Where in the world is my team? – Making a success of your virtual global workplace By Terence Brake
(Summarised by Paul Arnold – Strategic Planner, Facilitator and trainer – firstname.lastname@example.org)
THE BOOK IN A NUTSHELL
The book outlines the key principles that help a team work well together when operating virtually. The twist is that these are the same principles that hold any team together (it’s just a virtual team is more sensitive to issues than a team based in one place).
A virtual team suffers from three common issues: Isolation, fragmentation and confusion.
Thus the team needs to be focused on achieving three core outputs of Engagement, Cohesion and Clarity.
There are 6 key levers to do this: Co-operation, Convergence, Co-ordination, Capability, Communication and Cultural intelligence.
With the growth of globalization of business, aligned to technology it is now much more common for a team to be spread around the world. It is the sharing of this combined talent and multiple perspective that can often be a key competitive edge. However, cross border communication can prevent this potential from flourishing. Technology is just a tool that aids communication, but it brings with it a host of issues if not managed properly. The problems that make a normal team flounder become exacerbated with distance.
There are three main challenges a virtual team face:
- Isolation – We miss the normal day-to-day banter of normal office life that acts as a glue to help bind the team together. When working remotely, there is less of an emotional connection and a feeling of not really knowing the team. This can breed anxiety, paranoia, hostility and resentment – People mistrust others and so hold back information as a source of power/control – which in turn escalates further mistrust.
- Fragmentation – It’s more difficult to maintain a sense of cohesion.
3. Confusion – Without the normal feedback loop of normal communication, it’s easy for people to misunderstand a message. This is compounded by language limitations and cultural norms.
Thus for every interaction you should ask yourself the question: Are my actions helping to build Engagement, Cohesion and Clarity?
Engagement – To help drive engagement, everyone’s need to feel what they say or do matters. Furthermore it’s difficult to build well-engaged teams when the numbers exceed 12 (if more than best to split it down into sub-teams). Building teams need early face-to face interactions to quickly build more emotional connections with one another (technology can then be used thereafter to maintain it). Furthermore, one needs to set up regular cycles for formal communications as well as creating the opportunity for spontaneous communications. The communication needs some style and personality interjected into it to engage hearts as well as minds. The flip side of communication is ensuring everyone develops the skills and mindsets of listening to others.
Cohesion – There needs to be a clear sense of identity and a shared sense of purpose, backed up with a common set of values. Another area to build cohesion is standardized roles, processes, work-flows, and methodologies including documentation.
Communication – There also needs to be continuous sharing of information – to encourage transparency for all (as virtual team members have restricted vision). Furthermore, open dialogue needs to be encouraged to counter false assumptions. Protocols for the different communication forms are useful. Different technologies suit different types of communication. Collaboration is either simple or complex. Simple is collaboration is well-defined (with little ambiguity), with large parts often autonomous and routine. Complex is the opposite. Then we have real-time interactions versus delayed time interaction. This can lead to a quadrant approach:
There are 6 key levers for global collaboration that help build Engagement, Cohesion, and Clarity: Co-operation, Convergence, Co-ordination, Capability, Communication and Cultural intelligence
Co-operation (i.e. Developing and maintaining trusting relationships across borders)
Whilst it is a virtual space, it’s best to still think of it as a real space where the team lives. By doing so, it helps to maintain the behaviours and ethics you would expect if the person were physically next to you.
The leader of a team can strongly influence the culture of that team. If that person is open, supportive, respectful, remains in control of their emotions, and is a good listener they are more likely to cultivate an aura of trust than another leader who is highly critical. The Pentagon compares micromanaging across distances like trying to tighten a screw with an 8,000-mile screwdriver – it can’t be done. So you do need to relinquish control and trust the people (having set clear guidelines and levels of expectation within the strategic vision).
The beliefs that a person in a team has about others will colour their interactions. So if they think others can’t be trusted, they are devious and manipulative and this can slowly poison the interactions within the team. Conversely a person who sets out with a more positive mindset will work better in teams. People will be people. Irrespective of their culture, we are all individuals, with different backgrounds, beliefs, values, likes, dislikes, petty jealousies, self interests, personal agendas, neuroses and paranoia’s. So there will never be perfect harmony, but by trying to understand and accept our differences actually helps us work closer together. Maybe it’s best to take the learnings from the American policy to the Russians during the cold war: ‘Trust, but verify’.
People can play different roles on a team – which fall into three groups:
Questioners – those who challenge
Originators – creators of new knowledge
Transformers – those who take existing knowledge and transform it
Seekers – those who gather knowledge
Experimenters – those who try new things and learn from them
Accelerators – those who speed up the process and make things happen
Amplifiers – those who make sure people are paying attention
Distributors – those who ensure the knowledge gets passed to those who need it Coordinators – those who identify and forge links between different areas of knowledge
Implementers – those who apply the knowledge to create things
Multipliers – those who use the knowledge to create new possibilities
Prioritizers – those who help keep the teams focused on what are most important
Sense-makers – those who help other people understand
Validators – those who test the knowledge to see if it is any good
Hoarders – those who do not share their knowledge (as see it as a position of power)
Charlatans – those who pretend to have knowledge but do not
Chaotic’s – those who have no discipline or ability to organize their work
Blockers – those who pull things down and resist all the time
Toxics – Cynics and skeptics who poison other people’s enthusiasm. Other types in this category include the Egotists, Hyper-competitors, Pessimists, Volatiles, ‘My way or no way-ers’, Deceivers, Avoiders, and Well-bred’s (who will just tell you what they think you want to hear), and the Whirling Dervishes (i.e. those who cannot stay focused on priorities and spin out of control).
There are four major pathways to building trust:
- Mindset – Starting with the right frame of mind and attitude is key to building great teams. Aspects such as respect, openness, honesty, transparency, integrity, empathy, caring, congeniality, and reciprocity are qualities of a positive mindset towards working well in a team.
- Context – i.e. understanding the bigger picture of The Situation (e.g. how complex and risky it is), The Task (e.g. the geographical and technical scope and challenges etc) and The People involved (their respectful strengths and roles they each play – including one’s own self-awareness over beliefs/values, strengths/weaknesses, emotions etc).
- Behaviours – i.e. the everyday actions that people need to do to demonstrate and earn trust – such as being present and accessible to everyone, no psychological or political game playing, responding quickly and thoughtfully, keeping your promises, being transparent, predictable yet open & adaptable, being enthusiastic and optimistic, listening and paying attention, giving support, demonstrating competence, communicating even when you do not have to, dealing with conflict constructively, keeping confidentialities, being inclusive, refusing to talk behind someone’s back, solving problems, not assigning blame, setting realistic expectations, taking the initiative and taking responsibility.
- Process – i.e. paying attention to the developmental stages of the team and adapting behaviour accordingly. For example in the forming stage there needs to be a fair amount of time spent on developing the team (whilst still spending time mapping out the process and roles and responsibilities). The next stage, transitioning (also know as storming) you often get friction that needs time to resolve and settle down. Finally, the developing stage will see the team beginning to perform together – but time also needs to be spent here to maintain the team (for example, through recognizing and celebrating achievements, and sharing stories and experiences).
Warmth is another key aspect that helps build teams. Some people are cold communicators (they keep all emotion or expression of feeling or thought hidden behind a poker face), whilst others are hot communicators (i.e. they are either overly passionate and gushing or fiery, aggressive, critical and impetuous). In-between are warm communicators – who use emotion but are also in control of it. They are friendly, constructive, but also straight and assertive.
Authenticity is key – many people ‘wear’ an avatar at work where they project out the person they want to be seen to be like. Often people see through this and become suspicious of that individual.
It is therefore key to get to know everyone on the team as much as possible – even little things like an online ‘Who’s who’ with a mini biog. can help.
One of the issues we face are the irrelevant influences that affects our perception of people – be it stereotypes or other factors like dress styles or accents.
Finally, the workspace is better ‘oiled’ by lightness and enjoyment – fun and work are complementary not opposites.
Convergence (i.e. Having a clear purpose, direction and set of priorities)
When looking at nature there are only two ways to ensure high levels of co-ordination: either a top down command and control system or a bottom up process (such as in ant colonies) where the individuals follow a small number of rules. Vision, Purpose and Values are those simple rules.
It’s critical that everyone is working towards the same end goal (as this allows every decision to be checked against it). The vision is the ‘What’ we are doing but this needs to be backed up by the purpose i.e. the ‘Why’ we are we doing it. This is the motivating driver for action and helps overcome the inevitable obstacles that occur on the way. A virtual team needs this clarity and focus even more (and will need to be kept reminded of these on a frequent basis).
The Purpose is then supported by a clear set of agreed principles or values as these define the behaviour of the team (such as respect, honesty, keeping promises, respecting confidentialities, accept mutual responsibility etc). 10 behavioural rules/principles are suggested: Be accessible; Be alert; Be aligned; Be connected; Be informative; Be innovative; Be present; Be responsible; Be thoughtful; Be transparent.
Co-ordination (i.e. Clearly defined roles & responsibilities using shared tools, processes, methodologies and time lines).
This is backed up by the 4 P’s: Purpose, Priorities, Plans and Performance Indicators.
Not all tasks are the same. Some tasks have high value (and others low value). Some tasks are short-term delivery, others longer term delivery timelines. Some tasks need to done in series and others can be done in parallel etc etc. Furthermore different teams will be in different stages of a project – for example the innovation stage, the planning stage and then the execution stage. Each of these need different plans, performance indicators and priorities.
Capability (i.e. Leveraging the skills, knowledge and experience of all team members to increase the capability of the team as a whole).
The three key roles of a virtual leader are to Energize, Enable and Empower. A virtual team will find it difficult to stay motivated – so leaders need to energize people through recognition and reminding people of the bigger picture – even when you don’t have to. Enabling is about giving people roles and responsibilities that match their skills & capabilities, ensuring there is clarity over objectives, methodology and expectation. The leaders role is then to help unblock barriers and provide resources for the person to successfully deliver. Empowerment is about getting out-of-the-way and letting them do it. Overall a team needs to assess the skills, capabilities and mindsets required to deliver the agreed objectives (then compare that against what they have to identify the gaps). These can be a mix of hard and soft skills. It’s also recommended that on the group ‘Who’s who’ it outlines everyone’s skills and capabilities as a resource.
The softer capabilities needed within the work place can be summarized by the mnemonic, TRADITIONS:
T = Technological capability
R = Results oriented
A = Accountability
D = Discipline
I = Interpersonal awareness
T = Time management
I = Initiative
O = Openness
N = Networking capability
S = Self-sufficiency
Communication (i.e. Ensuring shared meaning and understanding).
Our success in business is built on successful communication – ensuring the right people get the right information at the right time. With global teams, often using a 2nd language, it’s easy to misunderstand through the literal use of words as opposed to their vernacular meaning (e.g. the phrase ‘Take care’ can be misinterpreted as a warning as opposed to a polite way to end a conversation). Likewise, humour often does not travel well.
We are faced with information overload caused by technology (and so we need technology to sift out the information to present us with only that which is important). Furthermore we have poor quality communication through technology (as emails etc are often impersonally written and often misunderstood in tonality). Finally, there are infrequent levels of communication (and nature abhors a vacuum…).
Suggestions on how to improve communication: Do it frequently; Ask questions to check for shared meaning; be succinct (but not too short) and watch body language.
Whilst technology helps, its communication ability is often poorer than in real-life situations. Research shows that people are less co-operative and form more negative impressions of people via video conference that they do in real life. Conversely, people tend to agree more with the people they are in the room with. Furthermore, technology can cause greater depersonalization – resulting in people being less constrained than they would be in face-to-face situations. Another finding is technology based communication can lead to more polarized views on issues and greater openness to riskier solutions. So all these need to be taken into account in digital based interactions.
Thus when assessing quality of communication across countries, it is recommended again to look at the three key outputs: Engagement, Cohesion, and Clarity.
Everyone is different with unique upbringings and experiences which shape their behaviour. Part of those influences are the culture that surrounds a person. Culture is the pattern of beliefs, values, assumptions and attitudes that define the way of life of a group.
Cultural intelligence is the ability to read and understand different cultures and adapt quickly.
RISK is a framework for cultural intelligence:
R = Recognize the cultural differences. For example America is action oriented versus many Asian cultures which are more relationship focused (i.e. can I trust you? Are you loyal?). The differences in the world can be simplified down into three categories:
Relating Differences – i.e. how we interact with others with three dimension: task <-> relationship, explicit <-> implicit and individual <-> group.
Regulating Differences – i.e. how we manage the world around us with three dimensions: risk taking <-> risk avoiding, tight <-> loose, shared <->concentrated.
Reasoning Differences – i.e. how we explain or think about things – again divided into three dimensions: linear <-> circular, facts <->thinking and simple <-> complex.
Individuals can then be mapped against these 9 dimensions.
I = Impact – i.e. to think of the potential impact they could have on working together.
S = Strategy – i.e. how to manage the differences to achieve the outcome.
K = Know-how – i.e. how to manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviour so can build bridges with different cultures. For example impatience is a common one that needs to be kept under control. In most situations we need to learn to talk less and listen more. Furthermore we need to develop dialogue that allows the open discussion of cultural norms and taboos. Differences are usually positive rather than negative as different perspectives can challenge locked down thinking.
Finally there is a suggested modus operandi defined by PACA: Prepare, Act, Check your response and Apply learnings in real-time.
This is written as a light novel. Its story is a bit hokey but it carries you along even if the storyline is quite predictable! Once the story is stripped away (as I have), the contents seem to be just one list after another!
For me the key critique is that this book outlines all the things that I guess most of us already know make up a good team. The book then gives us a predictable list of things we should do. One of the key issues that I felt really needed answering was that if we already know all this why don’t we do it!? I wanted to know how to get past this level to actually creating the change. For example how do you build trust amongst a group of people who are cynical and been burnt in the past? Or how to address the lack of time that prevents a lot of this stuff happening?