Project Management Institute

Virtual reality

Best of Congress Papers



The article is based on material in the white paper “E-Leadership of Virtual Project Teams,” presented by Kenneth Fung, PMP, at PMI's 2005 Global Congress—North America, held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

TAPPING INTO TECHNOLOGY such as intranets, blogs, videocon-ferencing and instant messaging, teams are collaborating across time zones, organizations and cultures. Many enterprises still treat teams operating in virtual settings the same old way, though.

“Most project managers are trained using the traditional management style, which is very directive,” says Kenneth Fung, PMP, continuing education team leader at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Instead, he says, they should adopt a more collaborative style, because virtual teams tend to show higher levels of autonomy and self-motivation.

Less is More

“Project managers doing virtual projects must look at the big picture and not micromanage,” Mr. Fung says. “A leader is there to ensure standards are met and only intervenes when there is a problem, like noncompliance of standards.” Once a deliverable due date is agreed upon, “the project manager shouldn't pester the team member daily with e-mails,” he says.

Project leaders should start by opening a dialogue with each team member to learn more about what motivates them and their communication preferences.

“Studies indicate that people are more satisfied when you leave them alone to do the work,” Mr. Fung says. He cites a 2004 Academy of Management Journal report that looked at 35 virtual teams working at a high-tech organization. The researchers found that team empowerment was positively related to process improvement and customer satisfaction.

“But, as a team leader, you have to make sure you are available all the time and respond in a form that is comfortable to the team member,” he says. For example, team members in North American might be very individualistic, while those in China may tend to be more group-oriented.

Project managers also should pay attention to the technology they use. When virtual team members have never met face-to-face, e-mail can seem remote, so project managers initially should rely on richer media. “But as you develop trust between your project team members, you don't have to see them,” Mr. Fung says. “Text conferencing, for example, then becomes good enough.”

Whatever format is chosen, project leaders must ensure each team member has “clear goals and objectives,” he says. The hallmark of collaborative leadership is recognizing what each team member brings to the table.

Ready for Takeoff

Boeing's Rocketdyne unit (now Pratt Whitney-Rocketdyne), a major U.S. manufacturer of liquid-fueled rocket engines, is often held up as a classic example of effective virtual project team management.

Back in 1995, though, the group defied the general wisdom of the day. For starters, it opted to forgo videoconferencing in favor of simple teleconferencing and live online work sessions where ideas were easily shared.

“This was simultaneous engineering at its best. It was almost like one person was doing it,” says Robert Carman, program manager. He currently is principal at Carman & Associates, a management consultancy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., USA.

The goal was to design a new rocket engine with fewer parts—one that could be manufactured at 100 times less cost, produced 10 times faster and boast a longer product life cycle. The team drew on the expertise of Rocketdyne, defense firm Texas Instruments (now Raytheon) and software developer MacNeal-Schwendler (now MSC Software).

Leadership That Steps Aside

“For the program manager, leadership really means getting the right people working on the right problem and then removing all their barriers,” Mr. Carman says.

Leaders should start by gaining a complete understanding of the project or program's objectives and then determine the essential skills to meet those goals. “After that, everything else became subservient,” he says.

Mr. Carman faced some tough recruiting calls. He needed someone who understood mass production and low cost, for example, so an engineer from Texas Instruments with that expertise was recruited over a Rocketdyne employee who only knew rocket engines. “We picked the best in the world for the specific things we needed to be successful,” Mr. Carman says. The high caliber of each team member also ensured a good working relationship. “They had an enormous amount of trust going into the project,” he says.

After 18 months of extensive negotiation among the firms to determine project parameters, the team was left with 42 weeks to devise plans for a prototype model. Adding to the pressure, because of primary work commitments, no team member spent more than 15 percent of his or her time on the project.




Who Needs Rules?

Right from the start, standard procedures and processes of individual organizations were tossed aside, replaced by what team members regarded as their own best practices. “The team adopted rules by their necessity and only when everyone agreed,” Mr. Carman says. When the team disagreed over design engineering margins and safety factors, he resolved the debate through dialogue with potential customers and executive management.

Mr. Carman originally had assigned one of the engineers to serve as the project's technical leader but after about two months, that person's role was reduced to initiating meetings and performing process checks. “Team members found their own roles. You bring them onto the team but you can't tell them their role,” he says. “Align the standards of the virtual team to where you want to go.”

The team of eight engineers and analysts were all U.S.-based but distributed over two time zones and more than 1,000 miles—and a key casting supplier was 2,500 miles away.

Despite the distance, there were only three face-to-face meetings, including a two-day kickoff session attended by six of the team members. “It was very intense,” Mr. Carman says. “Any additional trust that needed to be there was built. It included a training session for the collaborative environment and development of the process methodology. We thoroughly reviewed the stakeholder expectations, had a detailed discussion of each individual's expectations and had social time together.”

A second brainstorming meeting with five team members was held at a critical point in the design evolution. In retrospect, however, it probably wasn't necessary. “The online work sessions went so well and brainstorming was totally feasible virtually,” he says.




At the end of the project, all eight members met to share lessons learned.

Teleconferences that included live online swapping of ideas and project designs proved the most productive. Typically held more than twice per week, these sessions allowed the team to simultaneously generate and discard ideas. “The virtual meetings were every bit as successful as a live session but weren't traditional meetings, rather actual work sessions,” Mr. Carman says. “These sessions produced the rapid generation and discarding of ideas.”


Team leaders of virtual teams need to take a hands-off approach, says Kenneth Fung, PMP, of the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He provides these tips:

>  Trust is developed through guidance, not by micromanaging.

>  Be highly responsive. Immediately acknowledge that you've received the team member's phone call or e-mail and let them know when they can expect an answer from you.

>  Be sensitive to cultural differences among team members.

>  English is the language of choice for many virtual teams. It's not everyone's native language, however, so limit overall vocabulary and project terminology to simple terms.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, though. The team faced a host of technical issues involving remote file access and swapping and the interoperability of computer programs—making it necessary to have a full-time IT specialist on hand and special software developed. Even e-mail could be a problem at a time when the Internet was just getting started.

Of course, e-mail is now de rigueur and newfangled tools such as blogs offer increased opportunities for collaboration. In the 10 years since the Rocketdyne project, inter-organizational virtual teams have “gone from highly exceptional to more commonplace,” Mr. Carman says.

Spanning the Globe

These days, more virtual teams are reaching across borders, with workers from India collaborating with those in Brazil. Those cross-cultural efforts can sometimes lead to communications glitches, however.

“You have to build trust right away and never communicate emotions through e-mail, as elements such as cultural barriers and individual perceptions can distort the message for the receiver,” says John Spence, program manager of applications technologies, Communications Research Centre Canada (CRC), Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Duties for each team member should be outlined at the start of a project to avoid miscommunication, says Martin Brooks, Ph.D., project manager of the broadband visual communication research program, National Research Council (NRC) Institute for Information Technology, also in Ottawa. “It has to be very clear what each team member's responsibilities are. “The worst thing that can happen is to assume someone else is going to do something and then nothing is done.”

The CRC and NRC are working to advance the technology available to virtual global teams. For example, Dr. Brooks and Mr. Spence recently combined efforts with Carleton University, Ottawa, to create an advanced software and technology application. The tool allows architects, planners and designers around the world to simultaneously work on building design and city infrastructure, or to modify 3-D drawings in real time. “You must have interdependence among these groups for online collaboration to work virtually,” Dr. Brooks says. PM

Marcia Jedd is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based supply chain and business writer.

For the latest in Project Management Institute (PMI) news and project management information, visit PMI's Web site at

For the latest in Project Management Institute (PMI) news and project management information, visit PMI's Web site at

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