Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 2, Issue 45;   November 6, 2002: Dispersity Adversity

Dispersity Adversity

by

Geographically and culturally dispersed project teams are increasingly common, as we become more travel-averse and more bedazzled by communication technology. But people really do work better together face-to-face. Here are some tips for managing dispersed teams.

When Marilyn heard, "Earth calling Marilyn, come in please," she suddenly realized that she'd been staring blankly at the Gantt chart. The wall-sized Gantt chart. The hopelessly outdated wall-sized Gantt Chart. Her mind had wandered.

The world"Marilyn here. Over," she replied. "So how do you think it happened?"

Phil was stumped too. "It's a puzzle, isn't it? Project of the Year to red-listed in three months. That chart is just expensive wallpaper now — actually, I kinda like it for the men's room."

"You would. But really…why is this project so different?"

As they talked, they kept returning to their decision not to use local talent. Back when they couldn't even get approval for contractors, they'd decided to use the Wellington people, who were 2000 miles away. And then, three weeks later, they added the two European teams. That made the score: time zones 4, languages 3, continents 2. They had had no choice…after September 11, travel became impractical, even when it was allowed.

Marilyn and Phil are struggling with managing a geographically dispersed team.

If you haven't had that experience, imagine a little four-month experiment.

People work better together
when they know each other
First month
Replace all team meetings with teleconferences. Visiting a teammate's office is not permitted. Use the phone or interdepartmental mail instead.
Second month
Continue as last month, and eliminate hallway conversation. Use snail mail or overnight delivery instead of interdepartmental mail.
Third month
Continue as last month, but limit telephone conferences to three per week, at 7 AM or 11 PM. All other communication is by fax or email. Team members may not lunch together.
Fourth month
Continue as last month, but now in-person meetings are permitted — provided they are held at least a full day's journey away by air.

After four months, you'll understand a little of what a dispersed team deals with — if you still have a project left.

Here are some tips for managing dispersed teams:

People work better when they know each other
What we don't know, we make up, and what we make up is often scary. When we know each other — even a little — we like each other better.
Have an in-person kickoff meeting
An in-person kickoff meeting is essential, because people have to know each other before they can trust each other. Leave plenty of free time for socializing.
Face-to-face meetings are necessary
People need to meet face-to-face once in a while. It's the way we're made. Budget for it.
Count on trouble
Communications are more problematic the more remote they are. Face-to-face is safer than phone is safer than email is safer than fax is safer than overnight mail is safer than silence.
Get training in video, email, and phone
Since we aren't born knowing how to conduct a videoconference, we need training to do it well. Training in email and teleconferencing is also helpful.

Using a dispersed team might be a way around the bureaucratic constraints, but it isn't cheap, because you need budget for travel and training. Most important: go slow. It takes time to prevent (and sort out) communication mix-ups. Go to top Top  Next issue: High Falutin' Goofy Talk  Next Issue

303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsIs your organization a participant in one or more global teams? Are you the owner/sponsor of a global team? Are you managing a global team? Is everything going well, or at least as well as any project goes? Probably not. Many of the troubles people encounter are traceable to the obstacles global teams face when building working professional relationships from afar. Read 303 Tips for Virtual and Global Teams to learn how to make your global and distributed teams sing. Order Now!

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We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
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Here's a catalog of actions people take when the projects they're leading are in deep trouble, and they're pretty sure there's no way out.
Three simple carabinersTeam Risks
Working in teams is necessary in most modern collaborations, but teamwork does carry risks. Here are some risks worth mitigating.
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When new problems pop up one after the other, we describe our response as "firefighting." We move from fire to fire, putting out flames. How can we end the madness?
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The planning fallacy is a cognitive bias that causes underestimates of cost, time required, and risks for projects. Analogously, I propose a risk planning fallacy that causes underestimates of probabilities and impacts of risk events.

See also Project Management, Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill BridgeComing May 29: Rescheduling: Project Factors
Rescheduling is what we do when we can no longer honor the schedule we have now. Of all causes of rescheduling, the more controllable are those found at the project level. Attending to them in one project can limit their effects on other projects. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
A switch in the tracks of a city tramwayAnd on June 5: The Reactive Rescheduling Cycle
When the current schedule is no longer viable, we reschedule. But rescheduling is unlike devising a schedule before work has begun. People know that we're "behind" and taking time to reschedule only makes things worse. Political pressure doesn't help. Available here and by RSS on June 5.

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