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Managing collaboration in virtual project teams

7:04 am IN Best Practices BY

Due to global workshare many projects are performed through teams scattered all over the world. Collaboration between the team members in such a setting is difficult because of geographical distance, different time and climate zones, diverse cultures, beliefs, habits and languages, divergent understanding of project management and other work styles. Sometimes those teams are called virtual, because they do not collaborate physically, but via electronic media such as web meetings, social media or special collaboration tools. There opportunities and risks of virtual team work. The opportunities are mainly to form a divers team across countries which is able to solve challenging tasks on a low cost basis in a flexible setting. The risks or challenges of a virtual team are the technology, or the question whether all team members have access to the media and a sufficient performance of the IT. Another risk is the potential misunderstanding or conflict in communication, because people are not able to express themselves like in face-to-face meetings and aren´t able to establish a sufficient level of trust and understanding. Team members might feel lonely, focusing on other activities and slowly lose interest in the project. Another challenge is the difficulties in being creative through the media. Experiencing a video conference, it is sufficient for information exchange (e.g. status update or questions and answers), but a real brainstorming is difficult. Creating team spirit and engaging the team members is a challenge for the project manager and requires different approaches in a virtual team setting. There are many other opportunities and risks, but I think you get the idea of what is different to teams that are physically together…

A few years ago I came across a great book, the “Knights of the tele-round table” of Jaclyn Kostner . It bridges the timeless wisdom of King Arthurs saga of uniting a warring group of rival knights into the greatest team in history, the Knights of the Round Table. Through the colorful stories of the wise Merlin, the gracious and loyal Lancelot, and the awe-inspiring sword Excalibur, King Arthur sets an example for nowadays virtual teams. It helps you to learn how to overcome the three worst enemies of collaboration (geographical distance, isolation, and history), how to lead, establish trust and unite people who do not share the same work space and finally, how to bridge emotional distance. As a remote leader, when the team is distant from each other, the leader has little or no power and control over them. The key way to build high performance in projects across distance is to establish trust. Every word, every action, every initiative can be utilized for building trust.

Here a few examples of how to collaborate in virtual teams based on King Arthur´s Insights provided in J. Kostner´s great book:

Round Table
Since virtual projects don’t share a common work space, a virtual team needs strong symbols to unite people across distance.

  • Bring people together for a project launch meeting
  • Make sure each partner values the benefit each reaps directly (and personally) by being a member of the virtual partnership.
  • In the void of distance, structure a way the team can amplify its accomplishments while distributed. Be creative, yet personal, in giving each other frequent recognition of all that the virtual team accomplishes together.

Camelot
People who work across distance tend to lose focus after any single-site meetings. Therefore, it is critical that the virtual team create:

  • A clear, compelling intellectual link so every virtual partner knows exactly where the team is headed once everyone is distributed.
  • A clear emotional link on a very personal level so each remote partner stays motivated when distant.
  • A daily decision tool that is used as each person does work remotely to align work and effort worldwide. King Arthur’s decision tool came from the phrase “might for right”.  A paradigm shift changing destructive battle to constructive battle.

The Joust
Since virtual partners have limited interaction and limited knowledge of each other in their isolation, the virtual team must establish many ways to help the partners learn about each other quickly and frequently.

  • Establish ways for the team to learn more about each other professionally and personally (onsite meetings, electronic yearbooks, site previews).
  • Establish a short, informal compressed meeting for the team to talk with one another, to problem-shoot and have others contribute.
  • Since virtual partnering doesn’t come naturally, encourage pairs of people to work together on parts of the project.
  • Be an idea champion. Value every idea presented at your Tele-Round Table.  Handle it in a way that seems fair to the person who offered it.
  • Since trust is fragile, especially at first, react on an assumption of trust, not distrust.

- Author of this post

Reinhard Wagner has been active for more than 30 years in the field of project- related leadership, in such diverse sectors as Air Defence, Automotive Engineering, and Machinery, as well as various not-for-profit organizations. As a Certified Projects Director (IPMA Level A), he has proven experience in managing projects, programmes and project portfolios in complex and dynamic contexts. He is also an IPMA Certified Programme and Portfolio Management Consultant, and as such supports senior executives in developing and improving their organizational competence in managing projects. For more than 15 years, he has been actively involved in the development of project, programme and portfolio management standards, for example as Convenor of the ISO 21500 “Guidance on Project Management” and the ISO 21503 “Guidance on Programme Management”. Reinhard Wagner is President of IPMA, past President and Honorary Fellow of GPM (the German Project Management Association), and founder and CEO of Projectivists, a PM Consultancy.” into “Past President and Honorary Fellow of GPM (the German Project Management Association) as well as Managing Director of Tiba Managementberatung GmbH, Germany´s No. 1 PM Full Service Provider.

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