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