Organic and flexible is good. It means you can roll with the punches and adapt to any situation. It makes you more competitive in a world where research is no longer looking back, but looking now, and where credibility means you’re on the first page of Google. It means you have the potential to be anything you want when you grow up.
Good actors are organic and flexible. Good startups are organic and flexible. Good virtual teams should be organic and flexible. But as we noted the other day, flexibility on its own maybe isn’t so good. Sure, you can be anything you want when you grow up, but if you don’t dedicate yourself to something, then you become nothing. It’s the same way with virtual teaming. Sure, you’re strategically positioned all over the globe and you’ve handpicked the top experts in their field, but if there’s no clear direction or goal or no clear structure to go about it, it’s likely to all go down the loo.
Organization and management professors Bunderson and Boumgarden note that there is a general assumption that too much structure and management is “disempowering” and will squash innovation which is not necessarily true for all cases. In their study of self-managing teams performing stable tasks (as opposed to teams with imposed rules from the top), they found that the lack of structure more often than not resulted in “inefficiency, poorly coordinated efforts, squandered resources, and member frustration,” while more highly structured teams had fewer conflicts and shared information more freely. They argue that this is because the more clearly defined (or structured) rules, goals, procedures, and authority relations make interactions more predictable and less risky, thus fostering psychological safety and a strong foundation for intragroup trust.
Virtual teams are more susceptible to the problems of poor structure because people are in different locations, cultures, and times. In terms of psychological safety, they generally start off in the hole. Team members have less information with which to assess each other and less shared context in which to build trust. Researchers like Ruhleder and Jordan find that reliance on technology-mediated communication means they are more likely to misinterpret each other, and yet they have fewer opportunities to repair these misunderstandings. Others like Bell and Kozlowski add that members are less aware of the bigger picture and the changes going on that may affect their project. Moreover, team leaders cannot facilitate, coach, and monitor team member performance and progress in the traditional sense to keep everyone together, so these functions must be substituted by structures and processes that allow the team to regulate and check themselves.
So what are these structures and mechanisms that help keep a virtual team flexible yet stable?
In Dubé and Robey’s study respondants generally agreed upon the following solutions:
1 Define clear objectives and prepare detailed plans, but have regular checkpoints and communication to make necessary adjustments. Bell and Kozlowski also add that clear goals should be set both for the group as a whole and for individual. Clarity allows groups to monitor their own progress and to be more motivated to achieve the goal. If you’re looking for an easy way to do that, you may want to check out this review of a goal-sharing tool by GigaOM.
2 Maintain a shared team calendar using information and computing technologies. Shared calendars take the guesswork out of time conversions and make clear everyone’s availability in case a fire needs to be put out.
3 Standardize communication and documentation processes (like having a form for each kind of information to be exchanged), but leave open the possibility of adapting them. This is especially important when teams are crossing organizational boundaries, so everyone has the right context and information is going to the right places.
4 Select team members carefully. It takes a special kind of person to work well on a virtual team. He or she needs to be questioning, creative and to take initiative without being asked. At the same time they need to be disciplined enough to set a work structure and rhythm that fits the needs of the team.
If you have any thoughts about what structures or processes your group uses to stay directed yet adaptable, please share them with us!
Bunderson & Boumgarden. 2010. Structure and Learning in Self-Managed Teams. Organization Science 21(3), pp. 609–624.
Ruhleder & Jordan. 2001. Co-constructing non-mutual realities: Delay generated trouble in distributed interaction. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 10, 113-138.
Bell & Kozlowski. 2002. Typology of Virtual Teams: Implications for Effective Leadership. Group Organization Management 27, pp. 14-49.
The hyperlinked society: Thoughts on linking,knowledge, marketing and media. June 9, 2006. Annenberg Public Policy Center conference. Philadelphia, PA.