Monday, August 21, 2006

Managing Virtual Project Teams

If you were building a dam in the 1930s, you hired people to work exclusively on your project until the dam, or at least their part of it, was done. If you were developing a breakthrough minicomputer in the 1970s, as Tracy Kidder vividly described in his book, The Soul of a New Machine, you brought people together in a basement somewhere to devote themselves to your project 18 hours a day until it was done. But in the early twenty-first century, a typical project manager may be charged with a very different kind of task, such as developing an information management system for an insurance company with nationwide operations. If you are that kind of project manager, you are probably working through a team of people assigned to your project part-time, who represent a range of business interests and are located in offices around the world.

These days the virtual project team is composed of people separated by vast distances who communicate primarily by computer and telephone, and is more the norm than the exception. For them, e-communication is not an alternative to face-to-face, it’s the only way they can operate. They use networks to develop a sense of community among project team members who may be far-flung geographically and to keep channels open to various regional and functional units that can contribute to the project or be impacted by it. Network-enabled project management software helps virtual project teams plan and track progress of widely dispersed project components, keep the various components in sync with each other, manage project change across the board, and deter local scope changes from overwhelming the project. Thanks to such collaborative software, the Internet, cell phones, etc., project development staff can now be in remote places - even as remote as Timbuktu.

In the pre-Internet era, all members of project development staff personally knew all their team mates - by name, face, & their preferences. Now in a virtual team, team mates are more than a UserID or an e-mail address. Although electronic communications is useful for instant messaging and exchanging design documents and files, interpersonal relationships are often sacrificed.

Unfortunately, we have sacrificed the most vital part of any project - interpersonal relationships between team members. If we do not know anything about an individual, then we are less likely to trust and work with them effectively. Consequently, the quality of the project and the team performance suffers.

I have studied the nature of these virtual teams, worked in a cross-country R&D team, and based on my experience, I can offer three suggestions for better management of virtual teams:

  1. Identify your cast of characters.

    At the very beginning of the project, get the entire team together for a face-to-face meeting. In this meeting, define the entire project administrative structure: Reporting relationships for all members of the project team; project management tools, process, responsibility ownership, expected deliverables, important dates etc. Establish a common project website - where along with the project details, setup a space for a personnel roster. Such a roster should identify each person by proper name, nick name, a brief resume - past companies, projects and educational background, and most importantly a photograph of each team member. There should also be contact data (including physical location), the duties and responsibilities of each person. It should also contain all contact information, Phone and/or cell phone numbers, e-mail ID, Instant messaging ID, VoIP phone number, postal address etc. Such a roster is invaluable for promoting understanding and trust between project participants.

    Today, given the popularity of the blogs, it is a good idea for the team to have a project related blog on a secured Intranet. This blog can be used in several ways - such as a bulletin board, tips & tricks, teaching/knowledge sharing, informal information sharing regarding the project etc. Blogs can also be used as a punching bag for engineers to vent their feelings - and project manager can use the blog to gauge the pulse of the team.

  2. Define standard methods, techniques and tools.

    In a virtual team spread all over the globe - there may be conceivably as many interpretations of the requirements as there are project members. It therefore becomes necessary to develop a standard and uniform communication approach that will result in a well understood and consistent understandings between members. This means that requirements, project delivery methodology, implementation processes etc., are defined in terms understood by all, every team member understands the deliverables and review points to substantiate completeness, and standard techniques and tools to be used in the development process.

    Such standardization eliminates confusion and materially assists the project team in communicating on a common level, regardless of where they are geographically located.Standardization of tools used in the project must be done at the initial stage itself. Every team member should know which tool to be used for what purpose and when. Having a standard methodology will help remove any communication regarding the use of tools. In a software world, tools are synonym for development/enterprise software - e.g.: Oracle 7i, Visual Studio 6.0, MS Office 2003, etc.

    The tools have to be common across the geographic locations. Standardization must be applied to internal & external communications as well. E-mail templates, document templates, Web templates are used to create a base standard for communication.

    Communication tools must not be overlooked. In a virtual team, electronic communications is the lifeline of any project. Today, there are a vast plethora of communication tools: Desk phones, voice mails, cell phones, VoIP phones, Blackberry - communicator, PDA, Laptops equipped with video conferencing ability, Internet chat etc. It is the project manager’s responsibility to select the optimum set of communication tools - based on the requirement and the available budget.

  3. Establish standard and routine project reporting cycles.

    A good project reporting system is invaluable. At minimum, project status should be reported on a weekly basis to all the stake holders. In a virtual team it is not possible to hold an project review meeting in person, so as an alternative, try holding an on-line meeting instead.Internet chat sessions and video conferencing have become very effective in this regard. The only problem though is knowing whether the participants are truly paying attention. A private project blog or discussion group can also be helpful for reporting problems and project status, as well as establishing punch lists and providing a clearing house for solutions. In recent times, there has been profusion of web/Intranet based project status tracking system. This system can be used by all the stakeholders to know the current status, the past status, and future trends of the project. Using such a system makes it easier on the team and project manager - as they have access to the most updated information. When you really think about it, there is actually nothing here (in a virtual team) that shouldn't be done under normal operating conditions where all participants are in the same geographic site.

Closing Thoughts

Electronic communications is the lifeline of a virtual project. This means that one has to make intensive of tools such as: Instant messaging, VoIP telephony, online project tracker, blogs, project Intranet, Issue tracker, CVS, Instant messaging, FTP, Intranet, Blogs, etc. These tools just help improve communication - but having a standardized communication via templates, phone etiquette, weekly status reporting, automated status broadcasts etc., will create an organized and a well understood communication between team members.

For a virtual team to succeed, confusion, misunderstandings & chaos must be eliminated. Make the best use of latest communication technologies to coordinate and collaborate with the virtual team members. And that can improve the chances of success of the project.

Also See:

Global Product Development Teams
Global Dimension of Project Management
E-Dimensions of Project Management
Role of Leadership in Teambuilding
Managing Outsourced Projects

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