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Proven in Practice – Top Tips Essential to Virtual Project Team Performance

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I’m always gratified when readers write to say that the latest Communiqué really hit the mark. One reader, a colleague and former client of mine, has sent me so many such mails over the last 10 years that I arranged to meet with him – virtually – to learn which tips he found the most memorable and why.

An IT Architect for Carrier Corporation in Syracuse, NY, Rich Johnston, as always, came to our meeting well-prepared, with highlighted copies of about a dozen issues. As we spoke, it became clear that Rich, a highly-regarded global project leader with an impeccable performance record, could actually write a few articles himself. And thus, our two-part phone interview became the basis for a series of Communiqués.

In this edition, Rich discusses how he has applied many of the tips he found in our Communiqués to lead his own very successful virtual project teams. In this month’s issue, Rich offers advice about starting up and galvanizing a virtual project team. Future issues will address other topics, such as creating a level playing field across cultures and organizations and engaging stakeholders outside of the core team.

  • Identify the project audience. There can be many stakeholders who can influence the success of a project. Not having the right people involved and informed along the way will derail a project quickly. Define the different groups that compose the project audience and the role of each.
  • Calibrate the level and frequency of team communications. Without doubt, the quality of team communications is the single greatest success factor of any project, whether the team works together or apart. Delineate between the information needs of the core team and the wider group of stakeholders when mapping out your communications plan. Think carefully before filling up inboxes with information that’s irrelevant or off-target. Ensure you are delivering a consistent view of the project. Determine who needs to be kept appraised of the latest technical updates to do their jobs, for example, and who might just need a financial summary. Make sure everyone gets the information s/he needs, which does not necessarily mean the same information.
  • Establish clear operating norms and restate frequently. Ground rules that work for face-to-face teams don’t necessarily apply to virtual teams and vice-versa. For example, agree to what extent multitasking on team calls is acceptable and under what circumstances. In general, anything that is harder to police from afar needs to be clearly stated and agreed to by all. Other areas for which norms are especially important for virtual teams: handling extraneous topics, punctuality, and preparation and prework. As the team leader, it’s vital to state what rules you live by, such as ensuring that meeting times are convenient (or equally inconvenient) for all, and actively seeking divergent views to make the best decision.
  • Make sure you have the right people at every meeting. Sounds obvious, but it can take a lot of work to decide who really needs to participate in a particular conversation. If people don’t really need to be there, they tend to start multitasking or otherwise tuning out. Some people may need to be involved at certain times. Sending out an agenda in advance and spelling out the intended outcomes, along with who will be contributing to each part of the agenda, will take the guesswork out of who needs to be there and the role they will play.
  • Establish regular check point meetings with the team and keep these times sacrosanct. If your team spans the globe, consider rotating meeting times so that no one person or region is always inconvenienced. If you schedule time only when you’re looking for something, people may imagine that this project doesn’t deserve as high a priority as other projects. Once in the meeting, if you’ve accomplished your goals in 30 minutes and the meeting is scheduled for an hour, end the meeting early rather than feeling compelled to fill up space. (After all, people who earn a reputation for well-run meetings are likely to attract enthusiastic participants for every call.)
  • Lead with a clear value proposition. Create a one-page summary of the project objectives, success metrics, risks, assumptions, boundaries and milestones and refer to this throughout your project. This supplements your detailed project plan to keep the team tuned in to the big picture. Send this out in advance and review key points at the start of the meeting, even if you think everyone’s already in synch. Without frequent validation, you may not realize that people are not aligned until it’s too late – especially for virtual team leaders who have no nonverbal cues to go by.
  • Intensify communications among those who are heavily dependent on each other for success. If there are certain people who must rely on each other to get their own work done, suggest (or mandate, in some cases) that people make phone contact at least once every one or two days to check in, surface issues and report on progress. Especially with projects that are running at a high velocity, team members cannot easily wait for an email that’s jammed into a very full inbox or a team meeting that won’t take place until the end of the week. As the team leader, you may need to identify these mutual dependencies early on and state your expectations for the nature and frequency of communications.
  • Disclose more rather than less. Virtual team members are hungry for certain information, especially relating to the state of the project overall, organizational changes, or business conditions that may affect outcomes. Err on the side of giving more such information rather than less, and allocate a reasonable amount of time for people to discuss and absorb the implications. If you sense that team members need to talk, give them the opportunity, along with guidelines to make sure the conversation doesn’t spiral out of control. Consider revealing your own thoughts and feelings, especially when changes are made that seem out of your control.

Not everyone can lead a successful virtual project team. Even those who have been successful leading co-located project teams have fallen down when they have assumed that traditional management skills are easily transferable to a virtual world. Those who appreciate the differences and discover the changes they need to make in their leadership style are far more likely to excel in the virtual world than those who can’t discern the most crucial differences.

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Please see related editions of our monthly Communiqué: Mobilize Global Virtual Teams by Avoiding 8 Common Landmines, 7 Ways To Coax People Out of the Box in a Virtual World and 7 Key Steps To Accelerate Performance of Your New Virtual Team