Collaboration: The Art, Science of Managing the Virtual Team
Balancing Time, Focus – Today, team members come from inside and outside the company and may be working in the same town or across the globe. They come together for a specific project and set of goals. For the project to succeed, the project/program manager has to clear the path for the team members, keep them focused, keep them enthused.
In today’s virtual organizations, work is increasingly being done by teams made up of people from different departments and in many instances, with people who are outside their companies.
The challenge is to gain the cooperation of individuals you have no control over.
To effectively lead these collaborative teams, you must rely on personal persuasion rather than the power of your position.
Whether you’re heading an interdepartmental team; leading a combined customer, company and supplier project; or building support for new ideas or programs, the ability to persuade others is essential.
To guarantee the success of your virtual team project, follow the advice of experts:
- Ensure Management Support – Whether it is a virtual team or a skunk works project, one of the most vital pieces of information you’ll need is who requested that the team be brought together and their objectives.
Did the call to action come from the CEO or the management committee? What are their expressed and implied objectives? Make certain there is a firm commitment to the project and program so when the team is done with the project actions and recommendations will be carried out.
If there is no commitment to the project, then management loses its credibility.
- Opportunity, not Punishment – If you’re recruiting people for the project team, sell the individuals on the importance of the activity and their part in producing results. It is often said that if you want something important to be done, and done properly, seek out the busiest individuals because they know how to make things happen.
These are the people you want on your team.
- Short-Circuit Problems – If you’ve been named to head up the project team, there may be some resentment from your peers. In some instances they may feel the “honor” or responsibility should have been theirs or they don’t feel you’re qualified for the responsibility.
Empower your team members from the outset. Let them know you’re the facilitator for the project, not the leader.
- Agree on Goals – Make certain everyone is on the same page and working toward the same objective at the outset. At your first meeting, agree upon a common objective or set of objectives and the time frame for completing the project.
This keeps everyone moving in the same direction and at the same pace. Next, get a commitment from management to the objectives and the execution of the outcome.
Your team and senior management must agree that not succeeding isn’t an option.
Bringing Pieces Together – For any team effort to be successful, each member must feel he/she is important to the success of the project and has the talent and expertise the company needs to carry out the effort quickly, smoothly, effectively. Outline the objectives and allow/let them contribute to the success of the effort.
- Involve the Team Members – Make certain every member of the team feels his or her role and input are important.
Ask for their input and ideas. Then, as a team, consider the inputs seriously, rather than dismissing or ignoring them. By closely involving each of the members, they have a stake in making certain that the project or program succeeds.
If they aren’t involved in the process, they aren’t responsible for the outcome. Once the project is completed, now comes the important phase of meeting with and assisting those who must implement the project.
Their involvement comes at the outset by getting inputs and suggestions and then communicating to get their assistance/cooperation in making the changes happen.
- Observe – One of the most difficult tasks for any leader is to step back and observe your team members and analyze their motives or actions.
The most valuable asset a leader of any kind can have is the ability to determine the strengths and weaknesses of your key people and leverage their talents and interests so they deliver results for the program and themselves.
It’s a struggle for any manager to control himself or herself from assisting. But good people don’t like to, don’t need to, be micro-managed.
In addition, unless the individual(s) are heading for total disaster, most people only effectively learn by making mistakes – and recovering from them.
Time, Focus – Most virtual project team members have other responsibilities, other priorities. If necessary, you may have to assist them to free up some of their time for the project with their senior managers. This can be done by highlighting how their contributions are not only important but can help the organization more quickly complete the project for the good of the organization.
- Ask for Time – Since you don’t directly control the project managers, your project can have a low priority, compared to work the people they report to.
Sometimes it’s important to get time freed up for your project members. This means going to their supervisors and explaining what the team is doing, why they are dong it and how it fits into the overall picture for the company.
This helps managers understand the bigger picture.
- Address Problem Team Members Head–on – Your virtual project or program is only an interim assignment for the team members.
It’s not mainstream to their job.
In some instances, people won’t attend meetings, won’t complete assignments and aren’t really committed to the team’s success. Sometimes there are personality or personal reasons.
In other instances, even the best people have reached their overload level and the time schedule/priority windows are closed. Sit down with the individual (alone, not during the meeting) and see how things can be resolved so the project can be completed and everyone’s needs are met. At times, it may mean realigning the workload so someone else can pick up the ball and keep the program moving forward.
All of the people in the project team were selected for specific reasons – experience, talent, drive – but not everyone has an equal overall workload.
By negotiating with all of the team members, workable solutions can be developed.
Clear Directions – Bringing together a team – even within the confines of the same building – for a short-term project/effort — is a task. Bringing together a team from inside/outside the company and located in a variety of locations means everyone comes into the team with a different perspective of the goals and direction of the activity. One of the first and biggest responsibilities for the person managing the project is to get everyone moving in the same direction and sharing a common goal.
- Managing Your Managers – Everyone in business today understands that downsizing and mergers have slimmed the ranks of middle management and employees have become more empowered to manage themselves and their time – out of necessity.
That doesn’t mean that some of these people are able to deal well with their loss of power or this new cross-organization freedom. Employees who take the initiative threaten old-line mangers. Many feel they worked hard to get where they are today and that they’ve earned the right to be in charge.
Some rustbelt managers feel the flattened and empowered organization is the same as letting the inmates run the jail. If the insecurity isn’t deeply rooted, you can help them by keeping them appraised on the project, its objectives, its direction and its progress.
When the project is completed, make it a point to thank the managers for helping project members by making them available and freeing them up so they could accomplish their objectives.
It’s a minor point, but it can return some of their managerial dignity.
- Walk the Walk, Talk the Talk – It isn’t enough to give lip service to change. As the project leader, you have to be one of the first to step forward and demonstrate that you are committed to producing results and achieving the team’s objectives.
You also have a responsibility to help the organization plan out, monitor and revise the team’s program as necessary.
Ultimately, success is based on follow-through, follow-through, and follow-through.
By G.A. “Andy” Marken
Marken Communications Inc.