Virtual Success: The Dark Side of Virtual Teams

June 19, 2012 — 4 Comments

Poor management, communications breakdowns, unsuitable or badly integrated team members, ill-equipped staff, personality clashes — there are many reasons why virtual teams fail. Not surprisingly, despite years of research on how to do virtual teams better (not to mention the development of great technological tools), virtual teams still fail at an alarming rate – varied research results suggest that failure rates for virtual teams may be as high as 70%.

While virtual teams create the opportunity to bring together the best and most appropriate individuals based on their expertise and skills, it is often the inability of these individuals to work together towards a common goal (in a virtual context) that results in failure. In order to perform well, virtual teams have to work harder and use distinct methodologies, processes and behaviors to build communication, trust and a sense of team cohesiveness. But what happens when they don’t? Usually… epic failure!

From my experience, here are a few of the key reasons virtual teams continue to fail in a bit more detail:

1.       People don’t know what to do.

This is generally the result of the following situations:

•     Goals, direction or priorities are not made clear. Because it is more difficult to communicate with and inform team members who are geographically dispersed, it is also more difficult to keep team members focused on the same goals and objectives – especially over an extended period of time. In addition, many teams are comprised of people from different cultures and disciplines who all see things very differently will also interpret roles and responsibilities very differently, not to mention the formal incentive to perform may come from the local organization – not the virtual structure.

•     The work people are doing is not aligned with the overall organizational or team vision. Within virtual teams, people often have very different ways of working, different expectations of quality or other paradigms that conflict with the team or its leaders.   It is critical that there is a team vision that is aligned with the organizational vision.  However, no vision has any value if the team does not know and embody that vision in everything they do.

•     Virtual team members frequently don’t know, or have experience with, each other. They may not have a clear understanding of how to work together as a team. With virtual teams, it is exceptionally important for all team members to clearly understand their individual roles and how the work they do impacts other team members. One common challenge is that people know their own role, however they don’t know or trust the roles of the other team members. Teams can’t form the short-hand communication they need to really function at a high level without set standards for working, open communication channels and an in-depth knowledge of everyone’s role on the team and how it corresponds to their own work.

2.     Cultural disparities drive behavior – and outcomes.

  • Though cultural differences should always be respected and incorporated into the fabric of the team, there are times when accepting culturally driven behavior can be counterproductive… or even dangerous. For instance, it may be very difficult for team members from a collective culture to raise concerns or speak freely when a perceived superior is involved. For most projects, this may be challenging but it will not jeopardize the success of the project and can be addressed in context. In the best scenario, cultural disparities may limit innovation and creative thought on the team. In more dire scenarios, where safety needs to be a predominant aspect of the organizational culture, the absence of open communication may, as one reader indicated, “sometimes result in insufficient warnings that unwise decisions or other errors have been made…” This could be very dangerous when errors or lapses could potentially cause serious accidents.
  • The opposite is also true – those members from more individualistic cultures, can also create significant barriers to success. The root of the challenge may come down to the more dominant members seeming overbearing and domineering, causing those from more collective cultures to feel their opinions and input are not valued… or even heard.  Leaders need to always be aware of the potential outcomes that may occur as a result of unintended cultural behaviors.

3.    Accountability & knowledge management are not a priority.

  • Virtual teams that lack accountability may not have guiding principles to help reinforce responsibility and accountability. The lack of visibility may cause virtual team members to feel less accountable for results, therefore explicit facilitation of teamwork takes on heightened importance for virtual teams. Without coordination mechanisms, such as scheduling deadlines and coordinating the pace of effort, team members may not feel accountable to the team leader… or the team.
  • In a traditional office, knowledge is often dispersed unequally or kept in silos. However, in complex virtual team environments, the trail of bread-crumbs leading to data may be more convoluted or harder to track.  This may cause people to be focused on outdated assumptions and data, which can result in failed projects. The Airbus debacle is a great example – the work was genius, just completely worthless in conjunction with the rest of the project. The tools used to track and capture information from the team can be helpful, but knowledge sharing starts with having the right attitude and a sense of accountability to the team.

4.      Systems/Processes don’t work… or people don’t know how to make them work.

  • Because virtual teams are so dependent on technology, the team must be conversant with not just what tools are available, but when to use each tool to achieve maximum impact.  A good project requires a mix of synchronous (people can talk at the same time) and asynchronous (people use them at different times) tools to be truly effective.
  • A successful virtual team relies on a defined vision and a careful breakdown of how it can accomplish assigned goals. Virtual work processes need to be more rigid than those for co-located teams, with specific systems in place to cover time tracking, milestones, check-ins and knowledge sharing. At the same time, the process must be flexible enough to accommodate the varied work styles of virtual workers. As a leader, you need to decide whether it is more important that work be done on a very specific schedule at a certain time of day or just that it is done on time.

Leaders that understand how to recognize and prepare for challenges and then raise solutions before they become costly stumbling blocks are setting themselves up for success. However, most leaders are taken aback by the diverse challenges that virtual teams can bring and spend the majority of their time attempting to assess what is going on and put out the fires.

Are you prepared to manage the “dark side” of virtual teams?

Please engage the discussion and let us know how you manage “the dark side” on your virtual teams. Always feel free to contact me at Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website at www.LuminosityGlobal.com. Check back next week, for next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries & Borders.

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Sheri is The Global Coach, founder of Luminosity Global Consulting Group, Global Executive Coach, Speaker, Writer and Global Business and Cultural Expert.

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4 responses to Virtual Success: The Dark Side of Virtual Teams

  1. Great post – many of the items above also cripple in person teams, but they are overlooked because of the proximity of the team members. People who don’t know what to do on a project (or don’t know that they don’t know – which is even worse!) create project chaos.

    I’m curious about the effects of language as well – there are always issues that arise when the project team (supplier) and the customer speak different industry languages (think of medical versus information technology), but what have you seen the effects to be when English is a second (or third) language and the project spans multiple countries? I’ve worked in ISO standards for software engineering (65 countries involved), the language is English and there is no translation equipment – sometimes the results take a lot of extra time because of the single language. I’m not sure how much, but I’d like to know your input.

    Keep up the good posts Sheri!
    Carol

  2. I have taken some classes online and find many of the same issues as you outlined with virtual teams. There is some sort of disconnect that happens when we sit behind a computer screen. Of course when there isnt. Thank you doing such a good job of stating the problem. We need to figure this out.

  3. Great post!

    Of the issues highlighted, I believe that “Cultural Disparity” might be the most crucial. As is known among the more seasoned Executive Leadership, “Culture eats strategy, technology, and preference…all day, every day.” And far too many executives underestimate this impactful significance. Moreover, they allow the decision to be made by non-business/operational consideration; e.g. personal, emotion, and personality-based factors (cast culture privilege). For any Team to be located outside the “firewall” there should be a strategic, not even tactical, rationale. Otherwise, the company is flirting with disaster.

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