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Taking Action to Improve Teams


Taking Action to Improve Teams

EduFlash © 2003-2007 IBM Executive Business Institute July 2003
EduFlash is written by Peter Andrews, Innovation Strategist, IBM Executive Business Institute, and is published as a service of IBM Corporation.  
This talk was given by Peter Andrews of the IBM Executive Business Institute.  
Reproduced with permission of the author
Author: Peter Andrews
30 March 2007

Executive summary

Once you’ve finished analyzing your team and prioritizing the results you want, it’s time to take action to become more effective. The precise choices you make will be highly specific, but I thought it might be helpful to explore some of the less obvious ones that have been helpful to other teams. 

Here are fifteen worth considering, in no particular order:  

  1. Take time to assess your team (attitude, talents, and goals).
  2. If large, select a core team.  
  3. Provide access to decision makers. 
  4. Set expectations regarding applications, especially chat.  
  5. Make sure everyone is comfortable with the tools.  
  6. Use shared workflow tool.  
  7. Keep it simple.  
  8. Have backup methods.  
  9. Systematically build social capital.  
  10. Invest in face-to-face, if possible.  
  11. Equalize where possible. Let distant member chair meetings. Go non-synchronous for non-English members  
  12. Create a sensitive forum.  
  13. Enlist facilitators.  
  14. Find a means to establish presence.  
  15. Make sure webinars are two-handed.  

The first one is to actually take the time to assess your team; to look around and find out what capabilities they have, what the attitudes of people are. If you have a lot of people on the team who are there grudgingly, that's not a good thing -- but it's an even worse thing not to realize that that's the case. Make sure that people understand what the common goal is and that they have a chance to discuss it among themselves and it becomes their goal. Those are all very important things.

If you have a large team, one of the first things I've seen which have made a big difference has been to select a core team. Usually about seven people who will be very active, who will hold the responsibility. Who maybe will each have a sub-team beyond that they're responsible for. It's very unwieldy to have many more than seven people who are running the show. So I would say shrink it down to a core team. This doesn't mean other people are lesser members. They may be huge contributors, but it gives you a way to manage things a little bit more effectively.

Another tip is to provide access to decision makers. Because there's nothing more frustrating then working on a virtual team and not being able to go forward because you're waiting for an answer on something. So you need to have that level of accessibility. If the decision maker is amenable to it, have him or her available by instant messaging, at specific hours, on a regular basis, so that at least somebody knows, hey I can catch this person at that time. They may be in meetings; they may be on the phone. They may be involved in another team, but I can at least get a quick answer on whether I can go forward or not. One thing as well is to set expectations with regard to applications, especially chat. If you do want everybody to be available, let everybody know that is part of the deal; that it has to happen. And try very hard to make people comfortable with these technologies.

One thing that I've seen over and over again is the use of some wonderful tool that half the group really loves and the other half has never really gotten comfortable with. Also see if there are some limits; for instance some people don't like the real-time chat because they have a problem spelling or they have problems with the English language. You can adjust for that. I mean the last one I have on here is to get a non-synchronous tool for non-English speakers, because it gives them a chance through something like a newsgroup format to actually sit down and rewrite the document or maybe get some help in writing so that they can participate in a way where they won’t lose face. You have to respect the dignity of the people within the team.

Another thing is you may have only a few people who are distant and most of the people in the group are face-to-face. You may want to have a distant person chair your conference call so that they are the ones who are deciding who speaks first and so they aren't forgotten. Another thing you can do with this one: we really get a sense of who the reporters are on CNN even if they're just throwing the picture up there. So if you're having a Web conference, you can make sure everybody's got a picture of the person who's remote. That gives people something they can focus on. In fact, it will kind of reduce the amount of the other operations since we may feel we are being watched. People tend to not move into chat or ignore what's going on as much if there's that picture up there. You don't forget that person if you've got their picture in front of you, not as easily anyway. Even if it's not a webinar, if you've got just a phone conversation, you might want to circulate some pictures of the group so people can stick them up on the bulletin board. When the conversation is going on, I guarantee the eye will drift to the person who is speaking, and it will make a difference.

You need to have backup methods for what's going on because technology fails. And when technology fails, it’s the people who are in the worst position, the people who are at the most greatest distance or have the weakest lines are the ones who suffer the most. So you have to have backup methods. I had one student who was coming from South Africa and you'd better believe I made sure that when I did a webinar, he had all the charts that he needed, because as it turns out with webinar, there can be a delay on the Web that’s just intolerable if you happen to be that far away. He was able to follow through quite nicely because he had those charts with him.

I believe that one thing that's a great advantage for a team and builds camaraderie is to share the work. So I believe in sharing a workflow tool, preferably one that gives people awareness that there's a job that could be done by them. Where they can pitch in rather than just have a bunch of assignments, where people are going to a deadline and milestone. As I said earlier, make sure everybody's comfortable with these tools because it can be very alienating. People will drop out of it if they are not comfortable with the tools.

You want to systematically build social capital. One thing that I did in one group that I was involved in, was I did a series of interviews using chats. So these were live interviews and, in fact, a huge number of people would come just to see the interview, just to see what would happen. It has two benefits, one is that it brings everybody in and the other is you've got an immediate and a persistent way of learning about a team member. It's a wonderful technique; I recommend it highly. Invest in face-to-face if that's possible. Larry Prusak once said it may be that if you can't smell the person, then you're going to run into problems. I don't think we have to go to that point, but I think that it can be valuable to make that investment, particularly in cases where you're doing delicate things.

I have seen groups turned around by being able to just get together for one time. One thing that they used to do back in the forums within IBM (our own pre-Web newsgroups), was create sensitive forums, and this was a place to take care of the anxieties and the unfairness and everything else that people were worried about. Just a place where people could post and say hey, you know you shouldn't use this phrasing or we don't understand it when you talk about this or I don't think that we're asking this person's opinion enough or maybe you're not coming to me with a question, or maybe you're forgetting about me when I'm on a phone call. Just a place where people can register their concerns so that they can be taken care of. That has to be managed very carefully, but it can be a good way to take that out of the meeting itself and put it into a separate place where it can be handled carefully and well.

On the list I have facilitators. This can be a really big investment, but it can be a very important investment. In fact you might want to have somebody on the team trained as a facilitator. Then there are tools that can help establish presence. I mentioned that as a problem that Boeing had earlier on. Babble is a very interesting tool available within IBM that shows people as little dots and how close the dots are to the circle to show you just how involved they are so you get an immediate visual representation of how much people are in the meeting and, in fact, you can also handle this in someway by rules of conduct. We can talk about whether people are allowed to do certain things at certain times.

Finally, I think it's very good to hold webinars. That's very important, but try to do those as two-handed exercises -with a speaker and a monitor. So you not only have the charts up there, but you have a continual possibility of people being able to chat. Now the reason for working two-handed is, you have one person who's speaking to the charts and then you have another person who's just looking at the text, a person in the same room. If that person is in the same room, that person knows when to interrupt and say excuse me we've got a question from Mr. Randolph here, and I'd like to pass it on to you. And it doesn't break the rhythm as much. It's more natural and everyone gets to participate in a fair way.

I'd like to conclude this with a little bit of encouragement. It's easy to get discouraged about these teams but, in fact, they can be a great thing for the company and a great thing for individuals. I've met all sorts of people the first time through virtual teams and have established great relationships with them. And so this is definitely possible and even though there are places where you may need to work towards improvement, it's worth it. It's really worth the effort.

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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