Managing Project Teams in Kaust`s Project


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia is a global institution targeting graduates from the world over located in Thuwal, it is intended to be an inspiration domestically and internationally in research and was opened in September 2009 being the brainchild project of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Saudi Aramco is the national oil company of Saudi Arabia which is owned by the state and headquartered in Dhahran. It boasts of being the leading oil corporation in the world with confirmed oil reserves and production, this was the company relied upon by the government to implement the KAUST project.

KAUST was intended to be a model university of research, science, and technology, sustainable development, and modernization in Saudi Arabia where religion is a facet of everyday life. It was constructed with the management of Aramco to a tune of a financial $10 billion bequest, the groundbreaking ceremony was held on October 31, 2007, at Thuwal, on the coast of the Red Sea, while the university opened its doors two years later in September 2009 on more than 14 square miles. The project involved a huge team of personnel who operated on the site, and of the site, the study involves the project management team.

People management challenges faced in the project were diverse, ranging from management to the employee’s teams and the owners of the project teams. These challenges included:

Discrete project teams

Several companies were subcontracted to ensure that the project is finished in time and meets the high level of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification requirements; the companies included several architectural contractors, engineering teams, solar design, Electrical and structural engineers, and quality assurance team, the different persons who were working on the core seventeen buildings which were critical to the completion on the project.

With different teams, the main challenge was to achieve synchronization, concurrency, and cohesion. The management people management challenge was more pronounced when it came to a chain of command, the employees at times were at the loss from which quarters to obey instructions, from the quality assurance team, from the subcontractor, from the contractor, the interim university management, from the Saudi Aramco representatives or the kings’ palace personnel. There existed divergent interests, such as the contractor aiming to reduce personnel costs, which meant fewer employees, while the King wanted the project to be completed in the shortest time, which called for more team members.

Unrealistic deadlines

The project was to be completed within a two-year scope, from 2007 to 2009. This was a definite dateline that had to be met, this posed as the greatest challenge to people management, ensuring that all the employees performed within the defined datelines were a challenge. This meant those team members were to work overtime, there are situations when employees refused to offer their services, on an overtime basis, hence resulting in seeking alternative approaches, which may not have been favorable to the employees. All the projects activities were tied to the dateline, making each activity to be time-critical, and affecting the duration of the entire project.

For example, a delay of the architectural team meant a delay on the structural and building engineers, which could affect the engineering division, ultimately affecting the entire project. The people management challenge was therefore because there was an immovable dateline, which meant team members were at all situations to strive to achieve the deadline, even at times when the situation was not in their favor.

Team Language barrier

The main contractor, Oger International is a French firm headquartered in Paris, with mostly French-speaking employees, however, most of the persons, who were employed to work in the Thuwal region are Arabic speakers. The engineering sub-contracted firm had mainly English-speaking employees. This created a people management challenge, due to the fact the there was a distortion of information due to translation challenges, more so, instructions could not be taken uniformly, but employees took the instructions depending on the understanding of their language, which at times meant different things. This was exemplified by units of measurement, where other employees insisted on using the English measurement instead of the metric units of measurement. Communication deficit/ ineffective communication

Whereas the project embraced technology, in ensuring the flow of information, there was a massive flow of information, which had to be relayed on regular basis, in some cases, hourly basis. This included reports, project status, materials provision, and employees performance/appraisal, which needed to be conveyed to project participants. The challenge was highlighted by the fact that there were employees who had partial information on the project deliverables when project managers and team members failed to provide sufficient information, at times the culture for good communication failed to exist, making it a challenge, to the entire project, since at times employees acted on partial information or limited information.

Scope creep/Shifting Organizational Priorities/ Scope changes

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology was intended to be a model institution in the region. Whereas the king had the vision on the model institute, several players such as Saudi Aramco, the society, and the Education Ministry had emerging requirements when the project had already begun, such as the need for the institution to gather for both sexes. These meant substantial changes to the initial priorities.

Managing the people, to accept the new changes, which meant some, had to adjust their personnel programs was a challenge. At times, the people were not ready to accept the new changes, saying they were not part of their contract. Initially highly prioritized setting up of recreational facilities, was shelved, to concentrate on establishing a Supercomputing Research Center for the Shaheen supercomputer, the challenge was compounded by the fact that the project manager has little control over these occurrences.

Geographically dispersed project teams/large area for the project

The university covered fourteen miles square, more so, the project was located in Thuwal, the project was done by Oger International headquartered in Paris, but the project owner was Saudi Aramco Headquartered in Dhahran, but with keen interest of King Abdullah who resided in Riyadh. This presented several people management challenges due to the distance between the project teams. Decision-making touching on employees, who involved all the stakeholders, was complicated, hence a quick decision could not be arrived at, and this at times served to reduce morale among the employees when they wanted quick responses on issues concerning them.

Mismanaged human resources and resource competition

Managing the available persons against the available resources was a challenge. At times, there were more resources than what the project teams were able to execute, and pooling resources across multiple implementations was a challenge. This was coupled with teams competing for resources, when scarcity existed, with at times implementations with the same precedence, demanding at the same time to utilize a limited resource. This created a people management challenge of internal competition, which at times degenerated into personal differences, while assessment brainstorming at times yielded, what appeared to some persons as being a threat to their performances. The challenge was in terms of unhealthy competition.

Autocratic management

There were military persons from the government who did not give chances to the opinions of other persons involved in the project implementation. This posed a challenge to the people management in the project; since some experts felt that their opinions were being rejected, hence being demoralized. The expectation that the project is implemented according to the autocratic leader’s directorship, also posed a challenge in terms of the relationship between the project implementers and government representatives, since, when their opinions were discarded, they could lose a sense of ownership of the project.

Skill deficiency

There are times when work assignments were based on available skill force, not on project requirements, this was compounded by persons who failed to acknowledge their shortcomings and improper assessment and estimation; hence creating people management challenge of assigning work to available skills. Lack of sufficient training and experience created a challenge where there was labor, but which was unable to handle work at hand. The fact that the project involved several steps at the same time meant that once the project moved to the next step existing skills were declared redundant and new skills sought.

Stakeholders’ engagement

The project involved several stakeholders with diverse interests; people who belonged to the different stakeholder groups had contrary interpretations of the same scenario. This created a challenge of harmonizing their diverse interest with the goal of the project. For example, the project had a set budget, while the project employees sought more money, due to shifting priorities. The challenge involved bringing the concerns of all stakeholders and harmonizing them.

Management challenges and project success

Team challenges affected the success of the project, the diversity of team members was a challenge that created a virtual wall between several teams, and this hindered communication flow, between the several teams who were implementing the project, as argued by Greer (2002) when there is no effective communication between the team members in a project, a lot of time resource is wasted, in an attempt to effectively pass information and seeking clarifications. This resulted in delays in meeting the target datelines occasioned by a lack of proper communication within the teams hence affecting the entire delivery time of the project.

Unrealistic datelines within the team resulted in pressure to deliver on the team members. According to Muhamed (2010), when unrealistic datelines are set and they are maintained on the rigid work plan, without consulting the team members, it negatively affects and lowers the productivity of the team members; this had a chance on affecting the quality of individual team members output, hence having a net impact on the project delivery. Team language barriers had an overall impact on the project delivery; this was due to the divergent interpretations of the same data and the inability to accept different interpretations of the data, created unnecessary communication overhead.

Communication deficit/ ineffective communication within the team and the entire project teams immensely affected the project delivery (Baker, 2003). Working with partial information and lack of substantial information, resulted to project delay, since, whereas there were enough materials and labor, construction could not proceed, due to unavailability of information on what to do.

Scope creep/Shifting Organizational Priorities/ Scope changes, could affect the team’s morale, the project was expected to create a model university that could admit graduate students from within the country and in the whole world, which was from both sexes as well as being an exemplary research center, the fact that there was a wide range of requirements within a limited duration of time, meant that in most cases, the project members were exhausted working day and night, hence not delivering optimal performance, this meant more employees to gather for the resultant reduced output of the available workforce.

Geographically dispersed project teams/large areas for the project meant delay in message passage; the delay had a ripple effect on the entire project since the cumulative delay translated to project delay. Skill deficiency meant the team operated on minimal output, or members were allocated to projects which did not meet their qualifications and experience, as such this could result in compromising the quality of the entire project.

Autocratic management, exhibited by some team members who wanted an immediate completion of the project affected the self-esteem and confidence of other team members, when their confidence was low, their creativity and initiative-ness were demoralized, and this could affect the entire originality of the project. It is therefore apparent that the factors that affected people management consequently affected the project’s success.

The peculiarity about the project’s team dynamics

The project’s team had a peculiarity than other teams’ dynamics, outmost difference with other project was the fact that the project had diverse interested parties, being a brainchild of King Abdullah, and implemented by the government through Saudi Aramco who were not the ultimate owners of the university and that several companies where contracted, the project team had an outmost peculiarity of divergent “facts”, to which each individual was not ready to cede ground or compromise on their beliefs.

This affected team dynamics. In conventional business like projects the forming stage is the coming starting process, forming involves orientation of the project members to the vision, vision, objectives, aims and goals of the organization; on conventional projects. However, in this project, the team was assembled within a short time, and there was no room for pleasantries and forming, the group members immersed themselves in the project immediately – as they arrived.

In other business projects, there exists the storming stage which is characterized by spotlight on personal relationships in their group. The KAUST project involved several employees, who had different backgrounds, however, the existence of King Abdullah ensured that the team concentrated on the project; – in most cases being headless team where each team member reporting directly to the Kings representative’s, in situations where the team leaders where required, there were mainly presidential appointees. In “business as usual projects” the norming stage, which involves normalization of the group members’ relationships and cohesion is evident.

In this project, this was the main stage, where each member at the beginning of the project, was made to belong to a group – voluntary or otherwise. In the project, there was the need to beat the set timeline and performance was the key, all members concentrated on achieving performance. Adjourning which involves the break up of the group on successful completion of the task was not achieved in this team project; this was occasioned by the fact that after the commissioning of the project in September 2009, team members were assigned to other duties and continuing developments within the university. There was no permanent break-up of the team.

How the issues were dealt with

The issues which emanated in the team were dealt with by understanding that “the success of the project depends on the team leader” (Loweree et all, 128), and the project members were given the freedom to choose team leaders who exhibited traits identified by Turner (1999), which included “problem solving ability, results orientation, Energy and initiative, self confidence, perspective, communication, and negotiation ability”.

When the team members choose their leaders, there were able to identify persons that they could be comfortable working under them, and the team leaders played a crucial role in ensuring that the members were motivated at all times, to achieve the stipulated dateline. The other strategy implemented was assembling the project team in Thuwal, the project site; controlled by once center of command led by Saudi Aramco who was responsible for all the project deliverables.

This created a centralized power base, where all the team members owed their loyalty and could honor the commands from the power base, and avoided situations where there were two contradictory instructions, moreover, this reduced the need to cover large distances to make simple decisions and created precedence based clear chart. The project scope was also stated, with limited capability to alter the requirements, hence ensuring that the team members concentrated on the well-set requirements, without the possibility of waking up to new changes. Different specialized teams were also set up to deal with their area of expertise, all group members were allocated duties and responsibilities depending on their capability, expertise, and experience.

Effectiveness of the approach and compromises made

The approach used was effective in creating a sense of freedom and ownership of the project in all team members; while at the same time ensuring that the project was delivered to the satisfaction of all stakeholders, (Kimmons, 1989). The approach was also effective in ensuring that the dateline was met, since all the group members understood, what was required of them, and when the project was expected to end. The approach also ensured that there was cohesion in the entire project team; all members were able to concentrate on a single goal by taking instructions from a centralized power base.

However, team members’ freedom in terms of working times were compromised since the dateline was to be achieved, this also compromised the dynamism of the project, the fact that the requirements could not be altered meant that the project was to remain static and rigid, and could not cope with the changing trends. Using the team members to also choose their leaders also compromised the control exercised by the project owners; this created too much freedom for the team members since they could choose leaders whose goals could not match the project goals.

Lessons learned and how they can be applied

Week eight class work on matching people and tasks in project management was necessary for ensuring that the persons managing the KAUST project had the necessary knowledge on the project and team management and harmonize the objectives of the several stakeholders.

On the challenge of leadership in project teams, the lesson learned is that leadership plays a crucial role in the success of the project and that to meet the crucial aspects of the project, which was quality work in a given timeline, the project manager had to effectively share the same vision with the team members. Week ten class works on conflict management provided a very important understanding on settling conflicts that may occur in the course of the project, in the KAUST project, conflict of members loyalty had a chance of occurring due to the diverse interested parties in the project, group members could be more loyal to the aims and objectives of the firm they work for, not to concerns of the project.


Baker, Sunny et al. (2003) Complete Idiots Guide to Project Management. New York, Alpha Books.

Greer, Michael. (2002) The project manager’s partner: a step-by-step guide to project management. New York, AMACOM.

Kimmons, Robert. (1989) Project management: a reference for professionals. London, CRC Press.

Muhamed, Abdomerovic. (2010) Brainstorming the PMBOK Guide Fourth Edition: The Complete Reference for Relating and Chronologically Sequencing Process Inputs and Outputs. Panama, PM Publications.

Turner, Rodney. (1999) The Handbook of Project-Based Management. Chicago, McGraw-Hill.

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