Monday, October 23, 2006

Making Multicultural Virtual Teams Work

If I ask any manager, project lead or team lead, they all agree that teamwork creates wonders for any organization. Yet, most of these managers struggle everyday to make their team work together. In an global IT services delivery model, teams often consists of muti-cultural, multinational individuals who are separated by huge distances - leading to creation of multicultural virtual teams.

In my previous articles, I have written about the benefits of diversity in teams, I have written on how to make virtual teams work, how improving communication between team members enhances work productivity , managing workforce diversity etc.

In my career, I have always worked in a multicultural, multiethnic, virtual teams. Making these team work cohesively and motivating the team for high performance is always a challenge. Recently, at my workplace, I heard several team managers complaining about performance issues in their teams. These problems were exactly the same ones I saw in Silicon valley a decade ago, and these still persists even today in several organizations. This prompted me to write this article.

The Challenge

Today, IT services companies work in an offshore-onsite model, where a part of the team works from India, while another part works at the customer premises - often in US or Europe, and another part of the team consists of members from the customer organization. In addition, members from the customer organization often consists of virtual teams. As a result, the team members never see other members even once. The challenge for managers is to figure out how to make one virtual team work effectively with another virtual team.

In addition, there are several political/personal compulsions driving each segments of the team. For example, team in India will be driven towards local organizational objectives - such as resource utilization, training & skill improvement etc., while the team members in US is driven towards customer satisfaction, members from the customer organization are driven towards productivity gains and financial gains. These objectives can easily become opposing objectives if not managed properly. Thus the first challenge for the manager is to understand the objectives, motivating factors, and drivers of each segment of the team.

First Symptom of the Problem

Last week, I met Mr. Murugan (names changed) who was leading a large database program. He was frustrated with the internal problems of the team, as a result the team had lots of problems internally to deliver the results. Internal problems has driven several members of his team to quit their jobs. The resulting attrition in the team made customer( Mr. Braker) anxious. Braker was an IT manager at a leading British Telecom company, and he was forcing Murugan to make a firm commitment on the delivery. Murugan knew that he could not deliver the project to the customer in face of recent attrition, so he forced the remaining members of his team to work longer and harder - and even without taking weekends off. The increased workloads on the remaining members of team made more members quit. At this point it became clear that this project was doomed.

The problem facing Murugan and Braker was that their team was split across five geographic locations and there was poor coordination between members at different locations. Different members of the team were driven by different factors and worked to achieve different objectives. One section of his team in Kolkotta were working towards increasing their skill sets and team size - thus they were focused on hiring and training. Team members in Pune and Mumbai were driven by profitability and resource utilization, so the team size was reduced to a sub-optimal level. Team in London was driven by customer satisfaction - and their eagerness to please the customer, they volunteered to do some extra work. Members from the customer side, i.e., Braker’s team members in Leeds & London wanted to present a good picture to their management - so they started increasing the scope the project. All this created a potent mix - which was impossible to manage by Murugan.

Managing Multiple Virtual Teams is Tough

Managing multiple virtual teams requires different management & leadership skills. Managers need to have a global mindset, leadership skills with a global perspective, and ability to communicate across cultures. Murugan’s team worked in groups, but these groups were unable to work as a team. Individual team leaders were very effective in running their operations, but often failed to see the big picture. In addition, neither the team leads nor Murugan had the individual skills or expertise to develop a global organization. Added to this, the customer organization was also widely distributed and their leaders lacked the skills needed to manage a global project - instead the customer management team treated this project like an outsourced project that would be delivered by the on-site team.

Solution lies in Organization Development

After analyzing the situation, the first response was to conduct management development program to train all the managers and team leads - focusing on the skills for managerial effectiveness. But I know that would not be enough. This approach would inevitably fail. The better approach would be develop a organizational development process which will create managers who can foster a global work teams across organizations. The process should create teams what can effectively solve complex cross-cultural, cross-organizational problems, make balanced decisions, and inculcate among team members creativity and commitment towards organizational goals. And that will enable the organization to achieve excellence through high performing multicultual virtual teams.

Creating a global team

Organization development starts with creating a great team. Team formation has a great impact on the workings of a global multicultural virtual teams. Team leader must know the strengths and weaknesses of its members and seeks to capitalize on each member’s strengths. The onus of selecting the team members falls on the shoulders of team leaders. Team leaders must be personally involved in the team creating efforts. The success of a team (and hence the project) heavily depends on how this team is formed.

Building high performing teams involves identification, initiation, motivation, inspiration and consolidation of diverse team members. Of course integrating different members from different cultural back grounds is bound to have difficult challenges, making the task of building a perfect high performing team is a an enormous task.

The next challenge is to foster effective communication between teams. (See: Improved Cross-cultural Communication Increases Productivity)

However improved tools of communication like Intranet, Internet, telephones, e-mail, use of web based collaboration tools, VoIP etc., have made the task of forging relationship between multiple teams a bit easier.

Forging relationships

The first step in building a virtual team is to forge relationships and establish strong communication between members and between teams. These high performing teams shall have a definite purpose with clear cut challenging goals and strategies for achieving goals and role clarity. Members should feel a personal and collective sense of power, have access to necessary skills and resources. The organization's policies and practices shall support team objectives. Members must have mutual respect and willingness to help each other. Team members must be empowered to take appropriate actions as needed.

High performing teams need a lot more motivation. Members need to motivate each other through recognition and rewards. Team leads and Managers have to be empowered to reward team members as appropriate. Team must celebrate successes. In Intel, team members were empowered to give instantaneous awards, group recognition awards and project recognition awards to fellow team members.

The high performing teams will recognize and appreciate contributions of individual members. Similarly team accomplishments will be recognized by members. Members have mutual respect and the organization should recognize the team contributions. The members of high performing teams feel good about their membership of the team, confident, motivated, having a sense of pride and satisfaction about their achievements resulting in a strong sense of cohesion and team spirit. The above characteristics of high performing teams result in high output, excellent quality, effective decision making and clear problem solving process.

more to come....

1 comment:

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