Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 4

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter May/June 2005 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the last in a four-part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how the third condition for self-organizing systems, relationships, plays a role.

For our purposes, we will look specifically at interaction. When working with a virtual project team, we lose the opportunity for much of the interaction that happens automatically with co-located teams. Interaction is essential for building relationships. Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers note, “Through relationships, information is created and transformed, the organization’s identity expands to include more stakeholders, and the enterprise becomes wiser.” Simply put, relationships are “pathways to the intelligence.”

You may recall from last month’s article we discussed some technologies available to help with collaboration. The technologies themselves have great potential, but as project managers we must ensure the right interactions are happening. For example, conference calls are the most frequently used tool for collaboration. Having the team dialed into the same call doesn’t guarantee we are having productive interactions. We need to track who participates and encourage those who are not participating. It’s far too easy for our team members to “hide” on a call. Silence from a team member can mean many things: they may not agree with what’s being discussed or proposed; they may not understand; or they may have stepped away. Often we just need to ask for their input or feedback.

Additional approaches you can take to foster interaction on your conference calls are to swap roles within the meetings and share the agenda. Alternate who will “scribe” (take notes) or keep track of time during the meeting. Make it a part of the meeting process to check with the scribe to verify there was enough time to write down the important topics or ideas being discussed. It may make sense to have sections of your meeting organized by members of the team. Sharing responsibility for the meeting not only helps with participation, it may also help to develop a stronger sense of ownership and commitment.

We improve our chances of successful interactions using team collaboration spaces and email by both establishing shared protocols with the team and making sure the team is properly trained. As a team we need to agree how the technology will be used, how frequently it should be accessed, and what issues and information are appropriate. You may want to collectively decide how many electronic interactions on a contentious issue are allowed before the issue needs to be resolved in another way, maybe with a call. An ongoing spiral of emails or messages that doesn’t appear to be advancing the issue towards any resolution may cause the team to be less inclined to use the tool. Not everything can be expressed effectively using these technologies. Be explicit about what should be done in those cases; some issues may require the added cues of real-time interactions, such as the telephone.

As you plan your projects with your virtual team, it is even more important for you to clearly define your transitions or handoffs. These are critical points within your project; in the virtual space it is possible that a less clearly defined handoff may be missed. In addition to defining tasks and dates, we should define with the team how handoffs will happen. You may want to ensure a more formal handoff happens via phone or email. For example, in the case of email, it is important that the receiver acknowledges they received the handoff.

Finally, remember it’s not always about the technology and the plans. Take time to celebrate successes with the team. Expressing your appreciation to the team on a conference call still goes a long way. Team lunches together to celebrate are difficult to arrange when team members may be thousands of miles away. If you have taken the time to get to know your team, you may see other ways to reward them. Small tokens of your appreciation can still find their way to remote team members. It may take a call to someone at their local site to help make arrangements, or you may want to go online and arrange some surprise be shipped to them. Regardless of what approach you take, don’t miss the opportunity to celebrate successes with the team.

Thank you for joining me in this four-part series. Adjusting to managing virtual teams is a challenge, but one that can be managed. Start with our two core principles: 1. Make the implicit explicit; and 2. Slow down to speed up. Take a look at your team as a living system. Are the three conditions (identity, information, and interaction) being met? If they are not, this series should help you get started.

<– read part 3

Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 3

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter Apr. 2005 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the third in a 4 part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how information plays a role.

Last month, we discussed how identity is critical to the success of our project team as a living system. As we look at the role of information, we turn again to “The Irresistible Future of Organizing“, by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers explain that sensitive informationprocessing exists in “the edge of chaos,” a place where new information enters without the team losing its identity. The information appears chaotic but is the “nutrient of self-organization.”

As Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers show, “Only when information belongs to everyone can people organize rapidly and effectively around shifts in customers/partners, competitors and environments. People need access to information that no one could predict they would want to know. They themselves didn’t know they needed it until that very moment.”

To ensure the success of our teams we must find better ways to increase this information sharing. When our project teams worked in the same physical space, we could rely on team libraries, bulletin boards, and informal discussions among team members. In the virtual space, we need to leverage available technologies to ensure all team members have the information they need.

Regularly scheduled conference calls and web conferencing are very commonly used vehicles for information sharing. Web conferencing technology allows us to supplement the audio call with shared visuals, giving participants a chance to see and hear what is being discussed. We may share a presentation, collaborate on a document, or demonstrate something relating to the topic being discussed. This approach is also very effective for “brown bag” or more informal learning sessions among team members.

Among some teams, email is still a heavily used tool for information and knowledge sharing. You may create an email alias that allows team members to send things to one email address that gets forwarded to the entire team. Managing email can be a difficult challenge for many team members, but unlike conference calls it does provide a “written” record that can be referred back to.

Instant messaging has become popular among many teams. Typically effective for shorter, less complex topics, it provides a real-time exchange of information among team members. “Chat rooms” are available with most instant messaging technologies and allow all team members to message in the same space, but it is difficult to follow conversations with more than a few participants. This is why instant messaging is typically used for one-on-one communications and does not ensure information is made available to all team members.

Collaboration technologies are now available to help us ensure information is available to all team members in a way that can be organized, accessed, and archived after a project. Commonly used technologies include project web sites, forums, discussion boards, and team collaboration spaces. Each of these technologies allows team members to contribute information and ensures all team members have access. The success of these tools depends on you, as project manager, modeling the behavior you expect from your team. Instead of emailing your status reports, send a link to the project web site, or just a reminder that the updated status report is available in the team’s collaboration tool.

With a strong identity and this readily available information, team members have what they need to develop informed and creative responses for the challenges they face. Next month, with the last in this series, we will focus on how interaction plays a role in our virtual project teams…

<– read part 2

Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 2

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter January 2005 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the second in a 4 part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how identity plays a role.

Too often, we fall into the trap of seeing our project teams as machines. Machines are often seen as predictable, reliable, and easy to manage and control. They are very effective at producing the same result, over and over again. Sounds good, right? The dilemma is that projects are meant to create unique products and services. Machines aren’t able to create unique products and services, they’re too limiting. We need our teams to be living systems, capable of self-organizing and overcoming challenges.

To better understand organizations as living systems, we’ll turn to the article “The Irresistible Future of Organizing“, by Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers. In their application of the concept of living systems to organizations, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers note three conditions that must be met for self-organizing systems: identity, information and relationships. Identity is defined as “intent”, and “a belief that something more is possible now that the group is together.” It’s our team’s past, present, and future.

Identity is derived from purpose, charter, and mission. We hear these words used frequently, with many not understanding or adopting them in practice. Our world tends to be chaotic. Identity needs to be the most stable aspect of our team. It becomes the glue that keeps our team together. Having a clear identity allows us to have high alignment to the project goals, while giving our virtual team members high autonomy. It gives clarity that helps team members contribute in creative and diverse ways. It’s the reason a virtual team member will make the team a priority over the fires, pressures, and priorities happening at their current location. Who we are is the key to what we can do.

So how can we help to solidify identity for our project teams? Bring the team together, in person, if possible. Meeting in person allows our team to connect in ways that are more difficult for virtual teams. Unfortunately, the reality for many project managers is that travel budgets are restricted. Whether travel is possible or not, there are several things you can do to help ensure your team has a clear identity.

Defining goals, vision, success factors, ground rules, and a “team contract” (operating agreement) help foster identity. Our focus is almost always on the needs and desires of external project stakeholders. It is important to discover and take into account the needs of team members as well. The more we align personal goals with project goals, the more commitment we generate. Relying on the expertise of team members can also help strengthen identity.

Encourage team members to share information about themselves. This can be done through a project web site or by planning time for personal connections. Some project managers use a few minutes at the beginning of conference calls to have team members talk informally. This could be a check-in about their weekend, current weather, major happenings at their location, etc. Our virtual teams do not automatically have the same informal interactions an in-person team would. To ensure our team comes together as a living system, we need to plan time for informal interactions.

Next month we will focus on how information plays a role in our virtual project teams…

<< read part 1

Article – Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming, Part 1

As published in the Project Management Institute (PMI) NH Chapter Nov./Dec. 2004 Newsletter for HeiterConnect, Inc.

Working with virtual teams is rapidly becoming standard practice, on or off shore. This is the first of a 4 part series on the Fundamentals of Virtual Teaming. In this article we’ll focus on what a virtual team is and 2 core principles for success.

In our consulting and training work, we define a virtual team as ‘a small group of people from the same or different organizations, who interact through interdependent tasks to achieve a common purpose.’ Often these teams are not directly managed, not in the same physical space, not in constant teams (coming together for a particular task) and may include language barriers.

If we compare co-located and virtual teams, some distinctions come to mind. Virtual teams are dispersed, while co-located teams share the same physical space. In co-located teams, it is far easier to talk and show things, communication is often quicker, and you can rely on body language more for understanding. With a virtual team, there is a greater opportunity for misinterpretation of communications, less opportunity to create trust, and most meetings need to be planned in advance.

How do we make our virtual project teams more successful? Two core principles for success we use frequently are:

a. Make the implicit explicit
b. Slow down to speed up

a. Make the implicit explicit

In a co-located situation, it is far easier for us to gauge our reactions and behaviors based on those around us. We learn quickly whether or not it is ok to join meetings late or multi-task during a meeting. In the virtual space, team members have fewer interactions and cues to rely on.

An important step in making things explicit for your virtual teams is creating operating agreements. Operating agreements allow anything that would have been implied in a co-located team to become explicit. If we look at virtual meetings, we can make them run more smoothly by creating and agreeing to meeting protocols. Meeting protocols could include: come prepared; voice opinion, but allow others to do the same; eliminate background noise; say name before speaking; be as precise and succinct as possible; no multi-tasking.

b. Slow down to speed up

With all the pressures on today’s projects (budget, schedule, political), we often feel the need to charge forward. Slow down to speed up means taking the time up front to make sure things are set up properly. This could include defining operating agreements, ensuring the necessary technology is working properly and project staff is trained to use it, or planning extra communication into your schedule to ensure all team members are focused on the right activity. For instance, if we take the time to define when status reports need to be turned in, what they must include, what format they must follow and how they are to be delivered, we reduce the possibility of re-work being required.

Next month we will focus on the virtual project team as a living system and how identity plays a role…