Monday, September 10, 2012

How To Design Virtual Teamwork In A Big Organization

Loneliness is a frequent feature of employees in big companies (sometimes, they don't know their colleagues outstide their own floor); it seems to be a problem of efficient communication and management in spite of advanced technology of information transmission.   F2F is not always possible at least at a sufficient periodicity especially when the workplaces are geographically scattered. Thus how is it possible to create links among employees around a clear purpose and induce collaboration work and information sharing?

We have many frontiers to conquer yet in the nuances of a truly integrated, company-wide teamwork. I do not mean technology frontiers, I am referring to human frontiers.

The ability to communicate and network company wide has been around since the advent of email. The more sophisticated aspects of it, such as pooling thoughts and ideas, social networking to innovate and similar advances encounter the organization chart, politics, paranoia regarding career progression and policy and control freaks with outmoded human foibles.

It is an advanced enterprise indeed that springs into the next great leap in teamwork and conquers the above frontiers. I have some clients who have, or are doing so. It is a pleasure to observe their successes.
Communication or community don't start with tools or technologies. They start with questions or ideas that are exciting to share, with visible opportunities for mutual aid, with models of light hearted, lively, but mostly mission relevant sharing.

I'd start with the simplest networking tool (which could even be an old fashioned e-mail list), but with the requirement that each message have one of four possible tags. These are the four I might use. You may chose others.

SUCCESS - We made it work, and want to tell you about it

IDEA - We're thinking of, imagining. But is this the best idea since sliced bread, or are we up our rocker?

HELP - We've hit a wall -- perhaps a tiny one, but need help with this question.

WATER COOLER - Personal sharing, but NOT inappropriate (e.g. Jamie completed his first marathon and came in 12th of 183, Mary Jone's house is now completely off the grid)  
Matrix-like are the type of organization human groups will coalesce into unless forced to adopt a more efficient model. Tribes are matrices, their armies are not. Matrices imply interdependencies among the people in the group are not far from homogeneity, and the different roles and responsibilities are equally valued.  A matrix won’t emerge by itself in a business organization because of
(1) the huge differences in rewards and responsibilities amongst its employees;
(2) because there’s a structured decision making process and finally
(3) because there’s a need-to-know communication paradigm.

To build matrix subsets within one hierarchical company, there must be operating rules to restore interdependency homogeneity and level the relative value of roles & responsibilities, awards and rewards, and such rules should be defined and enforced using an Operating Contract.

The Operating Contract establishes collective objectives, individual roles and responsibilities, performance goals and metrics, and often information flow and decision making processes, clearly violating the hierarchical nature of business organizations (as in 1, 2 and 3 above). It also creates the matrix boundaries by identifying external customers, stakeholders, approvers, influencers, and general audience. This is fundamental to determine there’s “us” - nodes of the matrix, as opposed to “them” - outside of it.

Create a good Operating Contract, and keep it running effectively:

i) Talk to most of the team every day. Use a daily 15min “good morning project X” as an opportunity to gauge how effective the Operating Contract is, as well as to spot potential issues and conflicts. Challenge the team to declare what was yesterday’s most important accomplishment, how it moves you toward your objective, and what is the one challenge you're going to close today.

ii) Run the one-over-ones at the same rhythm as the team reports out progress. If the team is reporting progress every week, make sure 1x1s are also weekly. Remember the R&Rs are equally valuable, so individuals must voice their issues and concerns, their realizations, at the same pace as the overall team.

iii) Face-to-face (F2F):  if there are no limitations on using webcams or video conferences, use them often. If there are, organize off-hours virtual parties. Invite people to play games online, or just chat, share their hobbies, bridge cultural gaps by discussing food and recipes, clothing, social conventions, and general interests. Keep them mobilized, you want everybody working probably 40 hours per week, but you can have them thinking creatively for another 40.

iv) Dynamically make changes to resolve conflicts and address issues and concerns. If you go trekking with friends, you can’t expect to move faster than your slower mate. Reassign experts tasked with producing quick responses, and reassign adrenaline addicts from tasks requiring complex analysis. Get answers from the fast movers, and questions from the slow movers.

v) Get people from other fields and areas to talk to your team.  For example, invite product development to talk about how people use your products, people from marketing to talk about your brand. HR, Quality, Finance… this helps creating a sense of belonging to a larger group and building the bigger picture.

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