Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How to manage virtual teams.

Post 496 - Success in business increasingly depends on the ability to manage a team of people who come from different disciplines, who aren't at the same location or from the same culture, don't necessarily report to you, and may not even work for your company. So there's a growing body of research on virtual management. Here are some of the lessons being learned:

- Be able to walk before you can run.
Someone who can't manage a conventional team probably can't handle a virtual one either. Success in a virtual world means making the needs of team members a top priority. In our technological age, paradoxically, you have to spend more time managing people than in the past.

- Get everyone involved.
Teams that fail usually do so because they lack a clear purpose. So it's crucial that team members know and agree on exactly what they're trying to accomplish together and how they plan to do so. Experience shows that it's good practice for geographically dispersed people to come together and discuss these issues in person during a kickoff meeting.

- Spell everything out.
Take nothing for granted and test all assumptions. As my daughter reminds me on occasion, "Assume puts an ass between you and me." For example, at the beginning, test assumptions about how the team will communicate, what the term "quality" actually means in practice, whether meeting the schedule means the same thing to different team members. Check on what exactly people are signing up for when they make agreements.

- You can't over-communicate.
Once the work gets started, make sure team members don't become isolated. It's good practice for the team manager to stay in touch with the members every day and to encourage the members to keep in touch with one another. Familiarity builds trust and people who trust each other are always more productive.

- Learn to manage up.
Virtual team members often work on more than one team at a time, so the manager is often competing with others for an individual's time. It helps to have a relationship with someone higher up who can approach the right people and ask for help on your behalf. Look for an executive sponsor who's really committed to the team's success.

- Be careful about compensation.
Monetary compensation usually works best if it's tied to the success of the project and to personal performance. However, virtual team members are likely to receive different benefits from their different employers and it helps to make this explicit from the beginning. That way, team members can say what's important to them during the project in order to protect their benefit status.

- Manage conflict.
Since conflict is inevitable, keep a constant eye out for it and make every effort to nip it in the bud when it appears. Check email archives daily for signs of disagreements and if they appear to be surfacing, call the parties involved and talk with them in person rather than relying on email. As an early warning system, consider designating one employee to regularly go from site to site listening to gripes from team members and making these explicit so they can be dealt with.

And finally, managers and team members should bear in mind Oscar Wilde's observation that, "To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect."

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