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The $60,000 Question

Let's say you have a worst-case scenario where a project team: 1. has never met, 2. probably won't meet, 3. are distributed all over the globe, and 4. are scheduled to work together for approximately 18 months to develop and deliver a new product. Aside from the fact that they are all being paid well to do the work, how do you get them to work together and gel as a team? That, my dear readers, is the $60,000 question.This being the second article in my interview series of long-time collaboration experts and founders of The Future of Work program, Jim Ware and Charlie Grantham, I thought I'd share with you the portion of the interview where they spoke about ways to handle that worst case scenario.

Deb: So, if for a variety of reasons, you can't have an in-person kick-off meeting with this team, how do you get them to work together?

Charlie: I would spend about $80 a person and buy every person a little web cam. I'd use collaborative meeting software that lets us literally see each other, and I'd schedule an opening half-day meeting where we're all sitting in front of those web cams telling each other about each other and getting to know each other, and getting to know the task. It would be like any group kick-off meeting where you're going through what needs to be done, who will be doing it, agreeing on commitments and times, and that sort of thing. But I'd do it with web cams so that the people would have a sense of who they're talking to.

Jim: I think a sense of who the people are is worth something. In collaborative software that lets you do file sharing and keep repositories, you might have a stream of instant messaging that’s more personal than task-oriented. You might have a place where people can put up their resumes or a picture and a bio. Those things are important.

Charlie. In that worst-case scenario, the manager of the group has to realize that one of their responsibilities is managing the social relationships and communication of group members. Most [people] don't put that on their to-do list. They just assume it’s going to happen. But that task needs to be a goal of the project manager.

DS: What can you suggest to managers who don't have those social relationship and communications skills?

Jim: People who rise through the ranks of managing other people without any preparation are not going to be very successful. A team is basically a group of people, none of whom can do the work all by themselves. You're going to have to deal with the human side of these things otherwise the team isn't going to be successful. As people come out of purely technical training and technical work into some beginnings of managerial responsibilities, or they've been members of a team, they begin to learn just by being around it just how important that stuff is.

Charlie: I'd be very cautious in a worst-case scenario situation of putting an inexperienced manager in charge of managing a distributed work team. That is not where you want folks to cut their teeth on management skills because there’s an extra degree of complexity around this issue of communication. It really comes down to making sure there’s a leadership development process in place with these folks. It’s absolutely critical, which means you're going to have to spend bucks. What are the tradeoffs, if you spend money on training or some money on travel, what can you expect that to do in terms of productivity and effectiveness of the team? And, you can do the tradeoff analysis and clearly you need to invest something in developing those competencies and skill sets, or it’s going to cost you big time. You don't want to be 9 months into an 18 month project and your three key people quit because they can't stand the team interaction pattern anymore.

It's been a few months since the interview, but just reading that last comment by Charlie again really drives home the point that good supervisors manage the interpersonal relationships within their teams. Next time, we tackle the generation gap.

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