Creating at warp speed

Case Study Goal

Our case study is an international project based on a pilot to establish a new marketing and sales program for a software firm and two distributor firms, with offices in the United States and New Zealand. Because the team was in remote locations, our focus was to develop clear, creative, and fast planning and decision-making systems among the three major firms in two countries and three time zones. We choose to use MindManager®, a web-based, collaborative and graphically rich tool to enable us to establish clear communication and buy-in to plans.

Current Situation at Publication

When we submitted the abstract for this paper, we did not know the deadline was April 13, 2002. Currently, our project is still in the beginning stages and will not be complete before July 2002. Given the time frame, in this paper we will posit what we are attempting to explore and what we expect our achievements will be. We will provide the full results at the PMI Conference in October 2003, including copies of the resulting paper/presentation to attendees.

Situation at Outset

In these times where travel budgets are diminished or eliminated altogether, virtual projects teams have the added pressure of trying to “do more with less.” Because this project is a joint venture that is work in addition to the core businesses of the three firms, we are exploring possible ways to achieve more with out working longer hours. We offer ourselves as the experiment in trying to find a viable process for “working faster and smarter, not harder.”

In the pre-digital era, members of traditional project teams worked, or at least met, in one physical location. In contrast, members of virtual project teams can be geographically located anywhere in the world. They may never physically meet. Like many global project teams, we had some members who had never met each other, and each had their own cultural assumptions for how projects are planned and executed. Although all were fluent in English, members were from two different continents and we were originally concerned about interpretations of our “common” language. Also, our project participants came to the team with varied approaches and experiences in Project Management—two experts and the others with no formal background or training.

Initial Premise

Much research has shown that teams produce better and faster results when there is a personal relationship or trust established between the members. Virtual teams take longer to establish those kinds of relationships and often they never do. We chose to address this partially by experimenting with an innovative technology that supported more effective interpersonal communications and creative project development in a rapid planning and response environment.

Most of the people in the software firm were in the sales and marketing department or were vendors who had worked with the marketing people previously. One is a software and web programmer. We speculated that the MindManager® software, with its combination of information-rich pictures and the interactive nature of the technology, would be a critical factor that enabled the team to successfully collaborate in a sales and marketing environment, where people expect exiting work for motivation and are not generally inclined to detailed task management.

Phase One

We used the Mind Mapping® process in MindManager® to establish relationships and clarify our initial approach by working together on the same project Mind Map® online simultaneously.

What is Mind Mapping®?

Mind Mapping® is a creative brainstorming process developed by Tony Buzan more than 20 years ago and was revolutionary at the time. It uses research done on the brain to help people process information more effectively. Scientists now know that the brain's left hemisphere processes information using linear, logical, analytic, quantitative, rational, and verbal methods, while the right brain does so in nonlinear, conceptual, holistic, intuitive, imaginative and nonverbal ways.

Research has shown that memory retention and creative thinking are enhanced when information is presented in a way that appeals to both sides of the brain. While traditional text-based methods do so for the left side of the brain, the right brain responds better to the use of hierarchical structures, spatial orientation, symbols and color.

MindManager software, like the pen-and-paper technique that preceded it, is based on more than 40 years of research into the way the brain best receives and processes information. By presenting information in a way that appeals to both sides of the brain, Mind-Manager's® visual mapping interface enables users to create and communicate ideas and information using a kind of “visual shorthand.” The technology combines aspects of developing colorful, visual project maps with branches and sub-branches to clarify major and minor tasks.

Phase One Results

To date, we have used the software to clarify our own thoughts as a first cut and share them with others. We were able to see how the three main players were initially conceptualizing the project. Like most project teams, we found that in isolation each of us had concentrated on the areas of expertise that each of us had or the areas that impacted us the most. When we came together, we each had a better understanding of what had been in the other's minds so we could develop a more full perspective. We created out first collaborative map online and were able to ask each other about how other people's individual ideas fit into the larger group picture.

The software has allowed us to create linkages between any of the ideas on our Map and hyperlinks those ideas to any website that may have relevance or background information. Symbols and communications icons accelerated an understanding of the processes and helped us to develop a common project language.

This technology platform enabled the team to collaboratively construct an initial brainstormed map of project objectives and begin developing detailed requirements online through accessing a common server. The use of icons and pictures assisted in improving creativity and generating excitement. The technology is allowing the project team to weave together project scope exploration and definition while simultaneously defining the project process and execution of tasks phase by phase.

So far we have found that the MindManager® tool can lead to group consensus more quickly. In addition to allowing simultaneous work sessions, it can act like a project team's virtual whiteboard by allowing the group to set up an ongoing project conference map that allows all registered team members access any time from any where in the world to make changes. This feature is particularly useful for global teams in different time zones as it supports an ongoing, constantly updated map to exist.

We have been able to export our colorful and creative initial scoping map into Microsoft Project. This made it developing a plan easier and faster by avoiding any data entry other than our original brainstorm. It also allowed the marketing people to more easily see the connections between the exciting ideas and the detailed tasks that need to be accomplished. The VP of Marketing Strategy exported the scope map into PowerPoint to give a presentation to other senior managers at the software company to keep them informed about project progress.

The Current Challenge

Managing all the information is a challenge. Project teams have become increasing dependent upon increasingly complex IT and telecommunication systems in order to access and send project information. We no longer marvel at the ease with which we can instantly send and receive, transfer and broadcast information—to anyone, anywhere, at anytime. This communications capability has become a baseline expectation. But project participants swamped with email and other forms of project information overload are questioning the degree to which most of the current technology makes communication more effective.

International virtual project teams, like this one, typically face the challenges of bridging different time zones, languages (even English has many versions), geopolitical boundaries and cultures. Frequently teams do not even know they have different assumptions until they experience problems. At that point it slows down the project to address them. We are taking, what we hope is, a more proactive approach to developing a virtual team while accelerating project momentum.

We have developed the basic policies of the new sales program and created special web pages for the pilot distributors where purchasers can automatically receive the new discount. We have established a commission structure based on certain sales expectations and with alternate commissions if the sales goals are not met. All of this has gone through initial implementation. We are now in the process of developing a marketing strategy for the distributors that is consistent in both countries.

While using this technology, the team is challenging the norms of typical project communication, especially the use of email and traditional text formats. We are attempting to accelerate the communication process across the seven time zones. Our challenge is to maintain clear communication and buy-in while keeping the planning and execution process on track at “warp speed.”

Anticipated Results

We hope to achieve:

•  Faster time from concept to execution

•  A leap in creativity and productivity

•  Better working rapport without meeting in person

•  Common understanding from stakeholders from different functions and companies

•  Lessons learned for other project managers.

We imagine that this case study of an international virtual project team will experience an extraordinary leap in creativity and productivity with adopting this innovative web enabled, graphically rich, visually based communications platform. We will explore how innovative technology supports, hinders—and even challenges— proven and accepted project management planning and controlling practices.

We want to addresses issues of how the technology changes the way virtual teams can creatively collaborate, give and receive feedback, develop relationships, reflect on project processes and capture and communicate lessons as they are learned. Our presentation will identify issues and opportunities that other project participants might face when adopting this innovative technology or dealing with virtual teams.

This paper is relevant to many project managers, across a range of industry sectors, because constant technological advances in IT and telecommunications are enabling virtual project teams to rapidly replace the traditional co-located project team.

We are sure the adoption of such technology will not be without misunderstandings and pitfalls. The case study team will reflect upon the challenges it faced and share advice with other project teams that wish to adopt this innovative technology. This presentation will provide insight into how an innovative technology can directly influence the pace at which creative project ideas can be generated, captured, enhanced and communicated. We will show how an innovative approach can accelerate the pace at which these ideas can be refined, structured and converted into action.

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 or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars • Symposium
October 3–10, 2002 · San Antonio, Texas, USA

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