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Disembodied Voices: Getting Answers from a Remote Team

Disembodied Voices: Getting Answers from a Remote Team

Reproduced with permission by the author, published April 2004 http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades 
EduFlash © 2003-2007 IBM Executive Business Institute, published as a service of IBM Corporation
Author: Peter Andrews
Innovation Strategist, IBM Executive Business Institute

12 March 2007

Executive summary

Virtual teams can only deliver on their promises if there is full participation from distant members. Unfortunately, getting discussions going during a conference call can be a challenge. By using pre-meeting tasks, detailed agendas, social capital and audience perspectives, you can find ways around the dead spots in conference calls that can kill a team’s initiative.

When an awkward silence follows "Are there any questions?" in face-to-face encounters, a look or a gesture can be used to smooth out the problem. But you don't have those options on a conference call. A dead phone has no opportunities for expression. The downside of silence can be more than embarrassment. Virtual teams already face difficulties in coordinating activity, finding synergies and building enthusiasm and mutual support. If conference calls, which provide key opportunities for building social capital and moving work forward, become occasions of distress, discomfort, frustration and boredom, the team will have a hard time achieving its goals.

Fortunately, the challenge of pulling people into a virtual discussion is not impossible. For many years, radio talk show hosts have been forced to come up with solutions for engaging with an invisible audience, and some of those are directly transferable to the virtual team.

Talk show hosts depend on their audiences understanding the format, which may include interviews, monologues, reports, polls and regular guests. The format is set up to appeal to the audience and set expectations. The format of a conference call is set by the agenda, which should be distributed in advance. This makes it clear when and where participation is expected. An agenda allows people to prepare themselves to participate. And the team leader can make the agenda a more effective tool by using it as a reference throughout the call, reinforcing which segment the meeting is in, explicitly stating the terms of participation and encouraging input. An ad hoc meeting is more of a challenge. Here, the team leader needs to provide as much structure as possible at the beginning of the call.

A talk show producer will have research at hand, all the guests lined up, questions formulated and a timed agenda before the show begins. Obviously, the agenda for a meeting should be circulated before a call, but there are a number of other useful procedures, too. The team leader can prepare (or better yet, have team members prepare) documents that can be referred to during the call. He or she can also think through potential questions, answers and discussion points ahead of time and plan strategies to deal with those that present the biggest challenges. Before the meeting, guests should be invited and scheduled, but this can extend to specific team members who can present and be responsible for providing answers, or even questions. (Planted questions and scripted answers may not be ideal, but they are sometimes necessary. This is particularly true when differences in personality or culture make spontaneous participation difficult. Not everyone is comfortable with being a real-time volunteer.) Preparation can extend to the moments before the call. A bit of informal chitchat can relax participants and create a model for the tone and rhythm of contributing to discussion later in the call. Not incidentally, it can also be an opportunity for building social capital (see Personality below). You want people on the call to want you and your meeting to succeed, and this is more likely if they are identifying with you.

Ever notice how often a provocative comment or question is introduced just before a talk show host breaks for a commercial? This is not an accident, and you can apply the same technique, even without the use of advertising. Think of the issues that concern the audience most, set them up and let them percolate awhile as other business is attended to. When
you create the urge to participate, don’t feel you need to satisfy it immediately. One way you can do this is by presenting only a few of the points someone wants to have shared with the group, then looking to them to complete the list. (A famous prank of Mozart as a child was going to the piano and leaving an unresolved chord. Feel free to be just as irritating.) Cliffhangers, hooks and topics of high interest can all be used to draw your team into the discussion. If you can get them to finish your sentences, you win.

A talk show producer will design a show full of highs and lows, fast and slow sequences. A program that is all of equal intensity is boring. Presumably, team leaders do not have all the same tools (no musical interludes), but creative pacing, changes in voices and even rhetorical tricks can all be brought into the service of keeping the attention of your unseen audience. There are even some team leaders who have mastered the use of silence. Those quiet times are just as uncomfortable for team members as they are for the leader, and sometimes waiting until someone else fills the gap can be more rewarding than filling it yourself. But be careful not to turn the call into the audio equivalent of a staring contest.

Few talk show hosts do it alone. Usually, someone is screening the calls, watching the phones light up and providing statistics and news. Why should a team leader handle a call alone? Making a conference call a four-handed exercise creates more options, especially if a chat application is used. Chat can be employed to queue up questions and comments and organize the discussion. It can be used for backchannel communication to get answers or warn folks they will be asked for an answer. It can even be used to plant questions. It’s not a bad idea to have several chat windows loaded with brief messages and ready to go before a Q&A period. If there’s a sudden silence, others can rapidly be put on the spot to fill it.

People who call into a talk show get to be on the radio and flaunt their wit and wisdom before an audience. Smart hosts use audience attention as a resource to share with those who help the program along. The limelight isn’t quite as bright for those on a conference call, but it is appealing to some. A smart team leader knows who likes the opportunity to be showcased (and who doesn’t).

The main attraction of the talk show is the personality of the host, who speaks for us and is amusing and likable. If the host has no charm, he or she better have friends who do and are willing to be guests on the program. A team leader who actively cultivates relationships and strives to be interesting will have less difficulty eliciting participation from team members. There is great value to having people want to talk to you (or at least to your guests).

Which tricks and techniques you use to liven up your meetings will depend on the people in your team, your purposes (both for the team and for the meeting) and the barriers to participation. If your team consists of a bunch of shy strangers, you will need to begin with a lot of scheduled participation, committed to before the call begins. If the team is intended to create change, you will need to hear from all the stakeholders and may need to ensure everyone is called on by name. If the culture of team members does not encourage questions and answers, they may need to have them scripted. Technical problems, such as not having full duplex communications, and behavioral ones, such as having members who are answering e-mail during calls, may require specific, enforced rules and policies. Being aware of the situations and perspectives that can affect team member involvement is critical to your success.

One size does not fit all, and you may need to experiment with several techniques before you find the most effective ways to engage with your team. Once you have some success, it should build upon itself as team members get accustomed to fuller participation and begin to see the advantages. In fact, your biggest problem could become managing the discussions so everyone gets a fair chance.

Peter Andrews is an innovation strategist and consulting faculty member at IBM's Executive Business Institute. He has spent a career bridging the gap between the technical potential and the bottom line. He is the author of over 100 articles on innovation, emerging technology and leadership, and his Executive Tech Reports are featured monthly on the IBM services Web site. Andrews consults and holds workshops both within IBM and externally. He uses a variety of techniques to probe, extend and validate the opportunities presented by new technologies. He has helped banks, insurance companies, manufacturers and retailers develop their own capabilities to take a fresh look at emerging technologies, come to a common understanding of their value and take practical steps to exploit them. Notably, he has held innovation workshops with over 100 IBM Researchers worldwide that have helped them to determine the business implications of their inventions, recognize possible sponsors and create value propositions. Andrews has been actively involved in research and working at the leading edge for his entire career. His participation is always in demand for IBM Academy studies, and he is a popular presenter on the future, most recently as the closing keynote speaker for KMWorld 2006. He can be contacted at pja@us.ibm.com, New York (845) 732-6095 and http://www.ibm.com/ibm/palisades               

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