a leader's road map for the communication highway

Concerns of Project Managers


Jaclyn Kostner, Bridge the Distance, International, Denver, Colorado

When you need to communicate with someone remote from you (like through voice mail), are you tired of reaching communication roadblocks and dead ends? On your project team's communication highway, do you receive too much information you don't need, yet too little that you do? Is communication with project team members remote from you a road filled with “trust” potholes that only show up too late, after the damage to the project and relationships is done?

As you try to climb your way to the top of the daily deluge of E-mail, voice mail, fax mail, paper mail, and computer reports, you may have heard yourself say “yes” to the questions just posed. You are not alone.

Of all the media users who took part in one recent study1, 65 percent were overwhelmed by the blitz of information from electronic media. Despite the blitz, 84 percent felt the advantages of electronic media outweighed the disadvantages. These findings show that people perceive the technology will help them, but know there are ways to use it better than we are doing today.

If you are experiencing frustration with communication across distance, which includes all that you send and Receive through electronic media, don't blame the technology. The problem isn't the tools. It's the way people use the tools to communicate with one another.

If project teams are not just to survive, but to thrive, in this new world that spans time and space, they have to learn how to navigate their project team's communication highway effectively. The purpose of this article is to examine the leader's role in making the team's cruise down the communication highway a smooth journey.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth installment in a series of tutorials on Third Millennium groups. We are moving into a new era of project management in which team members will be distributed geographically and team leadership will be distributed among people based on skills and knowledge relative to the specific task. Are you prepared to operate in such an environment?


During the Vietnam era, I had the good fortune to spend two years in the Philippines. It was a good fortune because I learned a lot about beautiful people in another part of the world than where I was born and raised. I also learned a lot about how people need new techniques for new technologies.

At the time I left the U. S., superhighways were well-established. One could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific without a single traffic light—a significant advancement over the two-lane country roads, traffic signals, and city commuter traffic that were the only choice a decade earlier. People had learned to navigate their way safely on and off the superhighway.

Shortly after I arrived in the Philippines, the City of Manila was opening the first leg of that country's first superhighway. The local TV and paper news were filled with announcements to create excitement about the nation's momentous event. Wanting to celebrate their achievement, I decided to drive on it myself. The first day the highway was open, I went.

If I were to describe the superhighway, I would use every adjective that I would have used to describe the ones back in the U.S. The beautiful divided highway had two lanes on one side, and two on the other of a newly-graded median strip. The highway had on and off ramps and streamlined overpasses. Signs that legally allowed 100 kph (about 60 mph) speeds invited drivers to put the pedal to the metal. The highway was obviously a huge step forward technologically for the nation.

There was an enormous difference about the highway, however, that caught me by surprise. The traffic on each side of the divided highway was going in both directions! So the two lanes where people should have all been going in one direction, toward Manila, had people going to and away from Manila. Vehicles on the remaining two lanes on the other side of the median strip were doing the same!

MBWEA is an acronym for Management by Wandering Electronically Around. Coined by Jaclyn Kostner, it represents a new Ieadership tool for Third Millennium (remote) workgroups.

It didn't matter that the new technology, the superhighway, was at the cutting-edge. The way the people used the technology held back its power to serve its customers effectively. The new road provided little more than a smooth surface for people to do what they always did.

Because of the way people used it, the speed of the fastest vehicle on the highway was limited to the speed of the slowest. Luxury vehicles that begged to drive at the speed limit could go no faster than the horses and buggies, busses with luggage and goats bundled on the top, and people on bicycles that shared the highway! Only when the people learned to navigate the road effectively would the highway's greatest value be obtained.

The same is true of the communications highway remote project teams must travel each day. The vehicles available on today's communication highway are powerful. E-mail, voice mail, facsimile, audio teleconferencing, video teleconferencing, and other groupware transport information across time and space at the speed of light.

The problem, however, occurs when remote teams navigate their team's communication highway ineffectively.

  • The horse and buggies include remote leaders who feel the only way to communicate effectively with people that are remote is for them to spend 80 percent of their time traveling for face-to-face visits.
  • The potholes include remote people who feel betrayed because they were left out of critical communication, information, or decision-making loops.
  • The two-way traffic on a one-way road includes unfocused, ineffective communication exchanged across distance versus communication that can be accessed at the point in time it is needed by anyone on the team.


In order for the team to navigate the communication superhighway effectively, the first step leaders need to take is to expand their paradigm about “wandering around.”

Only about 12 years ago, Tom Peters made MBWA an acronym that nearly every manager knows. MBWA stands for Management by Wandering Around.

At that time, MBWA was a major paradigm shift for many managers, alerting them to the importance of creating an open communication door. Wandering around encouraged them to talk the vision, coach, give feedback, and “catch people doing things right.”

The center of MBWA was the manager, whose role was to create energy, inclusion, and cohesion through informal communication. MBWA acted as a key tool to create the trust and rapport that is essential for teamwork.

Whether leading a co-located team or a remote team, all leaders need to wander. No matter how limited the budget or how constrained the time, effective remote leaders know that physically being out thereto communicate on-site with remote team members is critical to every project's success.

With remote teams, however, remote leaders aren't the only ones who need to travel. Remote team members who need to collaborate with one another need to wander, as well. So, with remote teams, the MBWA paradigm isn't just for leaders. On teams that span distance, it is for anyone who needs to work closely with another who is remote. It lets them build trust and rapport so that they can continue to work well together when remote.

Without trust and rapport, any team's road to success will be a rocky one. Remote team members who work from sites distant from others, lack traditional avenues to develop trust, rapport, and connections with one another. They need to travel for periodic meetings as a team. And some may need to travel to meet one-on-one with another remote team member to develop an effective level of trust and rapport to support the work to be done.

Travel will help the remote leader and the members of the remote team create a bond as a team. Informal opportunities to communicate at one-site meetings give people that work apart from one another an opportunity to understand each other's needs, issues, and local environments. In addition, the rapport they create with one another encourages them to be attentive to each other's needs when distant from each other.

There are two key points about “wandering around” with remote teams. First, the remote leader needs to wander. Second, so do the members of the remote team. Travel helps the remote leader and the remote team develop trust and rapport, which are critical to navigating the communication highway effectively when apart.


The second part of navigating the remote team's communication highway is the way the team connects through technology. In fact, the main road the remote team will use to communicate with one another while apart are through voice mail, E-mail, pagers, and other communication vehicles.

These technologies are designed to help the remote leader and the remote team members wander around electronically. Their purpose is to help people that are remote from each other connect or access the communication that is needed to do the work when the team is apart.

The problem is that the way some use these tools is closing communication doors, adding to the sense of isolation and distance on the remote team. The problem isn't the tools. It is the way people use them.

Take one remote team member who was frustrated that he could never reach a “live” person at the leader's site. “I have an urgent need to get a response from people that are 1,000 miles away. I can't see if they're in their office, and their voice mail greeting certainly gives me no clue. I have no idea when I'll hear back from them-or if they're even in the office today.”

The main problem is that E-mail, voice mail, and fax are sender-initiated communication. The sender chooses whether or not to update his/her voice message daily. When an event occurs that pertains to the remote team's business, the sender chooses to send a voice mail or E-mail message. The sender chooses whether to send it to one person or a distribution list. In fact, the sender chooses whether to send the message at all.

The problem with sender-initiated forms of remote communication occurs when a remote team member is inevitably left out of the loop with some communication that others do receive. It doesn't matter that the sender forgot to include a remote person on the distribution list. It doesn't matter that the sender neglected to send the information at all. With sender-initiated forms of remote communication, the sender decides who gets to wander their part of the information highway.

Although tools like voice mail, E-mail, and fax are critical tools for remote teams, their “hit or miss” sender-focused approach to remote team communication restricts a remote team member's ability to wander electronically around. It sets up a highway filled with potential accidents, such as those that occur when remote team members are intentionally or unintentionally left out of the loop.

Relationships established through travel help team members be more attentive to sending communication to others that are remote and to be responsive to their needs. The relationships may also help mitigate the damage to trust when someone who is remote is inevitably left out. The fact is, however, that whenever a distant team member is left out of the loop, trust and cohesion will be breached.

Many remote teams are finding greater success with receiver-focused groupware that ensures everyone is in the loop. One such example is Lotus Notes2, which structures remote team communication in a way that anyone on the remote team can wander around electronically among core team communication. With this form of software, everyone is in the loop.

With this receiver-focused approach, the remote team creates a knowledge base that forms a foundation for the work to be done. That knowledge base can include decisions, team performance metrics, company metrics, company news, best practices, customer profiles, team member profiles, project network diagrams, reports, and other key pieces of communication that everyone on the team needs to know.

Rather than relying on someone to send the information or try to guess if everyone who wants or needs to know is included on the distribution list, groupware like Notes holds the team's history, legends, and knowledge in a “gas tank,” so to speak. Anyone on the team can access the gasoline when, where, and how it is needed for the remote team member to navigate the project team's communication road.

With receiver-focused groupware, everyone is included. Everyone can access communication about the team, the customers, the company, or any other knowledge that is “basic” to doing business. Each team member gets what she or he needs when he or she needs it. E-mail and voice mail then are freed to be used more effectively for spontaneous, time-critical communication.

There are two key points about wandering around electronically. First, trust and rapport among people on the remote team will help them be more attentive to including others in their communication. Second, the sender-focused orientation of E-mail and voice mail require from remote team members a “ticket” to get on the highway. If someone forgets to send a remote team member a ticket, that person can't get on. With newer groupware tools, such as Notes, remote team members create their own “ticket” to be on the highway when they need to be there. The latter lets them wander around electronically more easily.


In order for a Third Millennium group to navigate its communication highway, the first step is to have all of the team wander around. Effective remote teams have learned that technologies supplement travel; they do not replace it. People who work remote from each other need face-to-face rapport-building opportunities to lay a foundation for all of the communication that will follow.

The second key part of navigating the communication highway effectively is for the remote team to establish a road map for the remote team to wander around electronically. MBWEA is for leaders and team members. It lets everyone access the communication that is needed at the time and place it is needed. MBWEA is the road map that lets the remote team build trust when apart.

Effective Third Millennium groups use their communication highway effectively so that all on the team can wander and be in touch with the project and each other. The communication highway is then used as the eyes, ears, and pulse of the team—for everyone on the team and from every location. And everyone has a ticket to be on the highway.


1. As reported in a Reuters News Service study conducted by Yan kelovich Partners, accessed through America On-Line. The study involved 361 executives in companies with an annual sales revenue of at least $1 million.

2. Lotus Notes is a registered trademark of Lotus Development Corp. ❑


Jaclyn Kostner is author of the best-selling business novel, Knights of the Tele-Round Table: 3rd Millennium Leadership. A specialist in effective distributed work groups, Kostner is a popular keynote speaker, workshop facilitator, and seminar leader. She is president and founder of Bridge the Distance, International, in Englewood, Colorado, a consulting and training firm that focuses on remote leadership, remote teamwork, and remote communication. Her firm works with remote teams worldwide, licenses its workshops to major corporations, and customizes workshops to meet the needs of specific clients.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PMNETwork • November 1994



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