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Project Management Interview: Virtual Teams

At the Nordic Project Zone Ralf Friedrich, Lead Coach at the Coaching Centre Dieburg, discusses some of the challenges of managing virtual teams and how to overcome them. Can Do as a sponsor of the NPZ presents on interview with the coach expert Ralf Friedrich.

Nordic Project Zone (NPZ): How does managing a virtual team differ from managing co-located teams?
Ralf Friedrich: Managing a co-located team allows the team leader to walk to each participant, to have team meeting on the spot and to gauge the mood and the performance of the team easily. Also any potential conflict can be spotted quickly. In a virtual team, I have to trust the team to work for the project. I cannot visit team members easily and I have to apply different processes to create a productive and positive working atmosphere and culture.

NPZ:  What is the Virtual Team Maturity Model (VTMM) and how/ why was it developed?
Ralf Friedrich: VTMM was developed to support team leaders in the development of a positive work culture in virtual teams. It is based on research. The foundations are Theme Centric Interaction by Ruth Cohn, the Phases of Team development by Tuckman and the relationship research by Gottman. It is important to create a positive spirit on virtual teams. VTMM supports team leaders in achieving this culture.

NPZ: What are the key characteristics of a ‘mature team’?
Ralf Friedrich:  A mature virtual team shows a high level of trust and people care for each other. The interactions follow rituals and lead to an effective communication. Also, team members leaving the team will be honoured in a specific way and new team members go through a freshman’s process. All these examples help the team to maintain a high level of productivity.

NPZ: How does the VTMM help improve team productivity?
Ralf Friedrich: VTMM has 11 processes defined in terms of inputs, tools & techniques and outputs. These processes have KPI’s defined which can be easily assessed. With this assessment it is then easy to develop an improvement plan for the virtual team.

NPZ: What is the most common mistake you see practiced among virtual teams and how can team leaders overcome it?
Ralf Friedrich: The number one mistake is to believe that productivity is everything. Many team leaders have a very big blind spot in leading virtual teams. They do not pay any attention to the emotions and the needs of the team members. This is paired with intercultural incompetencies. Then the teamleaders wonder why the team is not performing and the main reason is their own attitude towards virtual team leadership

NPZ: How can technology help or hinder virtual team performance?
Ralf Friedrich: A virtual team communicates through technology. There are some tools available, which help teams to work together effectively, other tools are very long on the market and they did not develop at the same pace. Each team has special needs in terms of tools. Do I mainly run virtual meetings to share information or do I need to develop creative solutions in a virtual environment? In many companies, the tools are a given. This means that somebody bought a tool. This tool does not fulfill the needs of the virtual teams and it cannot be changed. In such situations, the virtual teamleader has a disadvantage. Having said this, I have noticed that over 80% of the virtual teamleaders never got any advanced training on the virtual team tools used in the company. Once they received this training, they know what is possible and what is not possible.

NPZ: What improvement actions can be implemented at a company /strategic level to better manage virtual teams?
Ralf Friedrich: What I have observed is that the senior managers do not see the need for investing into virtual team skills. I recently talked to a senior executive and he told me that virtual teamwork is difficult and it will continue to be difficult. It is part of the nature of virtual teamwork to be frustrating. I disagree with his statement. Today, we have the right tools and we have the knowledge to develop outstanding virtual teamleaders. It requires a shift in the mindset of the managers from virtual teamwork involves personal suffering to virtual teamwork is fun and effective. A maturity model like VTMM helps companies to identify blind spots and improve the virtual team performance by looking at the low hanging fruits to make a fast increase in the virtual teamwork.