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

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 The hopelessly outdated wall-sized Gantt Chart.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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See also Project Management, Effective Meetings and Virtual and Global Teams for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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