Manuela Zoninsein's "Keep it Personal: Technology certainly has its place when managing virtual teams, but it’s the relationships that truly count," in this month's PM Network, hits all the right notes about virtual working.
I did my interview via email; Zoninsein then picked quotes for the article. Thought you might enjoy seeing everything I said as this gives a bit of insight into how such pieces are constructed. For those new to being interviewed by the press, you'll get a view of how much you can say and how little actually makes it into print. This is not a complaint. I find it useful to do interviews for the simple reason that it helps me clarify my thinking. Here's my full response to the questions I received:
Q: How do you define and then identify critical success factors while working with a remote team? How do you identify appropriate methods and metrics to evaluate success and results of a virtual organizational structure?
A: Teams need to think about four key areas when evaluating their success: Purpose—is it clear and does everyone define it in the same way; People—who’s involved and how clearly do they understand their roles and responsibilities; Links—how strong are the relationships among people and how well do they use the available technology; and Time—how aware is everyone of the obvious time differences when working across distance and cultures and how clear is everyone on where the work is in the project lifecycle. We’ve developed this model over 25 years of research into virtual and remote teams and have constructed a Virtual Team Assessment to measure individual and team performance.
Q: Are there technological tools you use that help with this process?
A: Research (54 teams in 26 companies in 15 sectors) that we conducted with two business school professors and which we published in Harvard Business Review, “Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?,” indicates that successful virtual teams use two principal technologies: conference calls and shared workspaces. Email was regarded as a poor means of communication except for 1:1 communication. We anticipate video becoming a more useful tool as bandwidth issues improve but seeing people’s faces is probably less important than everyone having the same information to focus on during calls. Combining the two is a good solution but screen real estate is a real issue.
Q: Does integration of information systems pose a particular challenge?
A: Yes, it’s a huge challenge. After twenty years of “knowledge management,” organizations are still struggling to get the right information to the right people at the right time—and to find ways for people to seamlessly share what they have when others need it. One very important clue lies in teams using shared online workspaces that document their work as they do it rather than trying to capture information separately. That’s onerous and no one wants to take the time to do it.
Q: How are the following factors affected by remote working conditions:
- determine confidence levels amongst team members
A: Developing trust among team members is key from the beginning. Ongoing communication, shared small group activities, and pairing people with differing perspectives are a few ways that confidence develops quickly.
- identify schedule drivers
A: Understanding all elements connected with Time, as per above, is critical to the team achieving its objectives.
- determine contingency and risk response plns, and incorporate these changes into your projects
A: Likewise, thorough discussion of the team’s purpose and those elements that put it at risk are mandatory for team success.
Q: Are there technological tools that you have found help you resolve challenges amongst the aforementioned factors?
A: The principal technology “tool” is communication, in whatever form suits the team. Some teams are comfortable using IM on a regular basis; in other companies, it’s still banned. Others depend on some video while still others have not used it yet. The technology is not what’s important; it’s the depth of honest and ongoing communication that is.
Q: As per a KPMG survey of 252 organizations, technology is not the most critical factor. In fact, inadequate project management implementation constitutes 32% of project failures. Do you find this to be representative of what you’ve experienced in your own company and professional practices?
A: Our conclusion based on years of study is that success depends on 80% people factors and 20% technology. In our first edition of Virtual Teams, published in 1997, we said it was 90% people and 10% technology, but since then, technology has improved so much that we threw another 10% its way.
Q: Are there cases where team members have stepped up to the plate and taken on project or team leadership roles? Was that aided or hindered by working remotely? Were there technological tools which aided this process?
A: Shared, rotating leadership is key to these teams. Leadership shifts depending on the task at hand which means people also need to learn how to be better followers. Shared team sites that capture the People-Purpose-Links-Time elements make it much easier for people to move among roles.
Q: Have you ever worked with a coach, someone to oversee you as you manage different projects? How did that relationship evolve, if you based remotely? What tech tools did you use to enhance the relationship?
A: I’ve served as a coach in many cases, using the technologies mentioned above. Coaching requires continuous communication, which in the 1:1 relationship also benefits from use of email and person-to-person telephone calls (not group conference calls). Face-to-face is nice too but not mandatory.
Q: Do you feel you are conscious of the technological resources available to you? How do you keep up with innovations and developments in technological tools?
A: Yes. I read, talk with people, speak at conferences, and am constantly learning.
Q: Have you ever been in the need for synthesising different opinions of a group of disparately-located stakeholders in order to reach the best alternative for a decision making problem? What technological tools did you turn to?
A: Again, yes, and as per above. Technology helps but it’s the depth of honest communication that really matters.
Q: Have you felt an increasing tension between the role of the expert – you, the project manager – and the opinions of the masses, as in your staff unit? How do you balance the growing integration of “the masses” while moving projects forward in a timely, efficient, successful manner?
A: Talented project managers know how to help “the masses” own and grow their own expertise. The greatest attribute of a project manager is being able to celebrate the growth of the people on the team.