Managing Virtual Teams Successfully
By Dr. Willis H. Thomas, PMP, CPT
Virtual teams are becoming more of the norm for organizations as they strive to acquire the best talent from anywhere in the world, minimize overhead everywhere on the earth and stretch their global presence on a worldwide basis.
Building High-Performance Teams necessitates that we utilize innovative tools and techniques to engage the audience. A study from MIT Sloan found “dispersed teams can actually outperform groups that are co-located teams, provided the right type of collaboration is in place.
As virtual teams move through the typical stages of team development (i.e., Tuckman model of forming-storming-norming-performing), they can benefit from a Simple Interactive Meaningful Practical Learning Exercise (SMILE).
Some may think of these engaging activities as games; however, while they are intended to be fun, the benefits should not be underestimated in terms of the potential positive impact they can have on team performance.
Two outcomes should be considered in the following examples:
- Quantitative Perspective
- Decreasing employee turnover
- Reducing job-related and personal stress
- Increasing job satisfaction
- Enhancing team relationships
- Sustaining motivation through the number of reported productive hours
- Qualitative Perspective
- Improving problem-solving skills
- Inspiring creative thinking skills
- Encouraging critical thinking capabilities
- Strengthening interpersonal skills
- Minimizing negative team conflict
As a Certified Performance Technologist (CPT), I have come to look at the value that SMILEs can have on teams from the perspective of Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Quality (ROQ). First let’s keep the concept of ROI basic, which is in this context:
Applying this equation to a real-life example, if the cost for rolling out a SMILE activity = $10,000 and the estimated value of the program is $100,000 (considering quantitative and/or qualitative factors such as listed above):
This number is not exaggerated. For example, Malcolm Baldrige ROI has been computed as high as 700%. So considering that SMILE activities have a no cost to low-cost proposition, the computed ROI will typically be very high. This provides justification in allowing the virtual team to participate in the activity. SMILE cost may also take into consideration the amount of time that people are spending on developing the “gaming activity” during work hours as well as participating in it. So COMMON SENSE should be at the forefront to manage the perception of how these activities are facilitated.
The premise is that if it is worth doing, it is worth measuring. The COMMON CENTS philosophy means:
- C = Calculate
- E= Every
- N= Necessary
The bottom line is not only a financial measure, but we also need to consider the non-monetary benefits. ROQ takes into account the Cost of Quality (COQ) — prevention and appraisal costs. In this context, PREVENTION cost refers to the expense that is incurred to prevent defects, errors or a lack of desired performance; whereas APPRAISAL cost, or INSPECTION cost, is the expense incurred to identify defects, errors or lack of performance. To this end, expenditures that are reviewed to ensure that a team will function optimally might include factors such as:
- Web-based platforms for collaboration, i.e., WebEx or GoToMeeting
- Webcam equipment for real-time video conversation
- Shared drive storage for document access
Evolution of Learning Exercises for Collaboration
No one author or source can take credit for the evolution of learning exercises for virtual teams. Online gaming collaboration can be traced back to the introduction of the personal computer and software developers and came to life in the early 1990s when the Internet was introduced. Telecommunications also ran a parallel track, but slightly earlier when McGraw-Hill introduced Games Trainers Play (Newstrom and Scannel, 1980) and 201 Icebreakers (West, 1997). These McGraw-Hill publications refer to Experiential Learning Exercises, group mixers, warm-ups, energizers and playful activities.
Types of Interactive Exercises
There are a variety of interactive exercises that a virtual team can participate in such as:
- Board Games
- Video Simulations
- Role Plays
- Virtual escape rooms
- And much more…
The investment a team will make in a SMILE will vary based on the following factors that can be thought of in terms of the competing demands:
- Cost: How much it will be to finance, i.e., one time vs. license fee if applicable
- Time: Length of time of the activity
- Scope: Frequency – how often
- Quality: Complexity – how challenging
- Risk: Uncertainties that may be encountered in implementation
- Resources: Number of participants, software, and systems required, facilities, etc.
Here are some examples of SMILEs that I began to create in 2004 in conjunction with my dissertation that focused specifically on project management. (These examples are referenced on my academic website at http://lessonslearned.info on the Support tab.)
Later, my dissertation topic would be condensed into a book titled The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned that won the 2012 Project Management Institute (PMI)® Cleland Award. Since that time, I have delivered speaking engagements on an international basis that discuss concepts from this book.
Example: Transferring Essential Lessons Learned
This Monopoly-style game enables the card deck to be customized with lessons learned. It supports up to 10 players to share lessons learned (i.e., agile retrospectives). This SMILE with the source code is made freely available with the purchase The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned.
Taking Great Concepts and Creating a SMILE
In this example, I will look at Grateful Leadership by Judy Umlas. She is a recognized author that discusses how to use the Power of Acknowledgment to “Engage All Your People and Achieve Superior Results.”
Whenever SMILEs are associated with acknowledgment, it can create wonderful fireworks. In this example, the objective is to drive performance through recognition. A survey could be created that drives a visual dashboard of all team members participating in a specific initiative. As feedback is received, the dashboard displays the status of performance in real-time. Examples of how this could be used are solution centers (also referred to as help desks).
Solution Center Performance Example
In the above example, using this dashboard could allow stakeholders to change their ratings on demand; hence affecting the dashboard. A prize (i.e., $15 lunch gift certificate at a popular restaurant) could be associated with the highest score at the end of the month.
SMILE Development Tools
Getting started with SMILE should be easy; however, it should also allow for growth and challenges to keep it interesting. Most of the things that need to be created can be done with Microsoft Office, i.e., Word, PowerPoint, and Excel. For the dashboard example above, this will require macros in Microsoft Excel. For the TELL example above, this will require knowledge of HTML. For those over-performers, they may even consider developing an app that can run on an iPhone and Android platform. The key here is to make it engaging and enjoy the process as you enhance virtual team collaboration.
About the Author
Willis H. Thomas, PhD, PMP, CPT has worked for large corporations and academic institutions in the areas of human resources, learning and development, quality assurance, project management, sales and marketing, measurement and evaluation, and operations.
He has been in senior management for life sciences companies for the past 15 years. Dr. Thomas is a member of adjunct faculty at the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, International Institute for Learning and Institute of Validation Technology.
His publications have received global recognition from associations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) where he received the Cleland Award for “The Basics of Project Evaluation and Lessons Learned.” This book was an 8-year effort that enhanced the framework for the evaluation of projects using the PMBOK® Guide.
He has been a featured speaker on an international basis and has received the Apex Publication Excellence Award for implementing useful tools for project management, evaluation and training.