Mastering the Basics of Project Management: Managing Distributed Project Teams


The rise of the Internet, the creation of a global high speed network, and the rapid development of long distance communication technologies has made it very easy for people all over the world to work together. It created a global platform that has allowed more people to plug and play, collaborate and compete, share knowledge and share work, than anything we have ever seen in the history of the world.The new communication technology gives teams a great advantage by providing many options that didn’t exist many years ago, such as allowing employees to work from their homes locally or by working together in teams across the continents.

Businessmen standing in front of an earth map

The dispersion of team members often leads to a number of problems, however, including difficulties in communication and coordination, a decline in trust, and an increased inability to establish a common ground. Consequently, many companies and Project Managers have struggled with how best to manage these “virtual teams.”

In the two and a half years I worked as a Senior Project Manager at IBM, I used led project teams in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Oceania, so I know well the advantages and disadvantages of this new sort of teamwork. In this article we will discuss some tips and key mistakes to avoid in managing distributed project teams.

Essential Tips

Establish team objectives: The very first important for the Project Manager is to create a real teamwork. The team members need to know and understand what it is that they are doing together. If they understand only their own role and their own work, they will always just be individual contributors.

Objectives must be specific. This means that objectives need to explicitly define the necessary steps to achieve the goal by being well-defined and detailed. If the objective is blurred the goal cannot be met. The objective needs to emphasize on the action required and communicate the required outcome. Any lack of clarity can lead in team disorientation and aiming off target.

The following questions are related to setting specific objectives:

  • What are we going to do? This question helps setting an action-oriented objective, while focusing what’s most important.
  •  Why is this important for the organization?
  •  Who is going to implement the plan? This question helps setting the team members that will work on the goal.
  •  When do we want the plan to be completed?
  •  How are we going to achieve this? This question addresses the strategies that will be used.

Remind everyone they are a team: This is a direct consequence of the hint above. If the team members think they are all working independently, they will act independent. If they know they are part of a team working on common objectives and deliverables, they will tend to feel better about their work and be more active in their collaboration with other team members.

Identifying stakeholders and their expectations: The purpose of a virtual team should be very closely tied to the expectations of stakeholders. Therefore, stakeholders or stakeholder representatives should be actively involved in the formation of the virtual team. Clarifying the needs and expectations of stakeholders in the beginning will help the team to avoid unnecessary work, confusion, and conflict. A documentation of stakeholder’s expectations should be made for reference throughout the project. Future communication between stakeholders and team representatives will further ensure that the team’s purpose is on track and being fulfilled.

Establish ground rules: Even though the team members may be remote, they still need to exhibit a common and acceptable set of behaviors. In fact, this is probably more important for virtual teams. Ground rules its a Code of Conduct and must include things like setting the hours during which the team members are expected to be working, establishing lunch times, establish how, when and how often the reports and the updated information must be delivered, determining which meetings are mandatory (in-person, Web-based, or via telephone), and defining expectations for communication turnaround times.

One of the first things I do on a project is to establish team-owned ground rules. Ground rules sometimes seem “controlling,” so we want them to be brief, focused, and the last thing we do before we go into the actual work of the project. Ground rules are not “the team’s” until the team accepts them. EVERYONE agrees “I can live with these ground rules and I will support them in our project.”

Ground rules are established for three main areas: 1) how we will work together, 2) make decisions, and 3) resolve conflicts. These agreements will streamline the work of the team.

1) How we will work together: How often meetings happen, who will attend, who will set up the room and the conference calls, who distributes the agenda, and who will create the meeting minutes file.

Some suggested rules for meetings:

  • All members attend required meetings and conference calls; if unable to attend, meeting organizer to be notified.
  • If key contributor is unable to attend, request to reschedule the meeting.
  • One conversation at a time
  • Consensus means: “I can live with it and will support it”
  • Share all relevant information
  • Be specific
  • Look to accept views of others
  • What is said here stays here
  • Absence or silence is agreement
  • No phone calls, texting, dogs barking or other electronic distractions
  • The group creates the outcome
  • You may have “the floor” for up to three minutes on a topic

2) Decision-Making Process: Who is a voting member; whether decisions are consensus or majority vote; who will record all decisions; and which type of issues will be delegated, and to who?

Possible ground rules:

  •  Respect each person
  • Share responsibility
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Keep an open mind
  • Make decisions by fact; use objective, verifiable evidence

3) Conflict Resolution Method: Which conflict model the team will use; how conflict will be added to the agenda?

  •  All project team members confront issues directly and promptly to the Project Manager.

Be sensitive to cultural differences: When you have an American; a Brazilian, an Indian, a Chinese and an Australian into the same project team, you must be sensitive to cultural differences. It’s possible that your virtual team all thinks and acts the same way. However, more and more virtual teams consist of people from multiple countries and cultures. If you are the project manager on this type of team, make sure you have some appreciation for the differences in how people work and how they behave. Let’s see a little workflow:

multicultural teams
The chart above was taken from the excellent article Framework for managing multicultural project teams of teachers Edward Godfrey Ochieng and Andrew David Price. You can consult the full PDF article here!
Create an Effective Communication Plan: You need to be extra proactive in your communications to make sure everyone understands what is expected. People can start to feel isolated if they do not receive regular communications. It is hard enough to keep everyone informed on a “regular” project.
The most important thing for project managers to understand when creating a communications plan is that no team can use just one method to communicate effectively. Many project communications tools, such as blogs or wikis, often fail outside of tech-oriented teams, since they don’t fit the existing communications styles of team members. Successful communications plans offer team members multiple ways to communicate with each other, while stressing the importance of centralized documentation and more formalized processes for reaching out to company leaders and stakeholders.

Building the communications plan requires funneling information from the stream of daily data into a set of recurring, digestible nuggets. Filtering information appropriately involves boiling down key issues and decisions into executive summaries without losing the nuances of the original ideas. To build a strong plan, write down the answers to these questions related to different kinds of communications:

  • Regular Reporting: What regular reports must be distributed, to which project participants and how often? What is the process for setting up new reports later in the project? Who handles the reporting process and who verifies information before it is distributed?
  • Event-Driven Alerts: What milestones or crises should trigger a priority message and to which participants. In what format will alerts be delivered? Does a specific team member issue an alert or is it automatically delivered?
  • Audience Requests: How are information requests from project participants and from other stakeholders processed? Do all participants and stakeholders have access to all archived data or should it be partitioned according to security or seniority privileges? When might a project manager decline to provide requested information?
  • Public-Facing Information: Who determines what information should be made public and on what time table? Does the release of project-related information potentially influence markets? If so, should releases be timed to minimize or maximize impact?
I usually create, for the same project, two different communication plans: one, more technical and detailed, to the members of the project team. The second, high-level and more focused on risk management, is directed to the business and to senior management of the organization.
Choose the right technology to foster communication. The anchor of every virtual team is the technology used to support communication. As gas prices soar, flying the team in for a meeting each week is not realistic. So in lieu of that, online chat, conference calls and webinars are ideal. There are a number of technologies available such as AOL Instant Messenger, Microsoft LiveMeeting, GoToMeeting, and many other tools that support video and Web conferencing. In addition, there are collaboration tools that allow team members to share and collaborate on documents such as Microsoft SharePoint.
Adjust and compromise on time differences: Remember that what’s convenient for you may not always be convenient to the team members. I was on a project team at a large global company where the manager insisted that team meetings start at 9:00 am. That was convenient for him but resulted in hard feeling from people in other locations who needed to stay very late for these meetings. I suggest you use a tool such as World Time Buddy to schedule the meeting at a time convenient for everyone.
That’s all, folks! These are just the main tips for managing a distributed project team. If you would like to discuss some of the issues raised by me in this article or want to suggest something else, please leave your comments and I’ll be happy to contact you!
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5 thoughts on “Mastering the Basics of Project Management: Managing Distributed Project Teams

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