There’s no shortage of advice on managing distributed teams, much of it focusing on the importance of communication and on the use of the array of available technical tools, such as WebEx, Skype, SharePoint, to aid in that process. Every distributed team must use some combination of these technologies to stay in contact and to make sure that the entire team is working from the same playbook. Teams that use these tools to communicate frequently and to overcome the obstacles of time and distance to stay on track and manage project progress and issues remove some of the risk from the distributed, or virtual, team model.
However, my experience teaches me that while these tools and practices are facilitators for good team interactions the real success factor is human: It’s the element of trust.
Charles Handy’s seven key ideas
The importance of trust in the success of virtual teams was noted as far back as 1995, when these trends were just beginning, in a famous Harvard Business Review article by Charles Handy titled “Trust and the Virtual Organization.” Handy’s article was one of the first explorations of the human factors associated with the migration toward distributed teams, and it laid out a foundation of concepts that project managers must consider when managing global teams. As he noted, all managers manage people they aren’t in daily contact with, from networks of salespeople to external vendors, and so the skills required for virtual team management are actually core management requirements. Handy sets forth a set of seven key ideas, and these ideas are as pertinent to today’s project managers as they were to the general management audience to whom they were originally addressed.
1. Trust is not blind.
There’s no substitute for simple interaction and observation to build trust, so project managers should use every opportunity to interact, either in person or using the communication tools we outlined, and simply get to know their teams and demonstrate their trustworthiness. Trust is earned in every interaction, and every opportunity a project manager uses to demonstrate that he’s a “stand-up guy (or gal),” willing to use some personal capital to protect and defend the team, earns a kernel of trust that can be taken forward in the relationship.
2. Trust needs boundaries.
Trust team members to deliver their commitments in their own style and manner illustrates that you trust them, and they are likely to reciprocate. This concept of self-directness fits in nicely with some of the key ideas of agile development.
3. Trust demands learning.
Project managers earn trust by continuously educating their teams about the project objectives, the strategy, their teammates, and the overall progress of the effort. Project managers also earn trust by trusting their teams to grasp the strategic context of the engagement, not just their individual tasks.
4. Trust is tough.
Trust also means accountability. Nothing corrodes trust in the team more than the observation that other team members aren’t performing as expected and are seeing no consequences for that lapse.
5. Trust needs bonding.
The team must feel that it’s on a journey together toward a clear and defined goal, and that goal must be reiterated and reinforced consistently. Again, this fits in closely with the envisioning exercises that are an integral element of the agile approach.
6. Trust needs touch.
The best virtual teams I’ve experienced make extraordinary efforts to meet as frequently as possible. I’ve seen distributed teams, working in an agile framework, that met daily using remote communication tools, even though they were scattered around the globe and had to bridge huge time differences. By alternating times to accommodate (and inconvenience) team members equally and by remaining in touch even in times of high stress and time pressure, teams stay connected and keep the spirit of teamwork healthy.
7. Trust requires leaders.
Teams, virtual or not, look for and expect leadership. The ability to help the team keep its “eyes on the prize” to facilitate the team through conflict and pressure, and to remain true to the guiding vision while business and technical circumstances evolve, is the sign of a true leader, and it becomes even more critical when the team is distributed.
In a 2003 study of global IT teams performed by Dr. Niki Panteli of the University of Bath, UK, the key differences between high-performing distributed teams and those that did not perform successfully were explored. According to the results of this study, high-performers shared these characteristics:
- Awareness of shared goals
- Time given to build shared goals
- Early and open debate of goals
- Primacy of team-based goals over individual goals
- PMs or leaders as facilitators
- Focus on win-win outcomes
- Face-to-face communication where possible
- Use of computer-mediated communication to enable regular team communication
- Social interaction where possible
These findings reinforce the commonsense ideas that Handy outlined in his original article.
By building a set of common goals, allowing the team to debate and participate in the setting and achievement of those goals, building human interaction into the effort, and acting as a win-win facilitator, project managers can apply these lessons to their virtual team assignments and increase the likelihood of a successful outcome.
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