Tips to Help You Lead Distributed Teams
Today, few projects are limited to the confines of an office. A project team could consist of members located across the world or from multiple functional areas and offices within an organization. It could even be made up of members from different companies. Such dispersed teams allow project managers and organizations to use the best talent no matter where it is found.
These teams benefit from diversity in creative thinking and problem solving, shorter development cycles and faster customer response times made possible by taking advantage of overlapping time zones. However, they also present unique challenges for their project managers and team members, including learning to work together remotely, and overcoming communication and cultural barriers.
Here are some tips to help you successfully lead a distributed team.
Have a Strong Project Kickoff
Your kickoff meeting with a distributed team will serve two critical functions: allow everyone to get to know one another and their impact on the project, and establish your authority endorsed by the project sponsors. If it's possible, host a face-to-face kickoff meeting. This is a great way to get to know your team members, give them the chance to get to know you, and build rapport and relationships.
This familiarity builds trust, which enables you to lead virtual teams without micromanaging and may motivate your team to make concessions to achieve results. For example, when your team feels trusted, they may be willing to attend meetings during off hours to accommodate different time zones, or they may feel comfortable enough to tell you when something has gone wrong. You also have to establish your authority, as you won't always be physically present to oversee the progress or to deal with issues immediately.
In addition to introducing key stakeholders and outlining objectives and milestones as you would with a local team, share well-documented processes for how issues will be handled and be prepared to go over them in depth during the kickoff meeting, says Dave Davis, PMP, PgMP, of Sylvania, Ohio, USA, community leader of the PMI Leadership in Project Management Community of Practice.
If all the team members cannot attend the kickoff meeting in person, email these documents to everyone in addition to a contact list that includes team members and their level of management.
Remember Different Communication Styles
Be mindful that team members located in other parts of the world may have different communication styles. They may prefer informal conversation over getting right to the point of work or tasks. They may have difficulty talking about problems.
"In places like South America, Asia and Africa, people focus much more on the relationships with the project manager ... be prepared for extensive small talk and other ways to build close relationships," says Lothar Katz, PMP, of Dallas, Texas, USA, author of Negotiating International Business and co-creator of Managing Projects Across Borders workshops.
Another challenge is to make team members feel comfortable enough to be open and honest. For example, if you ask a team member in some parts of Asia if a project is on track, the answer is likely to be "yes. In some Asian cultures, they are hesitant to bring bad news. They see greater value in telling an authority figure what they think the person wants to hear than in presenting the reality of the situation," Mr. Katz says.
To get the information you need, ask open-ended questions. For example, instead of asking if a project is on track, ask for specific dates on when deliverables will be met. If that doesn't work, ask team members to share the top three ways they think the project could get into trouble. "The first problem they list is typically the 'sky is falling' answer," Mr. Katz says. "The second and third problems are the serious ones you really need to listen for."
Use Technology to Bring the Group Together
Of course, physically bringing the entire group together isn't always possible. Your next best option is to travel to some of the team members, or use technology to your advantage, says Patrick Schmid, PMP, director, PS Consulting International GmbH, Haiterbach, Germany.
High-tech communication and teleconferencing tools can make team members in different locations feel as though they are in the same room. For most of these tools, the investment is minimal; many are available for free or a low cost.
Fortunately, project managers of distributed teams don't have to learn a completely new skill set. Remember that many qualities like integrity, dependability and quality are valued similarly by professionals in many cultures, Mr. Katz says.
PMI®, PMP®,CAPM®, PMBOK® Guide, PgMP ℠ are marks of the Project Management Institute, Inc
copyright©. ProjectPro®. All rights reserved.