One of my favorite cartoons shows three people standing closely together around a speakerphone. Instead of talking into the telephone, each of the three is making a humorous, yet nasty, face directed to the person(s) at the other end of the speakerphone conversation. The caption under the cartoon reads something like this, “They really are doing what you think they're doing at the other end of the speakerphone conference call!”
Have you ever found yourself wondering if, at the other end of your phone conversation, people on your project team are making similar faces at you? —or each other? If so, you're not alone! As adults in a one-site meeting, people would be reluctant to make such faces. When adults are out of our immediate vision, however, why is it nearly all of us have felt the very real fear the cartoon addressed? Or something even worse!
A DRAMATIC PARADIGM SHIFT IN GROUPWORK
In the last few years, there has been a dramatic shift in groups that forces more and more project leaders and teams into communicating across distance, as in the story just described. Co-located teams are only a faint memory for many leaders in today's competitive project-centered environment.
In increasing numbers, project leaders are faced with leading a project split into multiple locations. Whether some of the team members are on a different floor or half way around the world, communication changes. Once familiar smiles and greetings by the coffeepot each day are now replaced with communication across the blindness of distance through a phone call or an E-mail message.
Project leaders know that communication across distance is different than face-to-face. As a result of this change, many are trying to decide if distributed teams are an effective option. Can distributed project teams ever compare favorably to one-site groups?
This article looks at the paradigm shift from the traditional Second Millennium (one-site) group into the global Third Millennium (multi-site) group. Then it suggests the more effective alternative to serve a global marketplace.
Second Millennium Groups
Second Millennium groups are the kind most of us know best. In them, people work at one site, do one function, for one leader, in one company. In most of them the leader is also the boss of everyone in the group.
Second Millennium groups were the mainstay in the Industrial Age. Not only did they make a tangible, physical product, they also performed that work in the physical presence of each other. On a daily basis, physical co-location let the leader and group see each other, monitor the work, and interact with one another. It was an effective way for the leader and the group to build on their tangible successes and quickly respond to tangible problems. Second Millennium groupwork was comfortable for the leader and the group.
In the Industrial Age, Second Millennium groups fit in a nice, neat little box that defined how work got done in the hierarchy (Figure 1). No matter if the people worked in accounting, marketing, R&D, or manufacturing, in the Industrial Age, one style of group fit all departments. They were in sync with the pace of business in those days, and this type of group worked well—at least for the marketplace back then.
In the Information Age, however, Second Millennium groups quickly became too slow, remote, and unresponsive for the fast-paced, highly competitive global marketplace. Although they still exist today, they are a dying breed. As business becomes even more global, Second Millennium groups will be something people read about as an exception, not the rule.
Third Millennium Groups
Third Millennium groups are teams without walls where the world itself is the office, and anyone in the office can become a partner. They connect people on a project from anywhere in the world, for as long as needed to get the task done.
Third Millennium groups more like a Rubik's Cube™ than a neat little Second Millennium box. Aided by technology and the need to be more flexible, Third Millennium groups have a different look depending on the company, the project, and the marketplace. Third Millennium groups are built across several matrices, including some not shown in Figure 2.
On one matrix is the number of sites. Third Millennium groups are not constrained by location. Instead, they can include people from one site, several sites, and even several companies. They can include distant people in one company, such as people from same or different functions across many locations that collaborate together on a project. Or they can include strategic partners, joint venture partners, and other external vendors.
Figure 1. A Second Millennium Group
Figure 2. A Third Millennium Group
Another matrix includes the reporting structure. Some Third Millennium groups report to one boss who also functions as the leader. More commonly on project teams, however, each project team member will have dotted-line relationship with the team leader, but a solid-line reporting relationship to a different boss in his/her functional area, business unit, or local site.
The third matrix on the diagram looks at communication. Whereas Second Millennium groups typically communicate at the same time and same site, communication in Third Millennium groups is not constrained by time or place. Although some Third Millennium groups may meet occasionally in one location, their work is done mostly from distant locations. As a result, people in Third Millennium groups tend to use technologies (such as audio teleconferencing, E-mail, and voice mail) as the primary vehicle to communicate with one another.
CAUGHT IN THE SECOND MILLENNIUM TRAP
In the Information Age, people remote from one another can exchange knowledge at the speed of light through technology. Moving information instead of people, however, challenges the very notion of the physical co-location of people to do work—something that has always been a central part of how we operate as a society. Without the physical presence, many distributed work groups have a difficult time seeing themselves as a team, acting as a team, or even sharing a common purpose or goal.
The other day I heard a project leader lamenting, “If my people were all under one roof, we could be more effective. We would have more synergy. We would be more productive. We wouldn't have the frustration of trying to communicate effectively across long distances. It's really difficult to work with others across distance. Because I'm under such pressure for high performance, I am uncomfortable trusting people that work out of my view.”
That leader wanted to lead a Second Millennium group. He was more comfortable leading people he could see than trusting those he couldn't. He had experienced a synergy with co-located teams he had not been able to create with his distributed one. He felt more power to get the job done in a Second Millennium format than in a flexible, global one.
Like many other project leaders, the previously-described leader was caught in the Second Millennium trap. To leaders like him, leading across distance was less desirable, less effective, and less satisfying. In reality, however, Third Millennium groups are not something less. Instead, Third Millennium groups actually offer much more, if the leader and group learn new tools to bridge the distance and pull the team together. Trust does not require co-location, Instead, it only requires effective communication across distance.
GETTING INTO THE THIRD MILLENIUM
Let's face it. To be competitive today, a few key themes are clear:
- Be close to customers—not just by lip service, but by putting them on your product planning teams.
- Stay close to changes in local environments—worldwide.
- Have a strong presence in key markets—worldwide.
- Create products and services that customers tell you they want (not just those that you want to create for them).
- Put service close to the point of sale—for immediate responsiveness.
- Outsource work to a few well-selected suppliers or vendors.
None of the items on the list can be done with a co-located group.
“But,” you say, “my company downsized. Now I'm stuck making these distant locations work together. We're distributed not to serve customers. Instead, we're split because the company no longer has the budget to move everyone to one location. Meanwhile, no one wants to share information across locations, collaborate across distance, or follow upon their commitments to people they have never met.”
To these, and all of the other buts people raise about distributed teams, here is a key message project leaders need to know. Distributed teams can be as effective, satisfying, and synergistic as one-site teams. Trust can flourish-if Third Millennium leaders and teams communicate effectively across distance.
The bottom line to high performance across distance is not just creating effective task communication, which distributed teams tend to do much better than co-located teams. The area that needs the most attention is in creating a feeling of rapport and unity across distance—especially through technologies. These are new techniques that project leaders who are experiencing difficulty across distance have not yet learned.
Lastly, the research is consistently supportive that technology has many positive impacts on groups. For example, several studies show that video teleconferenced meetings are shorter, more productive, and more organized than one-site meetings. Other studies show that people can effectively use E-mail and voice mail to exchange information, make decisions, take action, and “meet” with one another in a non-interactive way. Electronic meeting systems, now available in distributed mode, get extremely high marks in improving decision making, generating ideas, and reaching consensus.
So, if technology seems to inhibit the effectiveness of your group, the real problem maybe that the team needs to learn how to use these tools more proficiently. Communicating across distance takes new, higher-level, compressed communication techniques. Teaming across distance takes new techniques that let the team build trust. And leadership across distance takes the most dramatic changes of all, because the media tends to mediate (minimize) the impact of the leader. Without new skills, the remote leader will lose power across distance.
WHO'S REMOTE, ANYWAY?
This shift from the Second to the Third Millennium has a profound impact on how people work together, how they communicate, and how they build trust with one another. In addition, this shift has an equally impacting effect on how project leaders get top performance with people so far away.
Which type of group is most effective in a global marketplace? Although the co-located team still has value, the Third Millennium group adds even greater value in the global marketplace. Distributed groups are not something less than co-located groups. They are something more, offering more options as leaders and teams learn to create high performance across distance. Third Millennium groups, supported by technology, let the team access knowledge, people, and other resources at the point in time they are needed. They give work groups a new flexibility that meets the challenge and demands of the competitive environment in which we all work.
Let me leave you with these final words. In the Second Millennium, the remote locations were any offices away from headquarters. In the Third Millennium, where being close to customers is paramount, the remote site may now be headquarters, which traditionally has seen itself as the center of activity! In the global marketplace, headquarters (or the lead site) is just as remote as anyone else! That basic assumption alone will begin to change how your distributed team operates.
Your chief role as project leader is to create the people link that makes distributed teams work effectively. You'll be reading more about some of those techniques in future installments of this PM Tutorial series. ❏
Jaclyn Kostner is president and founder of Bridge the Distance, International, a consulting and training firm headquartered in Englewood, Colorado. Her firm specializes in distributed work groups, distributed communication (interpersonal and through technology), and remote leadership. She is also the author of Knights of the Tele-Round Table: 3rd Millennium Leadership (Denver: Excalibur Publishing. ISBN: 1-884040-01-2), which has been at the top of the Denver area best-seller list for hardback business books since its release in November 1993.