Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Top Ten Tools to Leading Virtual Teams

A virtual team is one that has members in different physical locations (e.g., buildings or countries) or working at different times (e.g., shifts). One of the major trends in business is to get work done, projects accomplished, or goals achieved via virtual teams. Yet studies have shown that only 18% of senior managers consider the performance of these teams as highly successful. (1) How successful is your virtual team?

There are a number of variables that affect team success. Here are the top ten tools research reveals can improve your virtual team's performance:

1. Balance or skew the numbers. In a study of 62 six-person teams, Josh Hyatt reported on how the number of team members at different locations affected overall virtual team performance. (2) Researchers found that having an equal number of team members at each location had the most positive effect. Having two different-sized subgroups triggered negative dynamics. The investigators explained that imbalance breeds instability, except when that imbalance is the most severe. Contrary to what was expected, they also discovered that including one member who was physically isolated from the rest of the team had a positive impact. So if you need to staff a virtual team with an unequal number of team members at various locations, this research advises you to consider placing only one person in the remote locations. It appears that having one individual isolated in one locale produces a positive "novelty effect."

2. Clearly define the scope. When teams are able to meet face-to-face on a regular basis, they're able to work out any ambiguities in the project. Meeting less often, as in the case of virtual teams, mandates that the scope of the project, the expected deliverables and the time frame be clear.

3. Create a core team. The optimal size of a virtual team is the one that has the requisite knowledge and skills to fulfill the team charter. But that can lead to a large, cumbersome team. One option is to create a core group of 10 or fewer team members. Then, if this core team needs additional knowledge or skills, they can choose to bring others in on an ad hoc basis. If the core team needs to be a large, consider breaking it into a subgroups, and assign specific aspects of the project to each sub team based on skills, not personality.

4. Choose an effective team leader. Effective virtual team leaders must be able to manage the organizational, cultural, and physical distance that separates team members, and creates communication barriers. Team leaders should also have credibility based on a proven leadership record, excellent conflict resolution skills, and project management skills.

5. Develop norms. Norms are the often-unwritten rules that dictate how team members behave. Ask the team to brainstorm areas where they need to create norms in order to complete the project successfully. For example, when I help teams create norms, the most common areas identified are communication, respect, trust, conflict, virtual meeting rules, decision-making process... Once you identify these "success factors," ask the team to brainstorm the answer to this question, "Imagine you're on the team that does... (fill in the blank with whatever success factor you're working on) very well, what would that look like, what behaviors would you see, what rules might be in place?

6. Adopt data-driven decisions. Without data, we are all wandering opinions. Contrary opinions without facts often degenerate into personal attacks. Fact-based discussions allowed team members to discuss the data not the opinion.

7. Rotate meeting locations. Rotating the meeting tells everyone that everyone is equally valued and important.

8. Conference call on your own phone. If you have an unequal number of team members at various locales, they will feel isolated during conference calls unless each individual is on their own phone. When the home office has several people gathered around the speakerphone, those in remote locations cannot hear the banter, read the body language, or observe the sidebar conversations.

9. Link rewards to team performance. That which gets rewarded gets repeated. If you are not in a position to be able to reward the overall team, create norms that increase the rewarding nature of your environment during your project. For example, you can ask the team to brainstorm the answers to this question: imagine they're on a project where everybody on the team gives positive feedback and recognition to each other, what might that look like? Their answers become the team’s norms.

10. Make it visible. Set milestones for your project. When team members reach these milestones, celebrate and make their accomplishment visible to others. Put it in your organization’s newsletter, website, bulletin board… Increasing visibility increases ownership and a sense of team, especially for virtual teams.

Applying these tools place virtual teams in the top 18%. How can you adapt them to put you this highly successful group?

See you on the mountain,


1. Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta; Building an Effective Global Business Team, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review,’ Summer 2001, 63 - 71.

2. Josh Hyatt; A Surprising Truth about Geographically Dispersed Teams, ‘MIT Sloan Management Review,’ Summer 2008, 5 - 6.

1 comment:

Eshan said...

Nice blog!!! Virtual leadership is a new term for a new situation. Companies that perpetuate the myth that virtual teaming is business as usual, just on a distributed scale.