Three Core Skill Areas Critical To Successful Virtual Projects

As Project Managers, we don’t lose the fact that the world is shrinking. Virtual projects are all around us, and the influence on our daily activities will vary depending on location, industry, function, and a number of other factors. The reality, however, is that the more skilled we are with the basics of team building in any environment, the better we will be at coping with whatever challenges come our way in a rapidly changing “virtual” world.

The 3 core skills that are essential for a successful virtual project are:

1. Project Team Development
2. Project Communication
3. Strategic Outsourcing

It may seem a little strange to include 1 situation specific skill, strategic outsourcing, with the two soft skills of team building and communication, but in my estimation, outsourcing is important, pervasive, and new enough at this point to deserve attention.
Project Team Building

Teams exist in multiple locations, and this often has the unintended consequence of creating “multiple teams.” The project management challenge is to create an “inclusion” environment, or to ensure that all team members in all locations feel they are part of the team.

Here are a few ways to do this:

A. Introduce everyone – have an initial meeting with each participating site and explain the role of each person in the project

B. Create a team identity – usually with a common goal and common “place”, and this results in some level of common identity

C. Foster informal relationships beyond just projects – “virtual water coolers” are like newsletters highlighting personal life; virtual party at the same time

We need to remember that teams have to CHOOSE to work together – and that includes every team member consciously deciding to be part of the team.

Project Communication

Studies show that a project manager needs to spend more than 85 percent of his time communicating to be effective. Conventional wisdom also holds that communicating too much is almost impossible, asserting that worrying about communicating excessively usually occurs as we get closer to communicating! Many teams with distant members tend to rely more heavily on email or written communication. This often results in a difference in terms of being informed and connected between on-site and off-site groups, and it is our job to find ways to increase the level of information for components outside our team locations.

Much can be done with the extra effort of documenting and disseminating. * puts more thinking and planning into our communications than we usually do
Strategic Outsourcing:

Although Outsourcing is very challenging, it is also very attractive to many project managers. While language, timezone, and connection quality present potential problems, people and the cultural side present an exciting new set of challenges. The ongoing transition to Outsourcing, and trying to strike the right balance, especially presents a stumbling block for many US-based companies that, by virtue of their history, have been heavily US-centered in their operations, management and decision-making.

Behavioral flexibility, for example, is needed to get the best out of staff in different countries. Our project management background may have instilled in us the importance of prompt reporting and raising issues proactively. However, many cultures seek to avoid bad news or conflict, which often prevents individuals in these cultures from engaging in the proactive reporting and communication we might expect.

Bringing Everything Together

Developing our skills in core disciplines is always important and can help us be more effective in today’s changing “virtual project” environment. My suggestion is that Project Leaders and Team Members consider core soft skills training in Teambuilding Projects and Project Communication (particularly International Communication. I also recommend specific training on Virtual Teams and Outsourcing, such as Onsite and High-Performance Virtual Teams and Managing Software Outsourcing Projects.