Analysing Project Leadership Teams and Group Dynamics

Introduction – A research done in 1995 in the USA showed that 31% of software projects are cancelled before completion while for those which are not, the cost will be an average of 189 percent of the original estimates (Standish Group, 1995). Whittaker (1999) identified the key reasons for such failure as related to poor project planning, a weak business case, and a lack of top management involvement and support. In 2001, the Standish Group found that only 28 percent of IT projects were completed on time and on budget, and that these were on average 45 percent over original cost estimates and 63 percent over original “time to completion” estimates (Standish Group International, 2001). This report identified poor tools to monitor and control progress of projects as the main reasons for such failures hence recommending project managers to use good project management practices in order to establish the appropriate project methodology (Gowan & Mathieu, 2005).

Turner (2003) defined a project as ‘ an endeavour in which human, material and financial resources are organized in a novel way, to undertake a unique scope of work, of given specification, within constraints of cost and time, so as to achieve beneficial change defined by quantitative and qualitative objectives’. Despite this definition containing three aspects: human, material and financial, the above reports show that the focus of understanding failures in software projects has been mainly directed towards the technical and financial barriers encountered during the project life cycle. Intangible human organisational factors such as leadership, organisation culture and team dynamics have been given meagre attention despite multiple researches showing the successful completion of any project in any organization is highly dependent on the human and behavioural factors. This paper will discuss the ways through which software teams are affected by leadership, organisation culture and team dynamics. The first part of the paper will discuss the literature around organisational culture and it can affect the outcomes of software projects. The second part of the paper will discuss the role of leadership and team dynamics in the context of software project management. Lastly, the paper will end with a conclusion and possible recommendations for software teams in the future.

Organisation Culture and Software project management

Organizational culture describes “how things are done in a corporation” (Claver et al, 2001). It encompasses a wide range of aspects of organisations’ life including assumptions, values and artefacts, beliefs, rituals, and ceremonies; language, symbols, stories, and ceremonies In sum, organisational culture is viewed as both what an organisation “is” and as what an organisation “has” (Mathew, 2007). According to Lok & Crawford (2004), organisational culture can influence how people set personal and professional goals, perform tasks and administer resources to achieve them. Similarly, Schein (1990) describes organisational culture as being able to affect the way in which people consciously and subconsciously think, make decisions and act. Researchers on organisational cultures have also proposed different forms or types of cultures. For example, Wallach (1983) suggested that there are three main types of organisational cultures: bureaucratic, supportive and innovative. Handy (1993) Identified four types of organisation cultures: power culture, role culture, person culture and task culture. The ultimate point is that organisation culture determines the ways decisions are taken within organisations. For example according to Handy’s model, a power culture is one where decisions are taken by a restricted number of individuals usually located at the peak of the organisation structure. The decision is then transferred to the rest of the structure, thus signifying low participation from the remaining workforce. This bureaucratic approach to decision making reduces the level of input from other levels in the organisation. In modern organisations, where employees are viewed as critical success factors, it is therefore important to have a culture which encourages participation and involvement. The power culture is an example of how the organisation culture can be a barrier to employee participation. In the context of software projects, participation is a key success factor. Hence, the type of organisation culture will either enhance or prohibit the appropriate behaviours from the team members.

According to Hansen and Wenerfelt (1989), the culture within an organisation affects the way in which employees perceive, feel and act. This in turn will affect their level of performance and commitment (Peters and Waterman, 1982). Echoing the same, Siehl and Martin (1990) found that organisation culture have a critical influence of productivity and quality. The software sector employs large numbers of people worldwide (Arthreye, 2005). As mentioned above, productivity and quality are greatly influenced by organisation culture (Siehl and Martin, 1990). Productivity and quality is important to the software sector. Therefore, the need to understand how organisation culture affects this sector is fundamental. Organisation culture lays down the guidelines for the acquisition of Information Technology as well as the guidelines for sharing of information through its Information Systems (Allard (1998); Brown and Starkey (1994); Katz and Townsend (2000)). Mathew (2007) identified a range of cultural processes that have a bearing on software organisations such as concern for employees and trust, knowledge management or organisational learning; empowerment; high performance work orientation and core values. The research by Mathew (2007) is evidence that software team members are highly influenced by the cultural processes in interplaying in the organisation they are working in. These processes will affect their commitment to the software project in terms of: firstly the amount of information they are likely to input to the project. Western organisations have purposely adopted collectivist processes so as to encourage sharing of information throughout teams. However, in others contexts, the individualistic and bureaucratic culture promotes information asymmetry. Information asymmetry occurs when one party possesses more information that the other party. Information asymmetry is a threat to the proper functioning of software teams as information is key to the success of software projects. The above shows that the organisation culture determines the processes for sharing information which in turn directly affects the implementation of software projects.

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Secondly, the organisation culture also determines the degree of empowerment of the employees. A study by Badoo and Hall (2001) on ‘Motivators of Software Process Improvement: an analysis of practitioners’ views’ showed that software project managers highly ranked empowerment as a motivator factor. They considered process ownership as important. Developers stated the same:

‘Developers want grassroots input into processes. Project managers want autonomy so they can ‘mould’ the processes around their present practices. Both developers and project managers want to feel they have the support of senior management’. (Badoo & Hall, 2001)

Pitterman (2000) identified empowerment as crucial to the success of software projects. Empowerment is often defined as the act of giving people the opportunity to make workplace decisions by expanding their autonomy in decision making (Vogt, 1997). Empowerment however is influenced by the organisation culture. Other processes contained in the organisation culture which ultimately affect the implementation of software projects are: communication, reward schemes, feedback, decision making, organisation structure, autonomy, communication, top down commitment, shared best practice and bottom-up initiatives (Badoo & Hall, 2001). The above points show how the culture of an organisation can either facilitate the functioning of software teams or act as a barrier. Rigid structures, poor reward schemes, lack of communication, poor feedback, lack of transparency, poor trust and commitment from the top and little bottom-up initiatives can render the project life cycle difficult, hence resulting into project cancellations and/or completion over estimated budgets.

Leadership and Team Dynamics in Software Project Management.

It is important to experience progress and well-being by both the team members and the team leader in software projects. Katzenbach (1998) stated that groups of people working together give rise to dynamics which have the effect either of enhancing group performance, or of impeding, even destroying, group efficiency. The group dynamics involve both the team members and the leader. According to Wang et al (2005) team performance derives from the ability of team members to successfully integrate their individual actions, to perform in complex and dynamic environments, to achieve coordination and cohesion and lastly effective team leadership.

Team leadership styles can be classified into two types: Transactional and Transformational leadership (Thite, 2000). The transactional leadership style focuses on the contractual relationship between the leader and the subordinates. The relationship is limited to the simple exchange of expected performance in return for certain rewards. On the other hand, the transformational leader motivates followers to perform beyond their expectations, increases the followers’ sense of the importance and value of tasks, and stimulates members to look beyond their own interests and direct themselves to the interests of the team, organization or larger community (Mankenzie et al, 2001). Pinto (1986) identified effective leadership as a critical success factor for successful projects. Similarly Turner et al (1998) described successful projects as being led by individuals who possess not only technical and management knowledge, but also leadership skills that are internally compatible with the motivation of the project team. Although the goals of a project are achieved by the team, appropriate leadership styles such as relationships and task oriented styles can help attain the targets in time and within the allocated resources (Nauman et al, 2010). Leadership fosters empowerment (Malone, 1997) and as mentioned above the latter is an essential ingredient for successful projects. However, according to Eisenberger (2002), effective empowerment is based on the relationship of the team members with the leader. The challenge for the leaders in software projects is to find the balance in managing relationships as well as getting the work done.

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Another important feature of leadership is motivation. Leaders influence and motivate team members. Software projects are often found to lose momentum following difficulties arising within the Iron Triangle (costs, time and functionality). The task of the team leader is to restore momentum at different stages within the project life cycle. As mentioned by Kotler (1988), ‘leadership means influencing others to take responsibility for identifying, developing, retaining, and motivating talented professionals on the team’. On the other hand in his work, Thamhain (2004) concluded that ‘project success is no longer the result of a few expert contributors and skilled project leaders. Rather, project success depends on effective multidisciplinary efforts, involving teams of people and support organizations interacting in a highly complex, intricate, and sometimes even chaotic way. The process requires experiential learning, trial and error, risk taking, as well as the cross-functional coordination and integration of technical knowledge, information, and components.’ The work of Thamhain (2004) also concluded that Team performance is not random but there are certain criteria which lead to high team performance. These are firstly understanding the needs of team members and designing ways to satisfy these needs, secondly management should support team environment rather than try to control it, thirdly team development must be ongoing and finally team leaders should work with senior management to ensure effective team work.

The agency theory (Eisenhardt, 1989) informs that monitoring through leadership reduces shirking which in turn leads to project success. Shirking is the process of evading work, responsibility or duty. In organisation theory, shirking takes place when the agent (employee) has self-interest contrasting with the interest of the principal (employer, team leader, manager). The team leader is responsible for monitoring the project and this involves ‘watching, observing and checking closely or continuously’. Mahaney and Lederer (2009) examined the importance of project monitoring in order to avoid the problem of shirking in teams and found that the project monitoring does not necessarily avoid shirking in projects but planning and meetings during monitoring can predict shirking.

Although there is no single leadership style applicable to all project situations, it is important to understand the role of leadership in the success of projects. Software project managers need to exhibit leadership traits which will enable them to carry out their function effectively. Linberg (1999) stated that ‘one of the classic mistakes in software development is undermined motivation’. A study by Couger and Zawacki (1980) showed that firstly software professionals had substantially higher growth needs than any of the other job categories, secondly increased motivation would occur if the software developer’s growth needs matched the job’s motivating potential, and thirdly increased software developer job satisfaction was associated with effective supervisory feedback. In the case of software projects, supervisory feedback related to team leader feedback. Hence the need to understand the need of those involved in the project as well striving to find ways to satisfy those needs remain an important responsibility of the team leader.

Team dynamics will also interplay with leadership skills to determine the outcomes of the software project. The failure of many large software projects is due to difficulties in managing team-based work (Faraj and Sproull, 2000). According to Hohmann (1997) the most effective software development teams are also the teams that contain a variety of different personality or temperament types. This is also confirmed by Amabile etal (1996) stating thatAmabile, T.M., Conti, R., Coon, H., Lazenby, J. and Herron, M., 1996. Assessing the work environment for creativity. Academy of Management Journal 39, pp. 1154-1184. Full Text via CrossRef | View Record in Scopus | Cited By in Scopus (411): “Team member diversity and mutual openness to ideas may operate on creativity by exposing individuals to a greater variety of unusual ideas; such exposure has been demonstrated to positively impact creative thinking.” Overall team diversity creates the synergy required in software projects however in other cases team diversity may also be a cause of failure for example a software developer may prefer one method and will become de-motivated if a newer development method is used during the project. In his work on adapters and innovators, Kirton (1994) suggested that individuals with an adaptor style prefer stability of work activities whereas individuals with the innovator style prefer new and alternative work activities. Hence such two types of developers may not be able to find a common stable ground in the software project and in turn this might lead to low job satisfaction for either party. Linberg (1999) concluded that team dynamics does impact on software projects, Team members develop their own perceptions about project failure and success and this in turn affects their performance. According to the same study, team leaders have perceptions about project success and failure as well.

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Shea and Guzzo (1987) introduced the concept of group potency and defined it as the collective belief of a team that it can be effective: the shared belief of team members as a whole. Akgun et al (2007) investigated the relationship between group potency and software project outcome. The study revealed that project teams involve multi-mental models due to the different knowledge, expertise, background, and personalities in the organization. The collective belief of a team’s capabilities and efficacy is critical for effective team and project management. Group potency was important for fast software development and lead to less costly development of software and to high performance teams. Hutchins (1991) stated that the cognitive properties of groups can differ from those of their participating members. Software teams are different from other teams existing in an organization. They are formed of knowledge workers who have specific individual expertise embodied into the practical activity-based competencies (Blackler, 1995). Moreover, software development teams have a relatively unique structure, wherein the division of labour among members are highly interdependent due to the way in which the finished product is produced; the nature of the software development process is such that the product cannot be seen in its progressive development and this has implications for both team members and team leaders. Ryan and O’Connor (2009) found that tacit knowledge is shared through good quality social interaction in the team. Therefore it is important for software team leader or project managers to build team structures which foster the sharing of tacit knowledge.

Another pertinent issue in team dynamics is that of conflict. March and Simon (1958) defined conflict simply as “the breakdown of the standard mechanisms for decision making.” According to Gobeli et al (1998), team or group conflicts can be detrimental to the success of the software projects. Group conflict is a result of poor leadership influence and lack of ability to manage dysfunctional behaviours within teams. However, in many cases, team conflicts emerge out of multiple reasons such as diversity of personalities working together and lack of communication. Group conflict in the context of software teams can lead to a slow down of the progress of the project, hence not satisfying one of the key parts of the Iron triangle, time. For this reason, it important for group conflicts to be managed carefully by team leaders in order to boost team morale and to achieve efficiency.


As discussed above, software teams are vulnerable to factors emerging from the organization culture, the type of leadership and the team dynamics prevailing in the organization. All three being people-related are rather sensitive and less prone to be easily changed. They have joined the list of critical success factors for software projects. For organizations to have a culture which is conducive to success, the latter needs to be flexible rather than rigid and imposed. As we move towards more open systems at work, it is therefore fundamental for the organization culture to fit into the business context. Changes have to take place from a cultural perspectives to produce the right platform for the success of software projects. Flexibility and openness in organization culture is favored. By the same token, the type of leadership has to be based on the situation and the climate within the software team. This in turn will lead to positive team dynamics and better performances of software projects. Overall it can be concluded that organization culture, the type of leadership and team dynamics can make a difference to a software project and its team. If managed properly, these would help organizations achieve competitive advantage in the market.

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