You’ve been asked to contribute your subject matter expertise as part of a team collaborating on high- stakes project. While most team members work with the client face-to-face, you and a few others work three time zones away. You’re uncomfortably aware that your work is on the critical path. Just as you’re about to turn over your first big deliverable, the project leaders tell you the client has changed course, and you’ll need to start over.
Increasingly anxious, you spin your wheels trying to discover what’s expected of you. Meanwhile, you sense that other team members resent your lack of progress, yet they seem unwilling to share the information that you believe is vital for you to do your job. Suddenly, the project starts to roll right off the tracks as you remain handcuffed, wondering what you can possibly do to get it back on track.
This issue of Communiqué outlines some of the critical steps virtual teams need to undertake when bringing in new members whose work needs to be integrated into the whole-ASAP.
Joining me in writing this edition of Communiqué is my friend and long-time colleague Hope Casey.
- Present the big picture right up front. Without an overall context and framework, new members will have no foundation by which they can make needed changes or suggest improvements. No one is so indispensable that they don’t have at least some time to get new members up to speed. Appoint a person who has a birds’-eyed view of the whole project to orient new members as they come on line. (Sending new team members a fusillade a memos is not a fair replacement!)
- Give everyone a clear sense for how the work of the team fits together. Do this explicitly, preferably using both words and images to ensure shared understanding. Simply telling people on a con call or in a conference room, for example, can easily be misunderstood or forgotten. Show people how work intersects and where handoffs are. Go through a couple of scenarios to make sure that the workflow is well-understood by everyone. As the leader of the larger project, position each team member and each facet of the project with the client as valuable to the overall outcome.
- Share information openly. Withholding vital information can impede progress and erode trust. Don’t presume to know what information people need to do their jobs. Let them decide. When in doubt, err on the high side. Best to assume that everyone needs access to virtually all project-related information. Try creating a shared portal for everyone to upload, access and navigate content easily and quickly, and send alerts to highlight certain information that’s particularly vital.
- Set aside time for real-time team conversations at least once a week. Emails and other forms of asynch communications are not a replacement for the kind of person-to-person exchange that people need to ramp up quickly and feel like part of the team. Establish standards for participation, process and timing, and make sure that important decisions and actions are communicated in writing to all members afterwards, to ensure a shared understanding.
- Assume that people are trying their hardest. Avoid making uncharitable assumptions, such as “He’s just trying to sabotage this project so we look bad,” or “She can’t be a team player if she keeps questioning our methods.” Chances are, people really are doing their best work, given the circumstances. If people are falling short of expectations, consider how team dynamics are playing a role and work to create better ways of working.
- When project plans change, be sensitive to the implications. For example, if a client imposes new requirements or presses for a more ambitious deadline, acknowledge to the team that additional work will be required. Explain why these changes are necessary. “Because the client said so” is not good enough. Realize that some changes may just push certain team members over the edge. You may need to negotiate and make only some of the changes, or you may require additional resources from the client to get the work done. Also be prepared to push back on the client if their changes compromise the integrity of the program.
- Create an environment where it’s safe to ask for help. Don’t penalize people who can’t meet project demands or who ask others to help. If people feel they will punished for asking for help, you may find them falling behind in silence, with less opportunity for making a mid-course correction later on. Make it acceptable for people to acknowledge they need assistance and make sure they have it- whether it’s taking something else off their plate, doling out a new resource, or extending a deadline.
- Make the time to check in 1:1. When certain members are on the hook to deliver on commitments before others can move ahead, pick up the phone or send a friendly email to see how they’re doing and ask how you can help. There’s a fine line between micromanaging, which can stop people in their tracks, and making a genuine offer of assistance, which can inspire an energetic performance at the finish line.
As a member of a fast-moving team, be sensitive to what new members will need to contribute successfully from the start. Never make assumptions about the information you think they need. Show them the big picture and openly share all relevant information. Encourage and respond quickly to questions and provide frequent feedback to assure them they’re on the right track. By thoughtfully orienting new members at the outset, the entire team will benefit.
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