The 5 Essential Leadership Skills of Virtual Project Management

Friday Jul 10th 2009 by Ron Ponce
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Virtual or not, these five leadership skills will increase the productivity and success of your team, writes PMPlanet columnist Ron Ponce of Fog City Consulting.

Years ago if you were not in the room, you were not part of the team. It was that simple. That concept of how a project team was formed and run has virtually gone out the window. Virtual project teams are a fact of life in business today based on a variety of reasons such as costs, organizational structure, skill sets, and time to market.

Virtual project teams are the quintessential example of a matrix and cross-functional team. As a result, risks around geography, culture, communication, and organizational structure present themselves in ways that haven’t done so in the past. In addition, there is a higher probability with virtual teams for misunderstanding and conflict that hinder their ability to produce and deliver a successful project.

It is bad enough that majority of project and initiatives fail to meet their original success criteria, but when you add the additional risks and burdens related to a virtual project it seems doomed to certain failure. Given the critical importance that virtual projects and initiatives have for an organization, how can you avoid failing?

The success of a virtual project team depends highly on five critical steps. These steps, if in place and executed successfully, will dramatically improve the productivity and overall success rate for any virtual project.

They are:

  • Structure
  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Trust
  • Motivation.

Structure

Organization to any project is very important, but it is critical to a virtual project. From the very start, there needs to be a very clear vision and mission statement for that project. Every person on that team needs to know what the project is chartered to complete, the timing, and the success factors that will be used to track and measure it along the way.

In a partnership, the roles and responsibilities of each member of the team from the sponsor, project manager, to the most junior person need to be documented and understood. It is recommended that a project-specific document is created in addition to the normal roles and responsibilities document. The project-specific document should include a biography of each team member preferably with a picture. The bio’s should include the role and skills of the individual, but also have something about them as a person. It will help for the team to bond a bit more if they are able to see that there may be others with like interests even if they are half a world away.

Finally, it is important that each team member is rated and tracked based on their performance; within their specific assignments as well as the overall performance of the project. They need to have some "skin in the game" so to speak with respect to making sure the overall project is successful. The rating process is important even if there is no monetary component tied to the successful delivery of the project. The rating process must be consistently applied across all geographic areas covered by the project so that there is no possibility of dissension within the team because one group is looked upon more favorably than another.

Communication

Communication may be considered the most critical component for any project but especially for a virtual project. Within an office or a project based within a single local, face-to-face communication is such a given it really is not thought about. We know with a virtual project it can be a luxury given the travel costs. As a result, virtual project teams rely even more than other teams on technology to help take the place of in-person communication.

We already know and use many different technologies to help gather and distribute information such as email, instant messaging, voice mail, smart phones, conference call, video conferencing, Twitter, Facebook, or other social networking tools. The important component to properly leveraging these technologies is there be a clear and coherent communication plan as to when to use each and why.

The project manager should work in collaboration with the project leads in order to understand what technology is available and culturally acceptable. The biggest mistake is assuming folks are on the same page. Make sure that each person on the team elects to read, understand, and follow the communication plan during the life of the project.

It is also important that project leads have a consistent daily or weekly call, depending on the needs and phase of the project. This again is to make sure that the leadership is on the same page as to the issues, the status, risks, key deliverables, and general management of the project. There is no substitute for real time information or as close to it as you can get.

Realizing that cost of travel is an issue especially in this economic environment, the ability to bring the team together as one unit to a single location preferably to kick the project off will produce huge benefits throughout the life of the project. Early meetings of the entire project team are important to establish the team’s direction, identity, and trust.

Communicating regularly with each team member in a one-on-one setting can ensure individual team members will feel valued and connected. The more the project manager and leads know about what team members are doing, and the more information that can be shared, the more successful the team will be. The result should be a strong virtual team that is successful, productive and trusting.

When communicating virtually, it is much easier for misunderstandings to arise. The project manager, project leads, and team members need to be more aware of listening or reading the message. Subtle changes either in voice inflection, vocabulary, phrasing, and actual content can all be tips to an underlying issue.

Finally, if English is a second language to team members, it is very beneficial to make sure that the rest of the team is very conscious of that and do their best to not use slag or company-speak abbreviations that are not well known. Be concise in order to make the point clearly for all.

Leadership

Leadership consists of encouraging, mentoring, and facilitating others in the pursuit of a common goal or vision. The project manager and project leaders must create an environment in which members can understand, accept, and execute their responsibilities with confidence regardless of their location.

Project managers interact with many different people at many different levels. The matrix nature of the role doesn’t lend itself to preordained leadership. The mantle of leadership is earned. In virtual projects, a project manager must be proactive and show by action that he or she is acting at all times in the best interest of the team. It is critical that the project manager and leaders do not isolate themselves in any way, and are available at all times to any member of the project team. Being on time or ahead of schedule with actual deliverables or any commitment that is made to the team by the project leadership will show by example the accountability expected of each team member.

Being able to have the vision to drive a project and team to a successful completion; the foresight and organization to head off problems that can jeopardize the project; taking accountability for all aspects of the project, and presenting the team in the best light or providing them opportunities to do it themselves; are all examples of strong day-to-day leadership that the virtual project manager and project leads must deliver.

Trust

Building trust between members of any team is a critical step in determining if that team will be successful. With traditional teams, trust is enhanced by being able to work and communicate face-to-face. Virtual team members generally can’t see what their team mates are doing, but they can see the outcome. Trust generally is built with virtual teams based on ability, subject matter expertise, and most importantly the completion of commitments. Those commitments can be planned tasks or simply a promise from one team member to another to do something.

Those team members that meet or exceed their commitments earn the trust and respect of their team and their leadership. Consistency is the key with maintaining the trust with virtual teams. Each member must consistently meet or exceed the standard to respond in a timely fashion to all requests, complete their commitments as promised, and be willing to help others when needed.

Although the current economic environment may not allow for virtual teams to meet and thus build trust in a more traditional fashion it is possible to replicate some of what could be done and gain the same level of benefit using different techniques.

First, each local team should hold meetings or social gatherings to build a team bonding within a specific location. Project management should hold “All Hands” meeting so that the full team can hear and communicate as a single body. Create a project buddy so that team members are able to bond with other members who normally would not work together. These ideas and others promote socialization within the team which in turn will promote trust.

Motivation

Any team from time to time requires support to get through the long road of a major project. Virtual project team are no exception, but like most items related to virtual teams it becomes a little more complex to find ways to properly motivate a team or team members. Simple rewards or recognition can go a long way to help promote and sustain the motivation needed to successfully complete the project.

Rewards can take many forms from a spot bonus, to a paid day off, to a simple “Thanks for staying late.” A project manager and project leads have a lot of options they can use such as local team lunches, a lunch for the person who is the best performer of the week for the entire team, gift certificates for extra special efforts, a simple paper award for the team member of the month, or bring in the project sponsor to speak to the entire team or local team. The key to any reward is to have a purpose. Make sure there that the person is truly deserving, and be fair in that team members in all locations should be recognized if deserving.

The project manager also has a key tool in the status report. People like to see their name in lights for doing a good job, and so the project manager should use the status report as a vehicle to call out the specific accomplishments or sacrifices of team members.

Finally, make the work assignments as challenging as possible. Engaging work goes a long way in keeping a team member motivated that their contributions are meaningful and tie back to the overall vision and purpose of the project.

Virtual project teams are more complex in comparison to a traditional, single-site project team, and have more opportunity to fail given the additional risks. These five steps will not only mitigate the major risks but will empower the project manager and project leads to increase the efficiency and performance of the team thus increasing the overall probability to deliver a successful project.

Ron Ponce is president of Fog City Consulting, a San Francisco-based program and project management consulting firm, which specializes in organizational infrastructure, project delivery, and professional development and training services. He can be reached at rponce@fogcityconsulting.com.

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