Monday, March 2, 2009

Managed Spontaneity? - A leadership challenge


Can virtual team leaders create and manage something that is supposed to be spontaneous?

A few years back, I had the privilege of leading a high performance team that was located across the USA. The team desired to excel to even greater levels of achievement, so we completed a couple of team dynamic assessments. The results indicated that to reach the next level, we needed to improve our trust and communication. That sounded like a good idea, but we were already doing most of the traditional communication methods at that time.

We changed our focus. Was it possible to create and deploy something that by its very nature is spontaneous? Could a geographically dispersed team create a virtual hallway, coffee pot or copier? What did we need to do to allow our team to talk, joke and learn about each other virtually? The team questioned everything and we came up with ideas to create pre-WebEx meeting talk, short email codes to simulate good mornings and good nights, and ways to say thank you and recognitions that were as effective as being in person.

Have you been attempting this transformation? Have any particular techniques proved successful?

14 comments:

Alex Kersha said...

"John, Interesting topic, thank you for posting. My team employs Twitter for exactly this reason. We make a large effort to have people focus on jotting down their ideas, their "moments" and their moods. In the end, wew find that people staffed across the country often know more about what's going on with people than managers do locally. This has created a great peer group among colleagues and management has begun "tuning in" to this channel in an effort to capitalize on the increased communication. Cheers, Alex Kersha

Remi Cote said...

Hi John and others,

recently, I've used IRC to create this spontaneous communication between virtual team members. The result was incredible. People invented characters and made them alive on IRC.

I think something similar can be done with Twitter as Alex was saying. However, it is possible to keep IRC on a server that is behind a firewall so that IRC communication can remain private to your company. I haven't seen that being pĂ´ssible with Twitter.

My 0.02$
Remi Cote
(follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/remicote)

J Wong said...

I have seen people within my company use the IM (Instant Message) application as a way to spur on short impromptu conversations….we call them “hall way” conversations even though they are via IM. I guess if you can bring out some personality in your virtual hall way using icons or just short salutations (as you mentioned in your post) it helps to create a culture where spontaneity is welcomed. Another great feature the IM tool has is the “Start Instant Webex Meeting”. If you have a chat going and you need to perform a quick meeting to show someone what you’re working on it is as simple as one click, your transformed from IM to Webex instantly. I like to compare this to impromptu meetings, no OAs scheduling, no calander look up, just a quick tag up between you and who ever needs to be there. I also liked the Pre Meeting Polls that you use to set up which were just created to encourage conversation among the team and rarely to do with the actual meeting that was about to take place. It was a good use of the dead space (time before the meeting when people are just joining). You could often learn a lot about others from those polls.

Ron Davis said...

"John, In my opinion, I don't believe an excellent team can "over" communicate. It reminds me of when I was a Midshipman in the Naval ROTC Unit at VMI. During my firstclass cruise, every morning, we had to "muster" on the fantail of the ship. The "muster" was a forced communication session. We received our orders for the day and we were updated on projects and timelines. Perhaps we should "muster" our coworkers once a week for a conference call. Individually, we can impose a muster on ourselves and each morning, send a voicemail to our teams. Personally, during the evenings, I like to communicate with my coworkers via email. When we're on-line at the same time we use email like instant messages. I hope this helps and provides food for thought. Thanks, Rob"

Philip Johnson [LION] said...

"Sounds like Twitter or Yammer (a private, business email version of Twitter). Being able to communicate quickly ideas, reminders, suggestions, buy in, etc. that can later be collaborated in more detail through in person or virtual meetings. As much information as you can muster, while continuing to beat the value proposition that you want all to embody, can never get dull, just increasingly more exciting when you realize the power of communication. Especially with multi-state and gobal groups."

Kate Nasser said...

"Excellent and timely topic. Pre WebEx talk truly works because people already have something scheduled on their calendars. Post WebEx talk (extend the time of the conf. call) can be extremely valuable because creativity during the WebEx has longer feet if commented on immediately. Key info: If your current in-person culture doesn't focus on encouragement, appreciation, consideration, and creativity -- it's tough to BUILD it virtually. Not impossible -- just takes extra focus. You could use the "distance" as the reason/need for the extra focus. Thanks for posting this question John! Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach"

Paul Kelley said...

"John, According to Six Sigma specialists, poor team dynamics is the top reason why projects fail; so, you are spot on in your concern for facilitating this process. My first cut would be to use a Second Life as a medium for your team to socialize and interact. The solution would be cheap, easy, and (I hope) fun. Naturally, proprietary info would be off limits, but that is probably that is probably just as well."

John Bishop said...

Remi,

Do share more about IRC. This is the first I've held of this one.

John

Naomi Hirose-Gormally said...

"John, I worked with our intelligence customer to develop a "virtual team" (VT) to respond to his needs at twenty-six Reserve and National Guard sites throughout the US. The VT integrate and tests, deploys IT support systems, and front-end collection systems. The VT is required to work wherever the system(s) are being integrated (26 existing Reserve, National Guard, and future sites), coordinate installations, upgrades, system testing, troubleshooting problems in fielded operational systems, maintenance of equipment subsequent to installation, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and ensure newly deployed systems support the operational requirements. The team uses WebEx for Boeing training, telecom, IMing, and TV/video conferencing at the customer site. We get together physically twice a year at our Annapolis Junction, MD office. The VT has been operating since 2005. We have VT members currently and in the past deployed to Iraq--we keep in contact with through IMing--so they do not lose touch with everyone on the team."

Christoph Zimmermann said...

"Hello John, on my opinion you encapsulated the important point of teamwork. To get a good relationship it is necessary to talk / write about jokes, emotions and the ordinary words like: "thank you", "good morning", ... I toke part at two e-collaborative projects on my MBA program. The first project we started immediately with the project charge and the targets. It was for me an uncertain time to get a feeling about the situation. At the beginning of the second project we use the first time to speak about the team members and there personally targets at the project. It works great. We used skype, e-mail, and a collaboration platform for group discussions. Important especially at skype was, if somebody talks to write down via chat the ideas or comments you have. Like you're whispering to your neighbor. At Cirquent we use sharepoint and web-ex for e-collaboration. For my opinion it is necessary to create the right culture at the beginning of a project. Afterwards you can use every tool. Maybe it is necessary to take an eye on the safety because of confidential stuff on the work. Thanks for your great discussion point. Best Regards Christoph"

Simon Besteman said...

"Christoph is right to point out the importance of investing time and effort to make people who have never met and will probably never meet feel part of the same team. Especially, from the project's leader's point of view, time spent thanking people for their work, giving a virtual pat on the shoulder or explaining again what the common goal is is never wasted time. What I'd like to add is that a/ we adapt rapidly to new situations b/ not all virtual teams are the same. The first time you do this exercise it feels disorienting and you miss the reassuring body language, smiles and nods of folks sitting in the same room. Inexperienced people will need a lot more coaching and support from the project leader. But over a few weeks people do grow more relaxed and self-assured. One project I worked on recently had team members in Japan, on both US coasts, Europe and Australia. For every conference call one of us HAD to get up at 3 am to participate, and several others were either working late or starting very early. We soon got the habit of skipping the niceties and getting straight to the essentials to keep the call as short as possible. The "Thank you" and pat on the shoulder remain invaluable though!"

Rich McLaughlin said...

"John, assuming you can't get a team together on the front-end to have an intial live meeting, you face a challenge - with so much communication being non-verbal, how do we generate trust, candor and openness amongst this team? Somehow you need to figure out a way for them to share some personal information/"tell their story". You can start the process by sharing things about you, your hopes, strengths (interspersonal/team not technical) areas you need help, etc. then encourage others to do the same in a simple medium. (When I'm working with a team in a live setting I use a stroytelling exercises called Lifeline, which is always a big hit). It should be made clear that sharing this inof. is voluntary. Pictures should be sent as well so people can put a face with a voice. In general, anything that helps make a very impersonal process and medium more personal will help. Rich"

Wm Roeseler said...

"One of the most important parts of my job here in Advanced Concepts is networking with the best and brightest to explore future possibilities. Informal email exchanged prove to be absolutely essential in this work. Some of us complain about the daily barrage of 50 to 100 emails, but we simply need to get smarter about how much time we spend with each one. At least half can be dispatched in a matter of seconds, and another 25% in a matter of minutes. The important thing is to read all the important email daily and spend enough time with the good ones to get max value. Some of the best ideas come from unsolicited email. Care must be taken to be sensitive to the feelings of the "to" and "cc" people on each email. We must also be careful to protect IP and comply with all the ITAR, EAR, and other laws. Encryption is highly useful, but we must also be certain of the clearance and "need to know" of each of our people. I'm not talking about government clearance, as that has its own set of laws. I'm talking about the intricate "compartmentalized security" of our Proprietary information. Some of our top people have gone on record that Linkedin is not useful because it lacks adequate protections. I tend to disagree, as I think much of our exploratory work can be conducted "above the table." After we have made significant investment in an idea, it may no longer be a candidate for informal discussion here or in other insecure environments."

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