Teams and Technology
Copyright 1996 AXIS Performance Advisors, Inc.
Teams and Technology
Courtesy Gualberto107, Freedigitalphotos.net
Technology is going to change how all of us work. The trick is how to use technology to make our lives better, not more crazy. E-mail, pagers, personal communication devices, cell phones, faxes and other emerging technologies can all be used to help us or to hurt us. I watch people on airlines calling the office and hooking up to work with their modems and wonder when they ever have a chance to reflect. Personally, I don’t want to become a cyber-slave. In this issue of our Axis Advisory, we’ll explore the impact that technology will have on teams and how we support them.
“Virtual” Teams—Real Challenges
Just when you thought you understood all the types of teams organizations
spawn committees, project teams, quality improvement teams, self-directed
teams there’s another buzzword: virtual teams.
Virtual teams are teams of the mind: they may not work together (i.e.,
co-located), and they may not stay together long. They may not even work
for the same organization. They are made possible by technology and driven
by a global economy.
Think about what this means. When we work with teams, we usually assume
that they will work together for an extended period of time. But virtual
teams raise these issues:
- Do you ever get through Form-Storm-Norm-Perform? Getting to high-performance
takes time. Does that mean rapidly forming teams never get out of the Storming
phase (or perhaps even into it)?
- Does it make sense to take a few days to establish a team mission,
charter, and ground rules when the team will disband in a month?
- According to an MIT study, proximity is a major determinant of how
much communication goes on. So if team members are not close together,
how hard will it be to establish an intimate understanding of who everyone
is their strengths, interests, quirks?
- If team members are scattered across the globe, there isn’t even a
time when you can all conveniently talk, for someone will be up in the
middle of their night. And cultural challenges intervene. How do you handle
conflict when some team members’ culture has taught them to address the
person directly and other team members have been taught to deal indirectly?
- It’s hard enough in a meeting to keep track of who hasn’t participated.
Now imagine a teleconference. How do you know who hasn’t spoken?
- What about our social needs? In the United States where many people
spend most of their waking hours at work, don’t know their neighbors well,
and have moved far from their ancestral roots, our organization is our
community. But if we form and reform, how do we maintain our connections?
If you’ve ever been on a high-performing team, you know how painful it
is to break it up.Phew! What’s a team leader to do?No one knows for sure. But answers are beginning to emerge. We’ll give
you some tips.
Tips for Virtual Teams
Here are some principles that should help you if you need to implement
a virtual team.
Design and prepare your teams carefully:
- Decide if you really need the power of a team. A team has shared goals,
interdependence, and a shared work product. If people are not co-located,
it may be easier to define clearly separate roles. Think sub-assembly:
discrete components that can be easily combined. Only create a virtual
team if you need the creativity or pooled knowledge they provide.
- Get smart about the types of people you’ll need. This is not the time
to have honorary positions, extra people whose talents are not integral
to the project. They’ll only get in the way.
- Let people self-organize around a project or need. Teams usually overcome
lots of problems if they have a clear, business focus. Don’t form a team
just to have a team.
- Give the team a clear purpose and survival focus. Make sure the team
knows exactly what it must accomplish what success looks like. The
“survival focus” implies a sense of urgency. Have near-term deadlines.
- Provide a survival focus. Don’t guarantee a customer. If the customer
can go elsewhere, the teams will stay focused. This is especially important
for internal staff groups who may feel as if they have a captive set of
- Establish a standard, proven process to launch new teams, tailored
to the degree of interdependency. Taking time to write a mission statement
may not be valued-added as long as the purpose is clear. Creating clear
measures may be more important. Be sure to include technology-related ground
rules (e.g. “Check e-mail daily,” and “We will not resolve
conflicts electronically.”) Agree on what important words mean.
- If the members will be geographically dispersed, give them time to
develop a relationship first. It’s easier to maintain a relationship electronically
than to establish a relationship electronically.
Make sure your systems support interaction:
- If team members are at least on the same campus, redesign your physical
space to promote serendipitous encounters. Encourage people to take stairs
(since we don’t talk on elevators), put white board where people tend to
congregate. Have a cafeteria that draws people from different parts of
a corporate campus.
- Hold the team jointly accountable for results. Each member must feel
responsible for the whole project, not just their little part.
- Orchestrate cross-team learning. Create events for teams to learn from
one another and to build common methods.
- Make all information available to all. Virtual teams need virtual information.
Use LAN’s, groupware, shared databases, etc.
- Build a culture of trust, openness, and honoring commitments. Hoarding
information must become a career-limiting behavior.
- Use e-mail, groupware and other emerging technologies to maintain relationships
as well as to communicate task-related information.
Help people honor their past together and prepare to move forward into
- Make sure everyone wins. If everyone leaves a virtual team better able
to contribute to the next, these teams will be sustainable.
- Have an ending ceremony, celebration, or learning event. We have ceremonies
to mark marriage, birth, death, matriculation. These help us let go of
the past and move forward. Virtual teams need closure if the members are
- Facilitate ongoing relationships where appropriate. Feed our social
needs by building an enduring network.