Any project that consists of team members not collocated in the same physical location is a virtual project to some degree. The more geographically dispersed the team members and the more interaction that is done with nonface-to-face communications, the more virtual the project is.
With the continued advances in communications and information technology, and the common everyday use now of mobile phones, remote network access, email, web mail, pagers, and instant messaging, the ability of people to productively collaborate on common work is increased dramatically. And, of course, the reduced office costs and the increased ability to leverage outsourcing options are very attractive to most organizations.
However, these potential productivity gains and cost reductions do not happen automaticallyespecially in the demanding environment of most projects. There is a tremendous amount of energy needed to plan, coordinate, and manage a virtual project team. Let's review a few key tips and techniques specific to leading virtual project teams that I have either confirmed or realized over the years that will help you take advantage of virtual project team situations:
- Get some face-to-face time, especially early If there is any way possible to get face time with your virtual team members, do it. It has been my experience that face-to-face interaction is instrumental in building trust, developing relationships, and jump-starting project momentum. I would recommend the following scenarios for your consideration:
- Get everyone together for the project kickoff meeting.
- Try to collocate the team for the first stage (or as long as you can), then let team members return to their remote locations.
- If none of these are possible, try a mini-kickoff session that focuses on the work planning and identifying risks.
- Depending on the project phase and the nature of the work, look at split work environments (such as two days on-site, three days remote or one week on-site every month).
- We'll mention this later too, but if available, look to leverage video conferencing as much as possible. If not, consider creative use of digital pictures.
- Establish team norms Facilitate the rules and procedures that will guide team interactions and productivity with the team. Key items include
- Core hours everyone needs to be available (online)
- Access to team members during non-core hours
- Preferred team communication mechanisms
- Preferred meeting times, especially important when members are in different time zones
- Reporting status
- Project repository
- Contingencies plans for network or phone outages
- Team directory
- Responsiveness is the difference-maker The key to successful virtual project teams is responsiveness. If people are easily accessible and respond quickly, most organizations could "care less" where people are working. These environments do require team members to be professional and mature.
- Set up protocols for virtual meetings Virtual meetings will be the life-blood of a virtual project team. Here are some key reminders to make these meetings more productive:
- Use technologies that are available to everyone.
- Use technologies that are reliable for everyone.
- Ensure everyone understands how to use the technologies.
- Make sure to send agenda and reference materials in advance of the meeting (or just post to the project repository and send link to it).
- Review protocols for asking questions.
- Keep discussions focused on items that pertain to all participants. For other items, take them "offline." Stop the discussion and assign an action item to schedule a separate meeting with those involved.
- Instant messaging conferences may be appropriate for core team meetings.
- Establish clear time zone references This may not be as much of an issue for you, but in this age of multiple time zones and daylight savings time, take the time to review and clarify time zone designations and conventions. This will go a long way to avoiding meeting time conflicts. In my experience, the most common mistake is the reference to Eastern Standard Time (EST). The eastern section of the U.S. is on EST time between November and April, and it is on Eastern Daylight Time during the spring and summer months. However, there are regions that do not recognize Daylight Savings Time and stay EST year round (such as most of Indiana). Two recommendations here:
- Use the newer time zone references, such as Eastern Time (ET) to refer to whatever time it is on the east coast.
- Reference city or state to clarify the intended time, such as Indiana time or Geneva time.
- Verify productivity early To ensure that the virtual work environment will generate the expected level of productivity needed for project success, pay close attention to initial work efforts. The fundamentals of work assignments apply the same here, just even more important:
- Invest time to clarify work expectations and completion criteria.
- Provide all necessary resources.
- Keep work packages smallless than the standard reporting period.
- Use preferred communication methods of customer and sponsor Either as part of your initial communications planning or as an observation you make during the project, make sure to communicate with your sponsor and your key customers in the manner they prefer and in the manner that best fits their learning style. If this is in person, meet them in person. If it is via phone at 7:30 a.m., call them at 7:30 a.m. If it is email at the end of the day, email them. The two important things to note here are
- The communication mechanisms you use for the core project team may likely be different than what you use for sponsor and customer communications.
- Use the methods they prefer, not what you prefer. This approach will lead to less miscommunication and expectation management issues.
The Absolute Minimum
At this point, you should have a solid understanding of the following:
- The key principles to note in leading cross-functional, cross-cultural, or virtual project environments include the following:
- The same project management fundamentals apply.
- A leadership approach that emphasizes effective communication, collaboration, interpersonal, and expectation management skills tend to work the best.
- Communication, communication, communication.
- Invest more time to ensure understanding.
- More project management effort is needed.
- Proven tips and techniques for leading cross-functional projects include
- Ensure the project has the proper sponsorship and governance procedures.
- Designate functional leaders to represent each distinct group.
- Consistently acknowledge the importance, value, and role that each group contributes to the success of the project.
- Get buy-in and commitment from resource managers.
- Ensure that the project is aligned properly with other organizational initiatives.
- Invest the effort early to understand the complete workflow process that is affected by the project.
- Kickoff meetings are essential.
- Resolve issues aggressively.
- Look out for dysfunctional interactions.
- Invest time on communications planning.
- Invest time in requirements definition.
- Proven tips and techniques for leading cross-cultural projects include
- Be respectful of cultures, customs, time zones, and holiday schedules.
- Recognize the potential culture impacts on project communications and team interactions.
- Turn your active listening skills into hyperdrive.
- Plan on more formality.
- Proven tips and techniques for leading virtual projects include
- Get some face-to-face time, especially early in the project.
- Establish team rules and procedures.
- Focus everyone on the importance of responsiveness.
- Set up protocols for virtual meetings.
- Establish clear time zone designations.
- Verify productivity levels early.
- Use the communication methods preferred by the customer and the sponsor.
The map in Figure 20.1 summarizes the main points we reviewed in this chapter.
Figure 20.1. Overview of managing differences.