A baker's dozen

 
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Virtual teams are a fact of modern project life, but it takes some extra effort for them to work.

BY BUD BAKER, Ph.D., CONTRIBUTING EDITOR

 

In the interest of full disclosure, T admit to coming from an old school position. I used to go to extremes to maintain personal contact with my project team. Routinely leaving Dayton, Ohio, USA, at 7 a.m., I could reach our California aircraft factory in time for lunch. Afternoon meetings left time to catch the red-eye and be back t my Wright Patterson Air Force Base office the next morning. Feasible, yes. Smart? Now I'm not so sure.

What has me doubting my faith in face-to-face relationships is the dramatic rise in what I'll call distance project management. The ubiquity of e-mail, sophisticated collaborative software products and lifelike video teleconferencing is enabling teams to operate with great effectiveness across boundaries of time and space.

To see to what extent the rules have changed, T polled a scientifically selected cross-section of project managers—that is, all the project managers in my address book. I've compiled, compressed, combined and hopefully clarified their views. Drawing on the tradition of a baker's dozen—the custom of adding an extra roll as a safeguard against the possibility of 12 weighing light—what follows are 13 observations on the need for, and the nature of, distance project management.

1. Demographic changes are making distance project management a practical necessity. Specialized talent tends to cluster in particular places, and organizations that want access to that talent have to be willing to use virtual teams. The growth of two-career families, along with changing attitudes toward work/life balance, also increases the need.

2. Economic factors are another driving force. Access to highly capable but less expensive workforces through outsourcing or offshoring increases the financial incentive to use distance project management.

3. Sometimes the nature of the projects drives the choice, with IT efforts leading the way. One big reason: IT people, obviously, deal well with computer resources, and are thus adept at working virtually.

4. And those IT projects are usually global in nature. That means collocation with the clients’ offices matters as much or more than collocation of the project team.

5. There are some drawbacks to virtual teams. Physical presence is not always mandatory, but it is usually better. We often underestimate the benefits of just being together, along with the informal communication that takes place in break rooms and on the trek in from the parking lot.

6. The feasibility of distance project management varies. Administrative tasks can be done remotely, while those involving leadership demand physical presence.

7. Troubled projects are not candidates for distance project management. A project in distress needs strong personal leadership—with a project manager clearly and visibly at the helm.

8. Virtual works better on projects for internal customers, who typically have a greater understanding of established processes. External customers often need and demand a visible on-site project management presence.

9. Always a concern, communication challenges are even more formidable with distance project management. To succeed, you need strong project managers with exceptional communication skills.

10. Some face-to-face meetings remain absolutely mandatory. This is especially true for project kickoff meetings, but also at major milestones and at project closure.

11. Age matters. From China to Canada, younger people grew up communicating through text and instant messaging, so long-distance interaction feels normal to them.

12. Processes must be put in place to ensure whole offices aren't left in the dark on important matters. Common culprits include time zone differences, language issues or even technology glitches that leave some sites online while others fall off.

13. Distance project management is a reality. It is here now, and it is here to stay. The task now is to get on with making it successful. PM

A Today's technology allows teams to operate effectively across boundaries of time and space.

 

Bud Baker, Ph.D., is a professor of management and leader of the project management MBA at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, USA.

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PM NETWORK | DECEMBER 2007 | WWW.PMI.ORG

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