Sunday, January 9, 2011

Virtual teams interpersonal relationships

Brad Egeland has a post on virtual teams at that hits on a couple of ideas about boundaries. I'd like to pick up where Brad left off and develop the idea that boundaries and relationships across boundaries are inextricably linked. Effective relationships within virtual teams is perhaps one of the most important risks to be managed. Four attributes govern relationships, and each has unique risks when applied to the virtual team.

Virtual teams--unlike there co-located counterparts--do not routinely inherit the culture and values of the project leadership or the project’s host business enterprise. Extra effort on the part of project management is required to instill values and culture among participants that may only be transient members of the team or the business.

Misunderstandings that arise from cultural differences can be profound and lead to risks of unintended consequences. For example--and from my own experience--a failure of a project activity as viewed from the perspective of one cultural outlook may be evaluated as poor planning and execution by the activity manager. But at the same time--viewed from the perspective of another culture--that same activity and result may be seen as appropriate risk taking, even though the risk did not work out favorably.

Depending on what culture is inherited, the activity manager will either be penalized or rewarded. Certainly no project manager wants a confusion of values; ensuring the inheritance of a commonly understood risk attitude is a very important project management task to obtain a smoothly working project in a virtual team setting.

Co-located teams draw effectiveness from the cohesion among members that share a common environment, team goal, project culture, and willingness to support each other. Such cohesion depends greatly on trust. Trusting relationships do form in virtual teams, but they generally form more slowly, thereby risking the near term schedule and perhaps the associated budget.

Lack of trust is among the most cited reasons for team failures. Virtual teams have no easy way to establish trust but commonly employed mitigation usually involves occasionally getting team members together physically in some way.

Some projects have produced metrics that show better team performance if team members have been personally introduced.  A prominent example is  the early space programs that employed far flung teams in remote tracking stations that had to work together on a common mission and pass information accurately and with timeliness

Coherence is an attribute of the familiar idea that teams can achieve more together than their members can when working independently. In the absence of coherence there is often confusion, ambiguity, wasted effort, and sometimes an outcome that lacks essential customer value.

Coherent behavior is time sensitive. We are all familiar with the difference between the noise of a crowd talking among themselves and those same individuals singing in a choir. Singing is an example of coherence; the noise of the crowd is those same voices without phase (timing) coherence.

Communications and collaboration among team members is sensitive to coherence. The time lags within virtual team communications and collaboration degrades coherence, raising risks because things are out of phase with each other.

The common mitigation for improving coherence is to introduce an opportunity for simultaneous communications that are time sensitive. Sessions for time sensitive communications are scheduled so that they overlap the working day for as many members as possible. To make these sessions practical and productive, the working day may have to be time-shifted for some participants.

Coupling is a measure of sensitivity, correlation, and interference of one activity upon another. Within teams, activities are more highly coupled than the coupling between teams. But virtual teams are not as highly coupled internally as co-located teams, and this reduced coupling is a risk to performance.

Informal person-to-person communications is a form of coupling. The informal communications by casual association that is a centerpiece of co-located teams is all but missing in virtual teams. These so called ‘water cooler’ conversations are a very important communications channel for coupling one activity with another, but this coupling mechanism is all but missing with virtual teams, raising the communications risk.

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