Project Team Diversity

DiversityA while back, I watched the PBS production “A Class Divided”. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. It was especially interesting when applied within the context of project teams. The video hinted to some of the quality and productivity loss that can be associated with a segregated environment of any kind, which probably applies equally well to the project world.

Of course there is the obvious key point regarding diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, etc. Those aspects are fairly well-known through frequent training that occurs now, even if many still don’t feel the message in their bones. There’s still a long way to go.

Thinking about diversity in terms of project teams, let us dig a little deeper. Subtle nuances and conflicts can be major issues on project teams, even when you remove the aforementioned categories of what makes us different. Sometimes you might not even know it, because the issue manifests itself as a mostly silent team that does ‘good enough’ work without much speaking out, at least not in formal meetings. The rants are reserved for the water cooler.

The project teams I work with include members from various departments and backgrounds. When I work on a project between IS and operations for example, I may be working with people from 20 different specialty groups within operations. There are unspoken prejudices that exist between these groups. As a project manager or team member it’s a good idea to take note of them.

For example, let’s say group A has a process by which they escalate major issues to group B. Group B may develop a prejudice over time that group A can’t handle anything, even though group A handles 99.5% of the issues themselves. All group B sees is the negative .5%. I’ve seen this myself in the realm of the relationships between a company and it’s business partners (outsourcing). The same thing goes for sales versus support, IT versus operations, location A versus location B, etc.

Now, you take people from across these divides and throw them together on a project team. Knowing the prejudices that are coming into the mix could be a very important part of ensuring the team runs like a well-oiled machine. In an ideal world, it would be great to always have a good understanding about how the groups involved in your projects interact (or don’t interact) with each other on a regular basis. If you can identify groups that have some level of conflict in the beginning, measures for mitigating or resolving any impact to the project can be taken.

Asking some informal probing questions of various team members could go a long way. Open-ended questions generally have the best chance of leading someone with a gripe to reveal it in some way.

“Who on this project have you worked with before? When? How?”

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