Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Technology and Team Building - Making Remote Project Management Work

Everyone knows that the best project managers are ‘hands on’. The discipline of project management requires the ability to facilitate complex interaction between schedules, budgets, technologies, and people. When these elements are geographically dispersed, the inevitable challenges to project success become much greater. To make it work, the remote team project manager needs to implement specific techniques that address the inherent weaknesses and strengths of these initiatives. An effective and creative approach to managing remote teams will increase the chance of doing the impossible.

How do we end up with remote project teams?

The global marketplace, sophisticated communication technologies, the demands of a skilled workforce, and the ever-increasing drive for cost efficiences mean that remote teams are a new fact of life. These teams may result from the use of stay at home workers, offshore development resources, or just the simple need to link skilled people and create valuable project results. How do you make it work? Communication is the essence of good remote team project management.

The Internet is the key

The Internet facilitates quality team communication. We must remember that the Internet was originally created by the US military to facilitate research and development activities among geographically dispersed project teams. Today, we’ve refined our use of the Internet as a communication tool so that it can fully support the needs of the modern project team. Collaboration is key. Tools such as email, VPN, instant messaging, whiteboards, text messaging, online conferencing, and project websites combine in allowing project managers to assist the progress of real collaborative results.

The electronic breadcrumb trail

Internet collaboration technologies promote accountability. Remote teams live and die by the ability to balance individual creative output with constant access to the quality intellectual production of the rest of the team. Remote work usually means that team members are able to remain in work environments that are creative, sensible, or at least convenient. Some of the best technology workers make the conscious decision to exist in environments far removed from major cities. This can be a win-win situation if the right environment is set up to allow the team to thrive, along with assurances to project stakeholders that the work is getting done. Internet collaboration tools create an effective and useful breadcrumb trail that brings real transparency to the project process.

How does the technology work?

Internet communication tools facilitate quick, meaningful, and efficient distribution of project information. In addition, the results effectively create an archive of project decisions, developments, and knowledge. Project information can easily be collected, managed, and reviewed by all members of the team.

A simple tool such as a team email list quickly allows individuals to disseminate information to the full group with one quick message. These lists create instant discussion threads that are easy to read, and tough to miss. Instant messaging tools provide an efficient means of getting answers for quick decisions that don’t require a full email or phone call. In addition, instant message software uses status icons that say ‘I’m here’. With a simple team rule that makes it a daily requirement to post this icon, you can feel more confident that your team is on duty. Virtual Private Network (VPN) software allows individuals to access remote computer systems using simple encryption technologies. This software facilitates safe access to high security internal networks when team members are just about anywhere, yet they are still ‘in the office’. Web conferencing and ‘whiteboard’ technologies allow project managers to hold remote meetings via the Internet with full access to real time display technologies. These tools allow a PM to use techniques that facilitate real interaction and team development. Text-messaging and “always-on” email tools, like the BlackBerry pager, permit real time communication almost anywhere. Finally, a high quality project web page is a great way to wrap it all up. The project page can act as the key interactive resource for capturing all information related to the project. This includes information updates, status reports, documentation archives, and access to all information threads. Although Internet technologies create a solid collection of project development activities, a bit more will be needed to make it really work.

Conventional Collaboration Tools

There is no substitute for a real face-to-face meeting. Due to the obvious complexity and cost associated with gathering a remote team, it is important to be judicious about the timing and technique. Meeting in person with the project team is most effective at the beginning, and end, of a project. In addition, get-togethers focused on the completion of major milestones underline project progress for both the team and sponsor. The good news is that these meetings are often an effective method of creating a ‘clearing house’ for the collection of major issues that have been skillfully and thoroughly tracked using the Internet technologies. The results are real. Daily team conference calls are also a great conventional method of facilitating communication and issue resolution with the team. The meetings can be short, no longer than 30 minutes, and the PM should facilitate discussion around the highest priority issues. The calls provide a chance for the team to ask the types of questions that just don’t translate in electronic form. Junior team members respond well to the quality of daily discussion among the team leads, and the result is a valuable mentorship tool. These conventional collaboration tools help to build superior teams.

Team-building on a remote project

Teams love information. Developing the team dynamic for a remote project team is facilitated through the effective and coordinated distribution of information. There are many creative ways to use these collaboration tools to build team development. Daily conference calls should be used as an opportunity to foster small talk, and provide friendly windows into the world of the team. A daily ‘word of the day’ or ‘in the news’ segment is a great way to set the expectation that non-project interaction is encouraged. An in-person project kick-off meeting provides an opportunity to put a face to a name, and allow the team leads to assess the true skills of the project team. The impressions made at this meeting will mold the development and growth of the team dynamic.

Although you may not be able to celebrate every milestone in person with your team, it is possible to find simple ways to remotely reward your group. Home delivery can be your remote sets of arms, used to hand deliver gifts and words of encouragement. Something as simple as a surprise pizza delivery, junk food basket from an online grocer, or local movie tickets will go over big with the team. Although you can’t be there, the team will readily get the message that results count.

Results that really matter

Remote teams can make everyone look good. This approach to managing teams will only become more common as communication tools continue to improve. As the frameworks get better, the cost and quality benefits of remote teams will become harder to ignore. Whether the context is offshore development, the use of home offices, or increasing global collaboration, remote projects must be executed successfully. Project managers have a great variety of collaboration tools available to make it work. It is possible to keep a ‘hands on’ approach with remote team project management.

- Article was written for Gantthead in 2003.

Dave Ullrich, B.Comm, PMP specializes in IT project management consulting and strategy with his company Cilantra Solutions. He has based this approach on the results of several successful IT project implementations with teams distributed across Canada, US, and the UK. He can be reached at daveullrich@gmail.com.

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