Managing distributed project teams


The term “virtual team” has been used over the past several years to describe a team where the members do not meet in the same place at the same time, but instead are working online. A more accurate name for today's emerging team model is “distributed team” – used to describe a variety of team configurations, made up of individuals in multiple locations working toward a common team goal or mission. Working in distributed teams is becoming increasingly common as companies extend and diversify their operations across geographic boundaries. Learning to form and sustain high-performing distributed teams with members in multiple locations, time zones, and representing diverse cultural perspectives requires new skills and new approaches to project team collaboration and leadership. This paper will introduce an emerging body of research available to support managers of distributed project teams as they strive to turn the distributed challenge into a competitive advantage, specifically focusing on the cultural issues that are relevant to the formation of distributed teams.

Introduction — The Evolution of Project Teams

The term globalization is widely used and has been defined in a variety of ways (Thomas, 2008). In common, contemporary terms, globalization refers to the trend toward organizations crossing economic and geographic boundaries and expanding from a local and regional perspective to a global one (Bhagwati, 2004). Globalization has also been described as the sense that the world is becoming smaller and our perspective broader (Friedman, 2007). The idea that we are becoming more and more able to connect diverse societies and geographies toward the accomplishment of business and commerce is one that has been evolving for centuries, according to Friedman. He suggests that, from the time man became aware that there were other societies and opportunities for gain, he has been traveling to distant lands to take advantage of those opportunities. Recent decades have only served to accelerate that progress, as technology has facilitated the flow of information and knowledge related to what is possible, as well as paved the way for us to engage in exchange with people distant and diverse from ourselves. Friedman and others agree that technology has accelerated our ability to interact as a global society in many aspects of our lives, and has specifically facilitated the accomplishment of business across geographic boundaries (Martinelli, Rahschulte, & Waddell, 2010).

Globalization has also been described as a state that facilitates a convergence of cultures, in that it creates an environment in which people can see that they are more the same than different (Webber, 1969). Rennaker and Novak (2011) suggest that leaders have the potential to greatly influence how team members experience the convergence of cultures, and can strategically guide this process to develop teams with the attitudes and behaviors needed to achieve team goals. The debate continues related to whether cultures tend to converge, diverge, or strive for a state of equilibrium as they interact more closely and become more interdependent, reinforcing Thomas' (2008) assertion that culture is one of the most important concepts for us to understand and appreciate when considering the distribution of teams.

For purposes of this paper, the distribution of teams will be presented as a trend toward more permeable boundaries between countries, companies, and cultures brought about by advances in how we communicate, exchange information, and accomplish project work. Thomas (2008, p. 10) categorizes the challenges facing managers in navigating an increasingly distributed environment into four quadrants: “economic, legal, political, and cultural.” This paper will view these issues through a cultural lens, with specific attention paid to the challenges and opportunities presented to distributed project team managers.

The paper will then suggest a new model for distributing leadership across the team to meet the challenges these teams face. For the purposes of this paper, the term distributed project team manager will be used to refer to anyone who is leading distributed work efforts that engage more than one geographic region or country and/or more than one national culture in the accomplishment of the organization's work. The challenges of distribution will be examined from the perspective of a western manager and will focus on management challenges in a multi-cultural, distributed team environment.

Challenges and Opportunities

A variety of studies have been done regarding the skills and competencies needed to effectively lead teams in the distributed, multi-cultural environment. Of note, Ancona and Caldwell (1992) studied over 100 sales teams in the telecommunications industry in an effort to understand the relationship between internal/external orientation and team performance. They found that the teams with a focus on their internal relationships and efficiencies had the highest satisfaction rates in their memberships and believed that they were high performers. These teams emphasized values like harmony and efficiency and priding themselves on how well individuals were able to work well with each other, and representing high degrees of internal integration. These same teams, however, rated no higher than the other teams in terms of actual revenue generation, leading the authors to question whether highly efficient teams were actually more effective in meeting performance goals. Ancona and Caldwell then proceeded to study teams in a wider range of industries that required distribution of members across distances and cultures and concluded that distributed teams with external focus and internal integration were capable of reaching the highest levels of team performance. Ancona and Bresman's later writings (2008) suggest new competencies for the leadership of such distributed teams, in order to encourage the external focus as well as internal integration goals. The suggested competencies outlined by Ancona and Bresman are detailed in the following pages, including an appreciation of differences in cultural perspective; leveraging diversity and conflict to optimize team performance; enhanced decision-making skills for complex environments; and facilitation skills for leading teams in distributed locations.

Appreciating Differences in Cultural Perspectives

Thomas (2008, p. 71) asserts that the “most fundamental issue” facing the distributed project team manager is the cultural differences and interpersonal needs of individuals on the global team. Hooker (2003) suggests a study of the concept of culture from an anthropological perspective, grounding understanding of societal behaviors in the fundamental need fulfillment that has supported the existence and development of societies around the world. Indeed, Hofstede (as cited in Schein, 1985) has shown that cultural concepts that have their foundation in fundamental belief systems are programmed at a very deep level. Further, when initial conditions for the formation of values are rooted in fundamental belief systems, cultural beliefs can persist long after the environmental situation has changed (Rozin, 1998). So, individuals tend to behave based on attitudes that may have been formed and reinforced over decades and even generations, without consciously understanding why they believe and behave the way that they do. Appreciating the strength of cultural perspective and its effect on perception as well as behavior, a focus area for the distributed project team manager should be the understanding and appreciation of what culture is and how it affects group interaction.

Cultural researchers have commonly accepted that one of the most significant differences in perspective comes from whether a culture is predominantly individualist or collectivist in its orientation (Hofstede, 1980). People from individualist cultures (i.e., most Western cultures) tend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the group. This tendency is seen in the history and values of the culture. An example is the U.S. culture, with grounding in values such as autonomy, self-reliance, and equal opportunity that have been reinforced since the country ‘declared independence’ over 200 years ago. Contrast this mentality to a culture that has been grounded in the value of supporting the collective good for thousands of years (most Eastern cultures) and you begin to see how significant, and deeply rooted, these different mindsets have become. This is especially important for distributed project team managers from Western cultures to understand, because they tend to lean toward individualism and run the risk of not considering how differently a collectivist culture might perceive their position in the world and their role on the team. This comes into play as individuals consider the relationship between themselves and the group, and has an effect on expectations members bring to a broad range of group interactions.

Another notable distinction in orientation between cultures is in the area of how people view time and their environment (Rennaker & Novak, 2011). Again, there is a tendency for the project manager to assume that everyone on the team perceives time and power structures the same way that he or she does. In most Western cultures, time is viewed as something tangible that can be used, lost, wasted, and spent, and that is one-dimensional (monochromic). These cultures tend to perform tasks in sequence, with significant focus on schedules and due dates. In other cultures, time may be perceived as polychronic, meaning that it is fluid and intangible in nature. In these cultures, time is seen as divorced from tasks, allowing individuals to feel comfortable performing many tasks simultaneously with less concern for deadlines (Hall, 1966). In addition to the time dimension, cultures may view power structures differently, with some cultures perceiving a relatively flat structure with equality as the base value (i.e., the United States) and others perceiving vast differences between the top of the power structure (management) and the lower levels (workers). These differences in perception of power can cause some team members to feel very comfortable asserting themselves in an equality-based culture, whereas others feel that it is deeply disrespectful to “question the boss” and consequently suppressing their views (Hofstede, 1980).

These differences are especially acute when the project manager is from an individualist culture, with the tendency to view culture through an ethnocentric lens. When focusing on internal integration and coordination of activities, unnoted differences in perception of time and power, for example, can create conflict that adversely affects team performance if the project manager is not sensitive to the deeply rooted (and diverse) beliefs that may exist on the team.

Differences in perception of values such as individualism, collectivism, time, power, and others not specifically explained here, become even more important to understand when considering group formation in a multi-cultural environment. There is risk in considering that everyone will follow the same process when coming together as a group or team for the first time. For example, a Western manager with an individualist orientation and experience with the dynamics of Tuckman's (1965) team development model might expect all individuals on his or her team to go through the same set of phases in the team development process. Tuckman suggested that groups start in the “forming” phase by getting to know each other and exchanging pleasantries, while avoiding conflict and suppressing differences. They then move through this phase to the “storming” phase, marked by team members becoming increasingly comfortable with conflict and asserting their opinions. Once they progress through the storming phase, groups begin to develop norms for behavior (“norming”) and then finally reach a state of high performance (“performing”). On closer examination, one might argue that Tuckman's model is an ethnocentric one with a preference for individualism. In individualist cultures, individuals will assert their positions and have a relatively high tolerance for conflict. In collectivist cultures, however, the primary goal is to address the needs of the group even if it means subjugating the needs of the individual (Hofstede, 1980), which might cause some challenges when basing team formation on the ability to assert individual opinions. Consequently, cultural orientation might significantly impact the order and nature of the process people with these diverse perspectives will go through when forming into groups. The project manager who does not recognize this might be baffled when groups fail to perform at their highest potential due to formation processes that favor one cultural perspective over another (Rennaker & Novak, 2011).

Additionally, cultures with a dominant collectivism perspective will behave differently when faced with in-group / out-group pressures (Tajfel & Turner, 1986), meaning challenges from inside the group (internal conflict) or threats from external sources. Collectivists tend to belong to fewer groups that are broader in scope, whereas individualists belong to many groups and define themselves with a broad range of identities specific to those groups (Thomas, 2008). Thus, the power of the group to affect the motivation of the individual varies widely between these two cultural perspectives, and what is experienced as a natural process of assimilation into a group by an individualist might be baffling to someone with less experience or tolerance for what might be perceived as hostile group behavior.

A final dimension of cultural variation worth noting by the distributed project team manager is the perspective of motivation. Most popular motivation theories (Herzberg, 1966; Maslow, 1943; Vroom, 1964) were formed on the assumption that individuals, by default, will act in their own self-interest (Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). This does not hold true for all cultures, and specifically not for those with a collectivist perspective. Thus, approaching motivation from this ethnocentric perspective can once again present the Western distributed project team manager with potentially baffling results when dealing with multi-cultural teams with differing motivational frameworks.

Leveraging Differences and Conflict for Optimized Team Performance

An overly-optimistic view regarding the sameness of people on the global team from various cultures can at the very least cause the distributed project team manager to misunderstand the intent or perspective of a team member. Worse yet, focusing on the similarities between team members and over emphasizing shared values and perspectives have the potential to limit the creativity on the team. If managed well, Cohen (2001) suggests that a state of equilibrium within the multi-cultural team can be accomplished through a focus on the social needs of diverse individuals as they form into work groups. Further, Rennaker and Novak (2011) suggest that this process can be intentionally designed by the project manager. They recommend embedding desired team characteristics in the recruitment and selection process, as well as embedding activities to reinforce desired behaviors as teams are formed.

Research into teams that are fundamentally homogeneous versus heterogeneous has also provided insight into the dynamics of team performance (Mohammed & Angell, 2004). Homogenous teams are those where members are primarily “the same” in key cultural dimensions. Heterogeneous groups are more diverse, and may reflect vast differences in cultural perspective. Mohammed and Angell noted a difference in how these factors affect team outcomes based on whether the differences on the team are at the surface level (things we can see) or are more deeply rooted in beliefs and values in the minds of individuals. While heterogeneous teams tend to be less efficient in their operations (especially until they have adequately “formed” into a team), they also have the highest potential for high performance if group processes are carefully controlled (Rennaker & Novak, 2011). This is because these teams benefit from diverse ways of thinking, and also have access to widely distributed sources of information. The very differences on these diverse teams can eventually make them more knowledgeable and capable, once the internal issues of team formation are resolved. Creating an environment where differences are honored, processes are clear, and conflict is managed effectively has the potential to produce an increase in innovation and thereby team performance.

Thomas and Bostrom (2007) found trust to be an essential element of what they refer to as the “virtual team” (p. 47). Their study focused on how to create an environment of trust by contrasting the approaches of the Theory X and Theory Y manager (McGregor, 1967). They found that a Theory Y approach, characterized by a facilitative, supporting environment for the team, was directly related to enhanced team performance, especially in an electronically mediated setting. Further, they operationalized the term “technology adaptation” (p. 46) as a critical component to innovation in these teams, and connected adaptive competency on the virtual team with the degree of trust and cooperation resident in the leadership behavior.

Son and Kim (2011) re-examined trust development in virtual teams and suggested that a new approach to developing trust might be to focus on task-based versus relationship-based trust. They described the natural face-to-face trust development process as one based on emotional reactions to other people first, before reinforcing those reactions with experiences working with each other (the basis for task-based trust). They cite other researchers who suggest that “swift trust” (p. 88) can be developed in distributed teams by focusing on role-based versus people-based task interaction, effectively leveraging the lower degree of interpersonal relationship needs of temporary, project-based teams.

While the research in global distributed team effectiveness is still evolving, there does appear to be support for the notion that a synergistic relationship between cultural diversity and innovation is possible. Further, as indicated in the aforementioned studies, creating distributed global teams with a heterogeneous makeup may have the potential to be more effective than traditional homogenous teams due to this increased creative potential. Maintaining an environment of appropriately designed trust formation, cooperation, and internal integration is indicated in supporting these teams as they strive to reach their performance potential.

Enhanced Decision-Making Skills for Complex Environments

Friedman (2007) describes a global work environment where work is fungible, meaning that the work has the potential to be accomplished by people in a broader range of locations and cultures. He suggests that in this increasingly global workplace, the work will go wherever it can go, and that the choices distributed project team managers have related to accomplishing work are becoming increasingly vast. This increase in choices and decrease in constraints changes the job of the manager when it moves into a global context. While the demands on the distributed project team manager are increasing, the options related to how and where work can be done are becoming more abundant, as are the choices for how to meet the increasing demands.

In addition to the increase in the choices and possibilities that the distributed project team manager is faced with, he or she also faces differences in how decisions are perceived by culturally diverse members of the global team. Similar to the structures that support the distributed project team manager's understanding of motivation, the approaches to rationality and conflict management are different in individualist versus collectivist cultures (Janis & Mann, 1977). What might feel natural and comfortable for a manager in terms of gathering information, engaging in debate, and navigating differences of opinion, might seem quite aggressive and inappropriate to a team member with a collectivist mindset where indirect communication and consensus driven decision making are the norms (Levine, 1985). Therefore, the distributed project team manager must find ways to connect with individuals in a way that is culturally relevant when forming one-on-one relationships with each team member, as well as facilitating discussion, debate, and consensus between team members.

Facilitation Skills for Leading Distributed Teams

McGrath and O'Connor (1995) define teams as groups of people that come together with a focus on inter-relatedness of members toward the accomplishment of shared goals. When considering the challenge of globalization, many organizations are turning to team models with distributed structures (Greiner & Metes, 1995). In addition to the challenges of cultural diversity, the project team manager in a distributed environment must deal with a discontinuity in the experiences of team members who are not located in the same physical space (Chudoba, Wynn, Lu, & Watson-Manheim, 2005). Additionally, how to create and maintain a sense of inter-relatedness and shared perception of goals when leading a team that is distributed across distance and includes broad diversity in culture is a challenge for the distributed project team manager.

Research to date shows that simply applying the same traditional management and leadership practices to these distributed teams has, so far, been problematic. For example, Hardin, Fuller, and Davison (2007) conducted a study of workers performing in distributed teams and found that most report less confidence in their ability to perform their work effectively in these teams versus teams in a face-to-face setting. These findings reached across cultures, with implications that suggest the distributed project team manager will need to develop flexible models that meet the needs of workers in individualist and collectivist cultures as they come together to work in distributed teams. Greenberg, Greenberg, and Antonucci (2007) examined the attitudes of individuals working in virtual teams and discovered additional challenges in building and maintaining trust when people do not work together face-to-face. Additional work looking at the psychosocial needs of individuals working in groups has been done by Blackhart, Baumeister, and Twenge (2006) and by Thau, Aquino, and Poortvliet (2007) in a phenomenon they refer to as “thwarted belonging” (p. 1), which occurs when individuals fail to have their needs for belonging satisfied early in their assimilation into a group. It is expected that this phenomenon might be magnified when some or all of the members of a group are working virtually and are unable to build the bonds that are necessary to satisfy their social needs.

More recently, research into how virtual leaders “lead” has indicated that project managers don't necessarily need to develop new approaches for leading the distributed team, but need to learn to do the same things for their distributed teams as they have been doing all along for their co-located teams (Milhauser, 2011a). In an interview with Elliott Masie, a leader in research into virtual leadership and learning, it was noted that good leaders have developed techniques for building relationships in formal and (even more so) informal interactions with team mates. These relationships are developed and sustained in the hallways, cafeterias, and social discourse of day to day work. Masie asserts that these needs do not change when the team is distributed. Individuals still need to run into each other in non–task specific ways. To accommodate this need, Masie uses video tele-presence technologies to emulate face-to-face interaction throughout the workday, including fixtures in the lunch room (for example), where members of the team that are co-located interact socially with members of the team that are distributed across distance. In this way, Masie suggests that what we already know about how to build and lead teams effectively is duplicated in the distributed environment. So, we don't need to do things differently in our distributed teams as much as we need to figure out how to do the same things that have always worked, using new approaches.

Further research is needed into how much face time people really need. Rennaker and Novak (2011) suggest examining the team development process and strategically building face-to-face interaction into the team formation process at the points where it is most needed. Their research endorses a team building strategy that maximizes the effectiveness of individual members, while acknowledging their personal needs for belonging to a group. Milhauser (2011b) reported on a team building approach with a face-to-face element early in the team's formation that then was reinforced with video conferencing and online interaction. This team attributed their success in meeting product development challenges with the strength of the shared vision and underlying corporate culture that was formed early in their process. This sort of focus on strategically designing teams to align to the specific challenges faced by organizations and projects will be a major role of the distributed project team manager as this trend toward distributed work continues and accelerates.

Emerging Best Practices — Distributed Leadership

Malone (2004, p. 162) uses the term “distributed leadership” to refer to a team model wherein all team members are leaders. Ancona and Caldwell (1992) suggest that this distribution of leadership can empower the distributed team to focus externally on its environment and customers, as well as internally across functional boundaries, in order to understand the challenges and opportunities the team faces. The premise is that the days of one leader at the top of the team are over, because that model was predicated on a centralized team structure. A single leader cannot access the information available in the distributed environment to make the choices and decisions that must be made to facilitate team performance. Only by tapping into the insights and perspectives of its distributed members can the team take in enough information from its environment to make well-informed decisions. Therefore, the distributed leadership model becomes an enabler for empowerment and effective decision making on the team. The challenge for the distributed project team manager when invoking this model becomes one of internal task coordination and motivation of the distributed membership.

Ancona and Bresman (2007, p. 222) recommend considering the “traditional leadership model incomplete” when faced with the distributed team challenge, and suggest four new competencies for distributed project team managers. These include sensemaking, relating, visioning, and inventing. They cite Wieck's (2001) work on sensemaking and suggest that only by maintaining broad external and internal networks can the distributed project team manager gain access to enough information to make decisions in the rapidly changing global environment. They assert that the distributed team model, with leaders in various locations and representing diverse cultures, can become the eyes and ears of the team and form the foundation for this network. Rennaker and Novak's (2011) research support this approach, with an emphasis on the design of the team with embedded characteristics that leverage diversity.

The ability to do this requires a high degree of trust on the team, which is what Ancona and Bresman refer to as relating. It is not enough that the distributed project team manager tell distributed team members that they are empowered; they must actually develop trust over time by reinforcing dialogue that builds their relationship with each individual team member. Son and Kim (2011) suggest that this trust development be accomplished with an emphasis on tasks as well interpersonal interaction, an approach facilitated by the geographic distribution of the team. A similar relating technique was experienced in practice by Elliot Masie's success with building relationships across distance using video tele-presence tools intentionally and persistently to address the psychosocial needs of his team (Milhauser, 2011a). Thus, the distributed project team manager's focus becomes one of supporting the team and facilitating connections, instead of leading it from the top down in the traditional hierarchical fashion.

The visioning competency then becomes one of not only imagining what is possible, but engaging the distributed team in iteratively examining its vision and adjusting it based on new information that is flowing into the team from the increasing broad external network. This approach was used by a Fortune 500 consumer products company when faced with the need to sustain organizational culture while forming global product development teams (Milhauser, 2011b). The organization found that it could reinforce the underlying corporate culture by bringing individuals together in face-to-face workshops to document diverse processes and develop a shared vision for future team interaction. Using culturally sensitive approaches to form a team vision collaboratively is an example Ancona and Bresman's (2007) inventing phase.

While this distributed team model should not be considered a panacea for producing globally distributed team performance, it does provide a direction for the distributed project team manager in facing the challenges that are still relatively new in an area where we are all just beginning to learn as a global society. Following a model such as this one, while remaining grounded and engaged in the research that supports it, has the potential to aid distributed project team managers in the development of new competencies to meet increasing demands on their role. Continued research, learning, and discovery will be critical to the distributed project team manager and the societies engaged in the increasing distribution of organizational work.


Over 40 years ago, Gordon Moore (1965) predicted a doubling in computer power every two years, a forecast that we have seen play out in the history of technology expansion. But what we may not have seen coming is how this law is extending beyond computer processing speed and is transforming societies and human interaction at an exponential rate as well. Changes in the economic, legal, political, and cultural landscapes of work (Thomas, 2008), resulting in increasing geographic distribution of workers and all of the inherent complexities therein, are still relatively new in the history of organizations. As such, these challenges with cultural understanding, cooperation and collaboration are just beginning to enter our consciousness as we look forward at how globalization and distribution will affect the workplace of tomorrow. The accelerated pace of globalization in recent decades would indicate that the trends we are experiencing and just now beginning to understand the significance of are going to continue and even increase in pace. Organizations that hope to remain competitive as the world continues to flatten and shrink by Friedman's (2007) definition will need to focus on competencies for leadership and management of the individuals they assimilate to form their distributed teams.


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© 2012, Kathy L. Milhauser
Published as a part of the 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings — Vancouver, BC



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