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The Need to Create Trust and Understanding in a Virtual Team
By Mike Crocker

Every experienced Project Manager spends a significant amount of their time on communications. The communications plan (formal or not) includes who needs what types of information and which method to use. Too often, the Project Manager is forced to have too many face to face meetings. Part of that is driven by the fact that most humans obtain clues and information visually. We get clues from their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other behaviors. This information is used to assess how each person fits into the group, how similar are they to me, how competent are they, and can I trust them. The trust building and understanding happen over time. Typically, these meetings and events are not budgeted, added to a schedule, or part of a work breakdown of tasks.

Now we add the complexity of virtual globally dispersed teams. This ratchets up the communications overhead and requires a different set of skills. One significant and not fully understood effect is that people tend to under estimate these tasks. This failure to adjust and to look at it differently, too often, leads to ineffective teams and project failure. Some of the conflicts that negatively impact the virtual team can be grouped under relationships, processes, and tasks.

Relationship is the most obvious one. This covers differences in personality, language, ethnic backgrounds, cultural (including country, region, company, work group, professional, sex, etc). This lack of understanding creates misunderstandings and unmet expectations which show up as schedule and tasks issues. For teams working together over a long period of time, over six months, there are a lot of recommendations covering these. Most require embedding people into the other site for some period of time. This includes team members and the project manager, as well as management.

Processes cover how we will do the tasks or the resources required to do a task. The obvious part of this is the equipment, tools, and programs used. What is not always understood is that the management style, performance metrics, and team assignments will also create conflicts due to a lack of understanding. Even in the same company, there is no assurance that the remote teams have all of the same support, equipment, resources, etc. The culture and organizational differences at the remote sites can create radically different management styles.

Some of this also slips into the tasks category of conflicts. That difference impacts the team members ability to tolerate a different level of risks, be flexible with processes and schedules, and goal measurements and definitions. A failure to understand and explicitly agree on what the goals are, how we measure success, and all of the critical parts associated with the integration of all the tasks will lead to failure.

There is hope. A large number of research projects are focused in this area. We also have collaboration tools and methods that are improving. With Web 2.0, we have social networking tools and sites where we can share more than just documents. We can even have meetings in a virtual world. As we move from data transfer (email) to information sharing (web and phone conferences) and onto more contextually rich methods such as video, avatars, and virtual collaboration spaces, we gain more understanding and can clear away some of the potential project disasters.

Until the tools, technologies, processes, and equipment become easy and available to everyone, the Project Manager will need to step up and add even more time to the tasks of communicating effectively. The Project Manager, the team, and all of the stakeholders need to think about increasing understanding and not just moving data around. Each team member should post a five or ten minute YouTube video showing their work area and something important in their personal life. You can even expand that to include short videos about your current tasks or problem on the project. Drop those into a Wiki on the project, link them to your blog, and comment about it in your FaceBook group. We have to move beyond phones and email.

Mike Crocker has combined his MS in Systems Management, PMI certification as a Project Management Professional, and his ten years experience in the web and software area to effectively lead cross functional teams developing and deploying projects that are aligned with the strategic business goals of the company. Using his experience and his love of learning, he has worked as a Project Manager in Aerospace, in the area of marketing for computer equipment, computer peripherals, and software company, wireless applications developer, international semiconductor membership organization, and a web design and hosting agency. Mike has also created and implemented Project Portfolio Management structures and tools for small companies. Mike runs the Project Management in the Dept of Doing blog.

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