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Episode 343: Managing Virtual Teams (Free)

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Jesse Fewell
Cornelius Fichtner and Jesse Fewell

This interview with Jesse Fewell was recorded at the 2015 PMI® Global Congress in Orlando, Florida. We discuss his paper and presentation "Can You Hear Me Now? Working with Global, Distributed, Virtual Teams". Here is the paper's abstract:

Today's work world has changed radically. Whether video chatting with China or taking a call at from home, more and more professional work is no longer in person. It can be frustrating, but a deeper look reveals some surprises: Everyone is doing it, and not just for costs; many organizations are thriving with it. Most pain points have simple work-arounds. This paper will walk you through tips and benefits for working with people outside your office.

With the rise of the Internet, emerging economies, and the trend of working from home, today’s professionals are dealing with a workplace that is very different from anything the world has ever seen. Never before in the history of mankind have we been able to conduct so much work, so quickly, with so many people outside our own location.

Of course, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. We struggle with time zone issues, language barriers, limited visibility, poor infrastructure, and so on and so on. Sometimes we choose remote teams intentionally for their benefits. But often, this kind of organizational structure is handed to managers and team members without choice.

This paper is about how to deal with all those issues and strengthen your teams.

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Welcome back to Disneyworld. We are once live here at the 2015 PMI Global Congress in Orlando, Florida. You are listening to the Project Management Podcast at And with me is Jesse Fewell. Hello, Jesse.

Jesse Fewell:   Hey, Cornelius.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Good afternoon.

Jesse Fewell:   Thank you, good to be here with you.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Hey, we have to hurry. Your presentation is in two hours.

Jesse Fewell:    Yeah, I know, I know. I'm pretty excited about it.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Can you hear me now? is the topic of your presentation, but what I would like to hear from you now is what do you see coming in the future for us project managers? What is the new and upcoming trend? 

Jesse Fewell:   I think the key word is versatility. I've heard a lot of people use the word Agile to describe not so much a methodology but a mindset. I'm seeing the leadership, the Talent Triangle that PMI’s introduced that the project manager can no longer be a process policeman. You now have to have a diversity or versatility of skill set. One of the other trends I'm seeing is that there's conversations about blending your methods. It's not just about following the PMBOK® guide by the letter, it's not just about following Scrum by the letter. You've got to be versatile about blending the right solutions for the right environment. And then also, about your physical environments, we're no longer working in the same office anymore. And so, you got to demonstrate some versatility by working with people who are in other offices in other companies on the inside of the world. Or with the growing trend, more and more project managers working from home. So versatility, I think, is the key word whether we're talking about your skill set, your methods, or your working environments.

Cornelius Fichtner:   All right. Can you hear me now? Working with Global, Distributed, Virtual Teams. That ties nicely into your trends analysis just now. Why the topic of Virtual Teams?

Jesse Fewell:   I think what we're seeing now is what I'm calling the new normal, where there's been over the last 15 years an emergence of technologies that have made virtual collaboration less of a luxury and more of a standard infrastructure status quo. Video codecs, where video compression now is more via broadband, you pick with your broadband in homes and in offices across the world. And these strange new collaboration tools, social media now for the office, whether it's Chatter or Jabber, we're seeing now that there's a new normal. And people have spent 15 or 20 years in the workforce are being challenged to retool. And people are asking, Jesse, where do I get some information, some tips and tricks because just scheduling a meeting in Outlook where I normally would do, now I’ve got to think twice about the infrastructure we're going to use, about of the timezones people might be in, whether or not there's an agenda for this meeting because people need to come prepared as opposed to a casual conversation at the office. So, that is indeed one of these trends that I'm seeing that's driving a real need for input and tips and techniques.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Your presentation starts in a little over two hours. When the attendees walk out of there, what is the one thing you really want them to take out of the room with them that you can also leave for our listeners right now?

Jesse Fewell:   The one thing is to try something different. Break the old habit that you have been accustomed to, like I've mentioned scheduling a meeting in Outlook. And another one is, well, we need to have a conversation about this, let's just have a meeting. And I think that one of the habits we get into day to day to day, whatever they are, we got to be intentional about letting go of what we used to do just by instinct and habit of it practice in the professional force and be intentional about having some ground rules for a team such that we all speak business English, not your UK English or your American English. We've got to be a little bit more sensitive about idioms that people may not understand. If you're working with people that might be working from home, we've got to be comfortable that there might be some interruptions. One of the ground rules about a blended workforce, some working from this office or that office, instead of just assuming that everyone is going to behave the same way that you do in your office. So that would be the one takeaway is that - is to take a look at what you assume to be normal practice in your office and stop and ask a question among your team, is this going to work for us or do we need to rethink about some of our assumptions about day-to-day interactions?

Cornelius Fichtner:   Your presentation, basically has four parts - context, collaboration, communication, conclusion. We're going to follow that along a little bit. So let's start out with the context. What is the definition? What do we need to know as a basis to better understand global, distributed, virtual teams?

Jesse Fewell:   Well the operating definition is this, that a remote team or virtual team is one where at least one person is not working in your office.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Just one?

Jesse Fewell:   At least one. As soon as we start just having the one person, a seven-person team and there's just one person dialing from home and we're all going to meet him in the conference room together, oh, we'll just dial in Sanjiv. Sanjiv is now an outsider. And we're going to be talking and collaborating over the bridge phone, over the polycom in the desk but Sanjiv isn't going to be having that same in-room dynamic that we're having. He may not be able to physically hear some of the sidebar conversations. And imagine, when we compound that problem when we're talking about three different offices on the polycom together, sidebar conversations, different dynamics in the room and then you add on top of that language, and you add on top of that different real cultural norms, and now we've got a real communication issue. So if you start understanding that equality starts with all of us, now working together on the same understanding and assumptions, that's the operating definition.  

Cornelius Fichtner:   All right.

Jesse Fewell:   That's the context that I think we're driving with.

Cornelius Fichtner:   You've already talked about a few warning signs that you should start thinking about with the lack of side conversations and communication. What are the warning signs do you see with these global, distributed, virtual teams that we need to consider and think about?

Jesse Fewell:   The number one thing is unspoken frustration.

Cornelius Fichtner:   Oh.

Jesse Fewell:   Unspoken frustration that I can't believe I have to stay in for the daily – the check-in call. Or I can't believe that I have to wake up at 5 AM for this meeting with the executive at headquarters. And it's not fair that the Indian office, they speak Hindi half the time when we're on the conversations, whenever they're doing their sidebars, not only I don’t understand what their sidebar conversation is, it’s not fair. Or it's not fair that when I need people to get on the phone, they're taking a three-hour lunch. And we don't have common ground rules about that so, instead what we do is we complain. We complain privately to our co-workers that happen to be in our situation or we might complain to our boss, but we haven't taken the issue up vocally with a family conversation. Let's just have a family conversation. So as soon as you start feeling frustration, or pain, or confusion that isn't spoken, it starts to simmer a little bit. And that immediately impacts teamwork which immediately impacts productivity and coordination. And so the sooner you get this up and out into the open, I think, it's going to start to improve. That's the warning sign. When you start feeling stuff, frustrating and painful, and annoying and you don't hear anybody talking about it, that's the warning sign. 

Cornelius Fichtner:   The obvious follow-up question is how do I get it out into the open? I'm putting myself into the shoes of a project manager right now who has a virtual team. Everything is doing great, from my perspective, because I don't hear any complaints. So, how do I know that there are frustrations out there? What do I have to do in order to make people stand up and say, you know what, this isn't working.

Jesse Fewell:   Well, one of the key words every project manager should know is Kaizen. And you should - every project manager worth his salt will have regularly scheduled Kaizen conversations. Whether you have Agile retrospective or whether you have Lessons Learned meeting in the middle of the project, not waiting until the end of the post-mortem. And in those meetings, you have to put your facilitator hat on. Instead of your coordinator hat, you put your facilitator hat on and say, okay, I realized that maybe things looked great from my perspective but we believe in ruthless improvement. We believe that the status quo by definition is not what it should be. We believe in continuous improvement that by definition, whatever we are doing today is not what we could be doing. And so, that would be the first thing. And then, set some ground rules that this is the one conversation that I'm vowing not to chime in as the project manager because I'm putting my facilitator hat on instead of my coordinator hat. So create the space for safe conversation. Give it a name, give it like the Kaizen meeting or the lean workout or the Agile retrospective. Give it a name so that people know that's the forum where they could do it. Or maybe you designate somebody as the process improvement champion, then we don't have to wait for the regularly scheduled meetings.

Cornelius Fichtner:   If you have a problem, go complain to Susan. She will take it up.

Jesse Fewell:   Yeah exactly, the Scum master or if you're doing that, maybe the PMO or somebody who's designated as the person who’s willing to foster conversation about not doing stupid things anymore.

Cornelius Fichtner:   All right, wonderful. So much for the first part of your presentation, the context. We're moving on to collaboration. What are some collaboration considerations?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

PDUs: Ways of Working, PMI Global Congress, PMI Global Congress NA 2015, Project Manager Skills

  • Last updated on .
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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