Working in teams is pretty much a given in the architecture and design business. But good teams don’t just happen by themselves, as I’m discovering in my current Project Management class. We’ve learned that the structure of a project team and the role of the project manager may vary depending on the nature of the project and the company’s organizational structure and culture, but one thing is common to all projects: they need effective leadership. Good project leaders have a clear vision of the project as a whole and the ability to convey that vision to the team members. Without leadership, projects fail.

I’m finding this out first hand in my class experience. We were divided into teams of 8-9 people, given a short description of our term project, and set loose without much guidance on how to begin. All the other students in the class are in the MBA program, so I thought they might have had experience with this sort of thing, but none of them acted as if they knew any better than I what we were supposed to be doing. In the first two weeks of class we hadn’t accomplish much of anything, so I started producing drafts of the project deliverables and sending them to the others for comment, but not even that got much reaction. Finally, our professor stepped in and gave us a kick in the shins. I don’t know how the rest of the semester will go, but at least there is now some communication among us.

So what went wrong here or is this just the way teams work? I would hate to think that all team work is dysfunctional, so I am assuming the problem was, in part at least, a lack of leadership. Perhaps one of us should have assertively assumed the role of project manager, perhaps the team itself should have designated someone to lead the group, or perhaps this is simply a problem inherent in a project mangement class where every class member should have an opportunity to be a manager.

In the real world of commercial projects, however, teams that can’t function efficiently adversely impact the company’s bottom line. To compound the trouble, apparently good team leaders are few and far between and most companies don’t understand how to develop and nurture them. One article assigned for my class, entitled “Make Projects the School for Leaders” by H. Kent Bowen, Kim B. Clark, Charles A. Holloway, and Steven C. Wheelwright (Harvard Business Review, Sept.-Oct. 1994), states: “The challenge is to understand what leadership requires of people and to create a process and a system in which leaders develop naturally as part of the life of the business.” In companies with good leadership, the authors aver, senior management (1) expects leadership from its team leaders, (2) supports its leaders by making sure they have the resources to do their jobs, and (3) rewards leaders for success.

Turning to the architecture and design community – is the profession supporting and training people to become the leaders it needs for effective project management? We’re certainly not learning leadership in interior design school – but for the fact that I needed an elective and signed up for the Project Management class in the business school, I would never have been exposed to project management principles at all.

My guess is that the answer is no, and this may be a big mistake. The world is changing. To compete, architecture and design firms have to produce great projects. To produce great projects, firms need expert teams with effective leaders. To produce effective leaders within the profession, schools need to provide leadership training and A&D firms must value and develop leadership skills throughout their organizations.

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