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Draw Lines in the Sand to Jumpstart Virtual Team


Virtual teams are hard to see. That’s why the boundaries that define the scope,
accountabilities, roles, reporting relationships, tasks and deliverables
can be pretty tough to grasp. That is, if they exist at all.

Why? Some teams simply
assume that everyone has a shared understanding of the big picture. If
that’s true, the thinking goes, then no need to waste time discussing
something that goes without saying. Other teams may actually prefer blurry boundaries, thinking that they may feel more unified if members
aren’t “put in boxes.” And some teams just prefer to address any
prevailing confusion or conflicts as they inevitably arise. No use
having these “touchy-feely” conversations unless they’re really
necessary, right? There’s so much work to do and so little time!

While any of these
perspectives may seem rational at any given time, the consequences can
be nothing short of catastrophic. What’s most likely to happen when a
hard-charging virtual team moves along, often at breakneck speed,
without clear boundaries? Will team members just magically mesh, somehow
sensing what each needs to do, forging needed connections and making
smooth handoffs by osmosis? Will people somehow know when it’s time to
jump in to give a colleague vital information or assistance so
everyone’s jobs can get done faster? Almost definitely not!

Joining me in writing this month’s Communique is David Kershaw, VP of Cloud Services at Altova. (Have a look at David’s creative presentation, The Importance of Team Boundaries, which shows how defining clear membership, roles and other boundaries directly affects team performance.)

Here David and I
explore some of the usual challenges virtual teams face when it comes to
carving out clear boundaries, the challenges that emerge in the absence
of such boundaries, and some possible remedies. You can also jumpstart
the creation of your own virtual team charter with this downloadable checklist of questions .

  • Project charters and team charters fulfill distinctly different needs. The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project charter fairly
    narrowly around the business case, authority, and other macro issues.
    Team operations, the internal setup of how the members will get their
    work done, is conspicuously absent from the project charter. A team
    charter (which some call bylaws or some other name), serves as a
    blueprint for a team, helping members see how they fit together, make
    decisions, signal the need for support, and share knowledge and
    processes. A blueprint is just as necessary for assembling a team as it
    is for constructing any building.
  • Use organizational clarity to get beyond hearsay and “he said, she said.” Some teams are reluctant to be transparent about their structure. For
    example, a former peer may have been quietly promoted by a manager who
    doesn’t want to make waves. In a virtual world, changes like this often
    fly under the radar for a time. But when word leaks out (and it will!),
    the element of surprise is likely to cause confusion and resentment. The
    team’s leader will lose credibility and the team will bear high costs
    in terms of decreased productivity and low morale.  Team
    leaders need to be thoughtful, clear and timely when it comes to
    communicating changes, along with the associated rationale, especially
    when they affect many others on the team. Especially reach out to those
    most likely to have questions or concerns, genuinely seeking out their
  • Use your team charter to create your own unique rhythms of process and collaboration. A team charter needs to answer certain elementary questions up front.
    What do people do, and what do they need to do it? How do we define
    success? What processes enable good teamwork? How do we capture and
    share principles? How do we allow for sensible change at various stages?
    Will we need to modify our roles and responsibilities as we move into
    different project phases? How will we collaborate from a distance?
    Invite team members to articulate the list of questions for which it is
    most important to create responses, together. Teams that answer these
    questions right up front are far more likely to make meaningful
    progress, more quickly, than teams that try to figure out the answers as
    they go along. Click here for a more complete list of questions.
  • Teams need to agree on the behavioral norms that are important to achieving shared goals. Without benefit of explicit shared norms around roles, processes and
    communication, friction and confusion bubble up quickly. When this
    happens, there are no easy or quick remedies for virtual teams, since
    members have few windows of opportunity for real-time conversations. For
    example, I might have a collegial, informal relationship with my client
    sponsor from Germany when we work alongside each other in the U.S.
    However, if we haven’t discussed acceptable conversational norms when in
    his home office, I may inadvertently embarrass both of us if I speak to
    him in my usual casual manner in front of his peers. Caucus the team as
    to which aspects of collaboration and communication most need
    agreed-upon norms right now, and tackle them first, even if (especially if!) they’re difficult to discuss. See related article: Trans-Atlantic Roundtable.
  • Keep roles and responsibilities fairly stable, unless change is unavoidable. In general, predictable roles and responsibilities make it easier for
    team members to focus on their work. If roles do need to change, such as
    when some people leave and new ones come on board, make sure everyone
    has a shared understanding of the big picture. Be achingly explicit in
    your communications, both spoken and written. (Drawing pictures or
    showing models to show new relationships can do wonders to improve
    understanding, especially for global teams.) Set aside time in your team
    meetings to talk through a few typical scenarios that illustrate the
    most significant changes. Allow time to ask questions, both during the
    real-time conversation and asynchronously. Consider whether anonymity
    will be important to make people feel safe in asking questions or
    raising concerns.
  • Remember that the world is becoming more agile. Tasks and deliverables are bound to change and shift. Think of an
    expansive plot of farmland that’s marked off with clearly-defined fences
    for certain crops. While the fences are likely to stay put, what’s
    grown on each plot might change from season to season or year to year.
    When tasks and deliverables change, whether planned or not, make sure
    that everyone is in the loop. If your team uses some sort of dashboard,
    make sure to alert team members to important changes as quickly as
    possible. Make sure to discuss how these changes affect the whole team,
    especially if it may not be obvious at first. For example, a seemingly
    simple change to an accounting system may have legal and IT
    ramifications that merit exploration by the team.
  • Membership should have its privileges.Find
    ways to make being a part of the team an advantage. For example, maybe
    the team can select its own virtual collaboration tools or mobile
    devices. Or perhaps there are ways to minimize reports and meetings that
    don’t directly contribute to team goals. Think of meaningful ways you
    can extend special privileges to your virtual team. Ask team members
    what’s important, and balance that with what’s reasonable.

Consider the hidden
cost of muddy projects and murky team charters to your team. What are
the quantifiable ramifications that can be measured if you look
closely?   They include delays, budget overruns, missed opportunities,
unnecessary nuisance communications, misspent resources, poor
decision-making, excessive meetings, and many other kinds of expensive
and unnecessary disruptions. Instead, take a step back as a team and
assess which boundaries and relationships most need clearing up. Take
the time to start there and watch your team members exceed their own


Jumpstart the creation of a team charter for your virtual team with this downloadable checklist.

Have a look at some of our past Communique ezines that provide dozens of practical tips for better communications across cross-functional teams

Workshops from Guided Insights to help create the capacity of teams to thrive in the virtual world, including our popular Bridging the Distance virtual workshop series

Dig In to Learn More

Virtual Teams and Virtual Meetings  |  Meeting Facilitation  |  Training  |  Virtual Meeting Tips Booklet

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