When one’s team members are halfway across the world, working together effectively is no small achievement. Start with minimal or no face-to-face interaction, add differences of expertise, geography, time zone, culture, and perhaps language, and one ends up with, to put it mildly, a leadership challenge.
How to navigate those challenges, especially in projects requiring complex innovation, is the subject of a February, 2007, article in the journal Academy of Management Perspectives. “Leading Virtual Teams,” authored by Arvind Malhotra, Ann Majchrzak, and Benson Rosen is a tidy compilation of techniques and suggestions for making distributed teams work well together.
Two of the authors, Malhotra and Rosen, are in close proximity to each other at the Kenan-Flagler Business School of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The third author, Majchrzak, is across the continent and three time zones away at the Marshall School of Business, of the University of Southern California. Together they constitute a virtual team, so they speak from experience.
Six Ways to Strengthen Ties
When team members are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles, even the simplest of leadership tasks requires careful thinking, as Malhotra, Majchrzak and Rosen discovered through their research. The authors followed a virtual team at Boeing-Rocketdyne through its entire life cycle, and then did a large-scale follow-up study in which they attended meetings of 55 successful virtual teams in 33 different companies and interviewed team leaders. Finally, they boiled down their observations and conclusions into six clusters of recommendations, which are briefly summarized here.
1. Establish and Maintain Trust Through the Use of Communication Technology
Just as in face-to-face teams, two of the biggest trust builders in virtual teams are having members do what they promise and “show up” at the meetings they are expected to attend. But virtual teams require additional up-front maintenance. Project leaders, for example, must establish initial common norms and procedures about how communication technology should be used. In “eRooms” or other electronic discussion forums, team members need a common understanding about what to post, when to post, who owns documents, and how to inform others of documents’ whereabouts; in addition, all members must subscribe to an electronic etiquette and similar “tone of voice.” In audio-conferencing, norms have to be established, such as whether or not members identify themselves before commenting. These up-front norms and procedures may have to be modified as the group members gets used to interacting with each other. For example, e-mail attachments may be OK at the beginning at the project but then become outlawed midstream as members discover that their inboxes start overflowing. “Virtual get-togethers,” such as conference calls or e-mail exchanges, allow members to iron out these minor process issues along the way.
2. Ensure That Team Diversity is Understood, Appreciated, and Leveraged
Team members show up with a diverse array of skills, expertise, and life experiences. A leader can take three actions to make sure this diversity is fully understood and utilized. First, a leader can post an “expertise directory” at the beginning of a project, which could take the form of a skills matrix, collection of C.V.s, or list of articles written by the members. Second, the leader can pair diverse members in common tasks and rotate members throughout the project, both practices that enhance bonding and feed the creative fires. Third, the leader needs to establish an interplay between synchronous and asynchronous communications. Topics brought up during the synchronous, real-time audio-conferences or “webinars” can be later dissected in asynchronous forum discussions or e-mail exchanges. Team members who may be shy about speaking up in the presence of senior team members during conference calls may be more willing to unwind in a later series of written discussions.
3. Manage Virtual Work-Cycle and Meetings
Successful real-time, virtual meetings are, by definition, highly choreographed events. Virtual team leaders must oversee an interlinking set of practices prior to, during, and after the meetings. Time between meetings should be spent on idea divergence and exploration (asynchronous idea generation.) Meetings should be used for idea convergence and conflict resolution (synchronous idea convergence.) Together, these two modes of communicating optimize the work cycle.
Before a meeting begins, team pre-planning is crucial. Have electronic discussions before the meeting and post these discussion threads. Identify areas of disagreement to discuss during the meeting. Circulate a clear agenda in advance with time allocations. Post progress on the repository, linking them with project timelines, action items, and responsibility charts.
During the meeting, ensure through "check-ins" that everyone is engaged and heard from. Electronic voting is one way to quickly take a group’s pulse, with results displayed instantly on screen. Some teams reported using "minutes on the go" during the meeting, that is, rough minutes logged in a virtual room side window. Only results are recorded, not debates and discussion.
At the end of the meeting, make sure the final polished minutes and future work plans are posted to the team repository. Also, between meetings, encourage idea generation divergence and discussions through threads, instant messaging, e-mail exchanges, and auto-notification of postings.
4. Monitor Team Progress Through the Use of Technology
Team leaders found it helpful to scrutinize asynchronous and synchronous communications closely to monitor team progress. That progress was made visible to team members through shared project timelines and balanced scorecard measures, in a simplified dashboard or one-page summary format – another helpful practice.
Leaders frequently reported their monitoring of technology and procedures evolved over time. One team leader put it this way:
Our database matured. We initially had a discussion database. Then we added IM. Then we added change request capability. Then we added a call tracking database. Then we added an issue log. Then we created a view called “management view” with schedule, costs spent to date, and project status. Then we added a working section view just for the team. We tried videoconferencing but stopped using it when the team did not find it helpful.
While not all leaders may be comfortable with this rapidly changing management style, such fluid evolution of oversight was a common story among virtual team leaders.
5. Enhance External Visibility of the Team and Its Members
The study’s authors observed that leading a virtual team requires parallel processing. While focusing on internal activities, team leaders also had to continuously and clearly represent the team’s work to external stakeholders including project sponsors, local executives, and internal and external customers.
This external reporting function was handled in a variety of ways. One leader organized a steering committee of departmental managers and client organizations and then regularly briefed this committee. Another leader expected each team member to “report out” to his or her sponsoring manager. Regardless of which approach was used, leaders usually asked team members to approve reports intended for managers and external audiences to encourage buy-in for the report-out process.
6. Ensure Individuals Benefit from Participating in Virtual Teams
Part of any good leader’s job is making sure team members get the rewards and recognition they deserve. Virtual leaders had the same goals, although they achieved them in different ways, including:
Having virtual reward ceremonies, including sending gifts to each individual;
Starting each virtual meeting with recognition of specific successes;
Suggesting to high level executives pleased with team members’ briefings to pass on the good word to the members’ respective managers.
Some team members respond more to intellectual challenge and fun, so it’s important to provide them with opportunities for lectures, conferences, and other avenues for personal growth. The key is to understand what makes each individual tick.
Imagine a carbon-epoxy jetliner with gracefully curved wings slipping through the clear blue sky at 35,000 feet. Contented passengers are sipping their beverages and tapping softly on their laptops. The pilots are chatting quietly about World Cup soccer in a serene cockpit brimming with sophisticated avionics. This scene is from a jetliner project with effective virtual teams.
Contrast this scene with another jetliner project literally stranded on the ground. It’s over budget, past deadline, and hopelessly mired in controversy. Engineers from two different continents are scratching their heads over why body module components made in twenty-five different countries don’t fit together and why the wiring panels don’t match. Discussions in the back offices are getting heated and loud. The managers of this project have yet to master the art of leading distributed technical teams.
When innovation and creativity are called for, the crucial factors for success are increasingly the virtual ties that bind.