Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Common Mistakes in Managing Virtual Project Teams

Today virtual project team is more of a norm than an exception. These teams are composed of people separated by vast distances who communicate primarily by computer and telephone. 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.

In my earlier article I had written about some of the good management practices in a virtual team environment. (see:Managing Virtual Project Teams )

While project teams have gone "Virtual", the project management practices have not changed much to accommodate the nature of virtual teams. As a result project managers, program managers, program directors, project sponsors etc., tend to make some common mistakes when dealing with virtual project teams. Most of the mistakes in managing virtual teams stems from wrong assumptions they make in managing virtual teams. I have observed and studied these common erroneous assumptions in several virtual project teams. Many of these mistakes are due to lack of experience in managing virtual teams and due to cultural differences. Some of these problems exist in co-located project teams too - but the problem is more acute and persistent in virtual project team management.

Some of the common Mistakes:
  • Assume that everyone on the team will just get along and work together

    Many project managers, program directors do not understand that in a virtual team, it takes more time for establishing team norms. Also virtual teams suffer from a prolonged team storming. Due to cultural differences and communication difficulties, virtual teams always take more time to establish working norms and settle team disputes. It just takes one or two snafu to discover how much time and energy it takes to smooth things over.

    As a good management practice, one must set aside some extra time at the outset to allow team members an opportunity to agree how they will collaborate and communicate, especially when times turn tough. Project management leaders must put in extra efforts to create a common operating principles in critical areas such as decision making, review, and issue escalation at the very beginning of the project. Waiting until problems arise is far more costly and risky.

  • Management team assumes that they know what the team members want to hear

    This problem is very common in case of cross cultural teams when project managers are from one culture and the team members are from other cultures. In a multicultural project teams, project mangers tend to implement a top-down communication and assume that they can motivate and engage all team members - without listening to what the team members have to say.

    Project managers must listen to what the team has to say. In case of cultural barriers compounded by language barriers & geographic distances, team members may not be able to communicate freely. Under such conditions, project managers must ask them what role they expect to play and how and when they would like to be involved. Find out how they prefer to receive and contribute to communications. Just try and throw out that skepticism or cynicism the team members may harbor so that you can work to overcome it.

  • Face-to-face meetings are costly and can be avoided

    Most project managers are worried about the budget and wrongly assume that face-to-face meetings can be avoided. While this is true in small projects - but not in large complex projects. Many project managers make this wrong assumption about face-to-face meetings.

    This mistake stems from the fact that most project managers (at large & complex project) would have been promoted from smaller teams and their past experience would have thought them that e-mail, conference calls, and video conferencing alone can help build the necessary trust among team members and stakeholders.

    In large and complex projects, the cost of delays and failures are too high. One has to plan for trips for team members so that they can meet face-to-face and cultivate important relationships. Project managers must rotate team members so that all have an opportunity to learn from directly from each other. Team members from remote sites must travel to the main site and see the ground situation. Conference calls, e-mails etc., will work better when augmented with a site field visit.

  • Employ an identical approach in all locations

    Project managers in large virtual projects often fail to accommodate regional differences into their project plan. Most project managers are scared that their project schedule will go haywire if they have to make exceptions for different locations. Also project manager often lack awareness of regional differences - such as public holidays, religious holidays, planned shutdowns etc., as a result during the planning stage they fail to accommodate them and then force a common approach in all locations.

    In one extreme case, I saw a project manager ask all the team members to work as per US work times. This problem is further compounded by parochial attitudes of the project managers. Lack of cultural awareness makes project managers to ignore all cultural differences and they tend to enforce a common approach. ( see: Challenges of Multi-Cultural Teams and Challenges of Working Across Cultures )

  • There is no time to celebrate milestones

    Most projects will be working under tight time schedules - and often time projects will be behind schedule. This makes project managers to bypass celebrating project milestones - to save on time! This has a major demoralizing effect on the team and tends to increase team attrition. In case of virtual teams celebrating milestones are quite complicated - because the team members are spread out across different geographic locations. And that makes it impossible for project teams to celebrate milestones together.

    I recall a situation where a three members of the team were working in east coast - while the rest of the team was in Silicon Valley. The project manager for this project ensured that all the team members would meet face-to-face for all team celebrations - thus making the other members fly to Silicon valley.

    Ideally, project managers must allocate time and budget for team celebrations. It may be true that everyone’s time comes at a premium during crunch times, but arranging for special get-togethers either during work hours or afterward, means a lot to harried team members. Arranging for off-site meetings that reflect thoughtful planning, such as unusual recreational activities or meals at memorable locations, can help boost morale and foster team spirit.If the team cannot get together for celebrating milestones, ensure that every member gets a momento - a coffee mug or a T-shirt etc. These momentos have a great morale boosting effect on team members.

  • Forget to recognize good work

    Project managers in virtual teams often do not get to see other team members on regular basis and will be too busy to acknowledge that their contributions are making a positive difference. Compounding to this problem, project managers tend to recognize and reward people whom they meet on regular basis. This has a demoralizing effect on the entire team - particularly team members who are in distant locations.

    Project managers must invest some time to send out a kudo - either in a group meeting or via group e-mail. Take time to personalize the kudos and keep them coming especially when project pressures build up. This will motivate people to work harder and builds team morale.
Closing Thoughts

Virtual teams are tough to manage. Often times managers are promoted from small co-located teams to manage large multi-national, multi-cultural and virtual project teams. The managers often lack the cultural awareness and lack sensitivity to the needs of a virtual team which results in some of the common mistakes are listed above. As virtual teams become common these mistakes will also increase. Project managers of large virtual teams must be equipped to handle these challenges - either through mentoring, training, and coaching. Project planning process must be suitably changed to accommodate challenges and avoid these mistakes.

Also See:

Challenges of Working Across Cultures
Offshoring Requires Better Collaboration
Collaborate to Innovate
Challenges in Offshoring to India
Challenges of Multi-Cultural Teams
Making Multicultural Virtual Teams Work
Building a Diverse Workforce
Cultural Assessment - Prerequisite for successful Mergers
Soft Skills For Global Managers
Global Manager
Improving communication with Indian Engineers
Leveraging Diversity-Use Brainstorming Session
Common Mistakes in Recruiting a diverse workforce
Managing Virtual Teams - Use of Collaboration Tools
Improved Cross-cultural Communication Increases Productivity
Managing Diversity for High Performance
Keep Overseas Staff Focused on the Right Goals


butlimous said...

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