John Bender on Building Virtual Teams

For our recent interview, John Bender shared this outline of his thinking on the topic of virtual teams, team building and trust building.  I share it here in its entirety (with some formatting tweaks) because it is an outstanding, compact summation of some very deep thinking. (The blog entry for this interview is here.)
(Read the Outline After the Jump)


I.       What are the critical success factors for managing virtual, geographically diverse work-teams?
1.    For any team, I like to think in terms of the “3 C’s:” 
A.    Connectivity
B.    Confidence
C.    Commitment
2.    Connectivity
A.    The team’s operating norms, activities, and rituals that provide a sense of cadence, community, and togetherness
B.    Enabled by technology (cost/barriers to entry are rapidly decreasing:  Web-Ex, private infrastructure, even free tools on-line)
C.    And reinforced by the “human touch” so necessary for high-performing work teams
3.    Confidence
A.    Owned by the team leader and all team members collectively
B.    For any team to be effective, they must have confidence in their abilities, as well as in their leader, and everyone’s willingness to fulfill their responsibilities
C.    In general, people judge the probability of future success based on past performance
1.    If there is no history, you may have the ability to start small and build
i.       Order / sequencing of work can be critical
ii.     Quick wins vital
2.    If you have a record of failure, your team will likely view any new projects as having a high chance of failing.
D.    When the team is confident, they invest of themselves. 
3.    Instead of looking for obstacles that can function as excuses for project failure, they proactively solve problems.
4.    A team full of people looking for solutions has a much higher success rate than at team of people looking for issues to use as excuses later.
E.    Failures as learning opportunities—leaders should not “reinvent the past” to suit the outcome.  This destroys trust and confidence.
1.    Appropriate corrective action when warranted
4.    Commitment
A.    Key enablers include
1.    Team members have a choice—they have an opportunity to enroll, or un-enroll in a project, team, process
2.    Empower to set direction, establish goals within constraints, and make choices
3.    The work is important to the team and broader organization (we are part of something bigger than ourselves)
4.    Team members feel valued
5.    Team members feel reasonably challenged, and that they are faced with opportunity
6.    Team members feel recognized by their contributions
5.    Some strategies for building the “3 C’s” for remote teams
1.    Leverage technology
2.    Spotlight culture, and embrace differences for more powerful outcomes
3.    Communicate context
4.    Shrink geographic distance whenever practical
5.    Maintain priorities and focus
6.    Encourage participation
II.        All teams and their leaders need to manage conflict.  What are some of the things leaders need to think about when managing conflict across borders?
A.    Conflict is a paradox. 
1.    It can drive teams forward to better decisions, understanding of outcomes, commitment to teams, and overall performance against goals
2.    Conversely, the wrong kind of conflict can distract teams from objectives and the above
B.    The leadership challenge is that both types of conflict often occur together and must be managed. 
3.    This is backed up by research that shows teams that have high constructive conflict often have high destructive conflict
4.    This is because human reaction to engage in relationship-oriented, personal dialog is easily triggered from what was initially a constructive, data-driven exchange of ideas.
5.    Team members intentions, motivations and goals can be interpreted incorrectly—especially when data is scarce
6.    Senior leadership teams, often required to make fast decisions with limited data, are especially vulnerable
2.    Trust, and team integration (team decision-making, sharing of information, sometimes resources, collaboration on projects) helps minimize constructive conflict
3.    In virtual team, “integration is even more difficult–depending on the communication richness of the media used
1.    Non-real-time, non-nuanced email communications provide less social information than face-to-face communication, for example
1.    Immediacy is crucial, and team norms should be established to set expectations. 
2.    Lack of immediacy can lead to mis-interpretation, unfounded stereotyping, and misunderstandings.
2.    Interpersonal bonds and cohesiveness take longer to form—the development of social ties and shared meaning take longer
3.    Interpersonal interactions are generally less satisfying
4.    And trust can take longer to build, and/or erode faster
4.    Strategies to avoid and manage conflict in virtual teams
1.    AVOID:  Start off strong—whenever possible, get the team to meet face to face as early as possible. 
1.    This is when trustworthiness is assessed by individuals, as well as when working norms are determined—which get reinforced with future interactions.
2.    AVOID:  Better yet, if you can comprise a team with some members that have worked together previously, this can be a huge advantage
1.    Personal knowledge of team members improves ability to interpret subtle messages and cues of communications that might otherwise be difficult to pick up in virtual environments
2.    This improves “accuracy” of teams estimates of the motivations and underlying meaning—shared understanding from which to draw
3.    And this accelerates “integration”—there is a shared understanding of style, likes/dislikes, and other factors
3.    AVOID:   Ensure team members have command of an array of virtual tools, and as leader, ensure the tool is appropriate for the task
1.    Face-to-face:  New team set-up; Strategy setting, budgeting, key decisions, major shift in direction
2.    Video Conferencing:  
3.    Teleconference
4.    Email
4.    AVOID:  Establish ground rules—in advance—for managing conflict of both types
1.    Determining when the team needs to get involved.
2.    Determining how to get involved.
3.    Determining a specific process for resolving conflict.
5.    MANAGE: 
1.    Don’t Underestimate.
1.    Less information makes it through virtual communication mechanisms.  It is natural to underestimate the toxicity of virtual conflict.
2.    If toxic conflict is evident at a distance, it’s probably worse than an equal local conflict.
2.    Act Early
1.    Act early, at the first possible hint of destructive conflict.   If you wait as long to confirm destructive conflict as you would with a local team, it’s probably too late.
3.    Leader’s role:  Jump in when required, and ensure that you reinforce team norms, values, and commitments
III.       Geographically diverse, virtual teams do not often have the luxury of engaging face to face.  Given this, what would be the most important things for the leader to focus on during a rare opportunity to bring the team together for 1 day? 
1.    What would change if the leader was attempting to re-launch or
2.    (re)build trust in the team, for example for a team that has had negative interactions?
3.    FOR A RE-LAUNCH
1.    Pre-interviews and meeting set-up via an “unbiased” OD or 3rd party. THEN, DURING THE MEETING
2.    Focus on the organization’s needs—and opportunity for the team—embarking on a new stage of the team’s journey
1.    Context Setting
2.    Listening to, and honoring the past successes and challenges
3.    Team is individually and collectively at a point of choice
4.    Call to action
3.    Set the stage for personal commitment
1.    Describe what will be required for success in the team’s new mission
2.    What the team will have to pay attention to
3.    Characteristics of high performing teams
4.    Abandon ship—swim for the new island
1.    Conceptually, leaving the old behind and adopting the new values, norms and objectives of the team.
5.    Team building

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