I had a coaching client (let's call him James) a few years ago whose dilemma mirrored that of a lot of people we've encountered on our Project Management courses.
He was a manager in a large software company based in the US; he was based in the UK and his 'team', which was working on a two-year project, were based in India, South Africa, New Jersey, Texas, Nigeria and two in the same open plan office as he inhabited.
His quandary was how to manage a project team where most of the team members were 1) working remotely; 2) working in a variety of countries all with different time zones; 3) three were non-English speaking natives; 4) the main form of communication was email; 5) a couple of them thought they should be the project manager instead of my client.
The odds were stacked against him and a lot of the work we did one-to-one we also cover on our Project Management courses. What needed to happen was for James to feel more in charge of the projects and not at the mercy of these variables.
First let's look at what problems were created because this team was scattered across the globe.
It was nearly impossible to get every team member on a conference call all at once. This meant that one or two people at various time were potentially out of the loop, or felt as though they were out of the loop. Little time was spent on bringing the team together and most of the time the calls were spent on technical talk. Emails winged back and forth and often added to the confusion as there were many misinterpretations and misunderstandings.
Assumptions piled upon assumptions. James assumed that everyone was doing their bit in a timely way and was content to accept things at face value when he was told by team members that everything was all right and going according to plan.
Therefore, he was surprised and disappointed when deadlines were looming to discover that people weren't ready at all and their 'bits' were way behind schedule. This not only put him into a deep funk, he also found he was losing his temper more, his stress levels skyrocketed and he ended up berating his team members for not doing their jobs.
Some of his team members assumed that because James wasn't pressing for details when he asked how things were going that he was 'cool' with increasingly elastic time frames.
And everyone on the team became adept at finger pointing and blaming everyone else (especially James) when things began to unravel.
Let's unpick a couple of things that can really help ameliorate the problems that arise with this kind of project management.
It's a Team. First and foremost, no matter where team members are based, if you don't make the individuals feel as though they are part of a proper team, then they will do 'their own thing' because they have no relationship with and therefore no commitment to anyone else.
Doing this is actually easier than you think. In the first instance, use social media - get everyone on the team to learn about everyone else on the team by checking them out on LinkedIn and Facebook and making connections that way. See if they have Twitter accounts and get everyone following each other.
Then have a series of conference calls (video conferencing would be better) to establish some bonds; we recommend that in those early calls very little business is discussed and the purpose is for everyone to learn something about everyone else. Topics up for early discussion are: the weather where you are, favourite food, next holiday destination, favourite leisure activities, children, pets, music, movies. You get the picture.
Set up chat rooms, create some competitions and quizzes, suggest a DVD or book group; pretty much anything along these lines that keeps the avenues of communication open and people connecting with each other.
Detailed Project Plans Don't Do It. Of course for many organisations, having a detailed plan with time-lines and who's responsible for what are necessary. Projects need that framework, especially ones that are lengthy with essential milestones and reviews. That's what Prince II, etc. are for.
However, without a whole bunch of other 'stuff' problems will arise.
The stuff? Clarity of expectations: it isn't enough to give people a time-line and expect they'll adhere to it or even look at it after a while. Giving someone a task and expecting they will handle it the way you want them to also isn't going to work either. Clear, specific goals are what people need.
Hand in hand with that is weekly check-ins, not check-ups (avoid…have you done this, have you done that?) so that every team member feels supported.
The final suggestion for this blog is honest communication, a much used cliché but one that makes a huge difference. Let your team members know that you'd rather they be honest with you about any issues, delays, problems they have rather than sweeping them under the carpet and hoping no one will notice. It may take months, but those carpet lumps will eventually trip everyone up.
There's loads more suggestions which I'll write about in a future blog, but if you start looking at projects as a way to build relationships rather than simply to accomplish a series of tasks, your projects will not only go more smoothly, you will also create a great, well-integrated team who will enjoy working together no matter what the distance is between them.
By Jo Ellen Grzyb, Director, Impact Factory