications at each stage. A team, according to McCahan et al., “is a group of people who come together to work in an interrelated manner towards a common goal.” They go on to differentiate a team from a group by noting that a team is connected by “a common purpose or goal and the reliance on the skills of all the members to meet the goal” [2]. In other words, team members see themselves as part of a collective working towards a common goal rather than individuals working on separate tasks that may lead to an end product. In order to work effectively, team members need to communicate clearly and constructively, and learn how to deal with crises and conflicts that will inevitably arise.

EXERCISE 4.1 Reflect on your previous team work experience

Think of a time when you had to work with others to produce something – a poster, presentation, document, etc. Briefly describe what the task was and then consider the following questions:

  1. What was the team’s overall goal?
  2. What was your job within the group?
  3. How were the jobs distributed?
  4. How well did your group function?  Did anyone on the team behave in ways that McCahan et al. characterize as “hitchhikers, hijackers, isolationists, and enablers”?[3]
  5. Was the outcome successful?
  6. Would you happily work with those team mates again on another project? Why or why not?
  7. How would you rate your overall experience and why?

Some common benefits of working in teams include increased productivity, increased innovation, and increased efficiency. Excellent teams have synergy that makes them more than simply the sum of their parts. The term “team intelligence” refers to the fact that collectively, teams have more knowledge and skill than the single individuals working separately. However, challenges can also arise when working in a team. Conflicts within a team do occur and often they begin as a result of poor communication and weak focus. Some ways to handle these challenges include the following:

  • Elect a team leader: the team leader will act as the hub for communication and tasks. This person helps provide direction and guidance for the team. This should be someone who has earned the team’s respect and who can be persuasive and tactful. This role can be rotated among team members.
  • Ensure the goal is clear: a team is governed by the goal that everyone works to achieve. It is important that the goal is clearly understood and agreed upon by everyone on the team.
  • Establish team rules: as a team, determine the rules by which the team will operate. These should include expectations around time, meetings, attendance, communication, decision-making, contribution, and mechanisms to warn and/or fire a team member or quit a team.
  • Assign responsibilities: as part of the breakdown of tasks, members should be assigned responsibility for certain tasks, which means that they are the primary leads in preventing and addressing issues that come up in that area.
  • Set agendas for meetings and keep minutes: to ensure that team meeting time is useful and achieves its purpose, plan an agenda for each meeting to help keep everyone on task. In addition, have someone take minutes to record decisions that are made. This record helps prevent repetition and ensures work actually gets done.
  • Determine the timing for tasks: task timing involves two aspects: the duration for completing the task and the timing of the task in relation to the other tasks. Typically, tasks take longer than you think they will so it is often better to add 25% to your duration estimate. The timing of the tasks are important to figure out because some tasks can be completed concurrently, but others may have to be sequenced. Professionals often use Gantt Charts to outline these tasks and the time they will take within the overall project scale.
  • Manage communications: if a problem arises with someone on the team, the team leader should speak privately to the person and clearly indicate what needs to change and why. The focus should be on the behaviour, not on the person’s character. Issues should be dealt with quickly rather than left to deteriorate further. If this does not solve the problem, then try other approaches (See McCahan et al. “Management Strategies” for more information).

There are several tools and strategies that teams can use to improve their functioning and productivity. Some examples include using the following documents:

  • Team Charter: outlines the rules and expectations agreed upon by the team
  • Meeting Agenda: outlines the main points for discussion at a meeting
  • Meeting Minutes: records the decisions and relevant discussion points for a meeting
  • Work Logs: records the tasks and time spent for each team member
  • Status Reports: records the completed tasks and work left to complete
  • Gantt Chart: breaks down tasks and their estimated duration over the work period.

There are also many software programs and apps that can help teams manage projects. Students often use Google docs to work collaboratively on a document or project. The most common one used in the workplace is Microsoft Project. However, other productivity apps can be used to great effect as well.  Slack, Wrike, and Asana are free popular web based options. Whatever tool you choose to use, it should be something that all members can access and understand.

Meeting Documents: Agendas and Minutes

What happens at team meetings should be planned and recorded for future reference. Agendas and Minutes are documents that do this. A meeting also should have a chair (the person who keeps things on track) and a recorder (who records what happened and what decisions were made). The Agenda is the plan for what you want to discuss and accomplish at the meeting. It is usually made up of a list of items, sometimes with a time frame for each item.

Sample Agenda

ENGR 240 Team Meeting Agenda

Date:

Place and time:

Members:

—————————————————-

  • Updates from each team member (progress) (5 min each)
  • Develop work plan for upcoming week (15 min)
  • Determine next meeting time (5 min)
  • Work on Milestone 3 together (45 min)
  • Matters arising

Minutes follow up on the agenda by recording what decisions were made and what important topics were discussed. One person is responsible for recording the events of the meeting, and distributing the minutes to each member (via email usually). That way, no one should forget what tasks they agreed to complete and when.

Sample Minutes

ENGR 240 Team Meeting Minutes

Thursday Feb, 15, 2016

Cle A035, 3:30-4:45

Present: Jaime, Chris, Renee

Regrets: Joe (has the flu)

—————————————————-

  • All team members have completed last week’s work plan (Joe emailed a report, as she is sick)
  • In the coming week, we plan to complete the following:
    Task Who will do it?
    1. Interview Facilities Management contact Renee
    2. Research bike share programs (Joe?)
    3. Design a survey/questionnaire Chris
    4. Do a site visit Jaime
  • Next meeting: next Thursday Feb 21, after class
  • Excellent progress during meeting; Joe will follow up on researching bike share programs.
  • Meeting adjourned 4:50

Work Logs

Work logs are common documents used in the work place (and in your Co-op Work Terms) to keep track of what work is done, by whom, and how long it took. These can be very helpful for keeping a team on track and ensuring equitable workloads. To ensure accountability, have each team member sign off on the work log.

Sample Work Log
Date Task Description Assigned to Status / Date Completed Total Time Spent
         
         
         
         
         
         

Team signatures:

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

Name: __________________________________

The next section reviews several Models for Understanding Team Dynamics.


  1. S. McCahan, P. Anderson, M. Kortschot, P. E. Weiss, and K. A. Woodhouse, “Introduction to teamwork,” in Designing Engineers: An Introductory Text, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2015, pp. 219-246.
  2. McCahan et al., p. 220
  3. McCahan et al., p. 243

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4.1 Team Project Management Tools and Strategies by Suzan Last and Candice Neveu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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