Why Technology Won’t Solve Your Virtual Teams Challenges


I Love Virtual Teams

The last time my entire team sat together to get our work done (on a full time basis) was in 1996. Since then, I've been managing virtual teams. I've managed small virtual teams, like 4 people, and large ones with more than 100 remote staff.

I've leveraged virtual teams where I was in one place and the rest of the team was elsewhere, and I've managed teams where the entire team was spread out over multiple continents.

And in every case, the goal was to create not just a functional team, but a high performing one. That backdrop, those 19 years, are what went into my eBooks – on high performing and virtual teams.

The One Question

Yet, even after writing those ebooks, and even after spending two decades educating execs about the merits and challenges of managing virtual teams, I still only get one question over and over. It may even be the question that brought you here.

What are the best tools to help our virtual and remote teams?

It seems like no matter what I write or share, we all seem to think the answer, the silver bullet, will come in the form of a technology solution.

Technology Won't Solve Personal Ownership Issues

On the teams I manage we don't have “juice box” moments. Those are the moments when I have to tell my staff exactly what to do, and exactly how to do it. We don't have those moments because I don't manage children. I manage adults. Adults who know how to make decisions, and whose moms don't pack their juice boxes.

I know it sounds harsh, but the truth is that sometimes we end up inheriting or hiring staff that really aren't right for the role – regardless of where they're sitting. If that's the case, our job (and our integrity) demands that we're honest. I've had to have those honest conversations and more often than not, the staff have been able to turn things around.

At issue is personal ownership. They have to own the tasks they're on. They have to own the decisions they make. That's what adults do. And no fancy project management system, screen sharing, or VoIP solution is going to solve that for me.

Technology Won't Solve Context Sharing Issues

With all that said, you might imagine that I don't want to be involved in the work that my staff do. That's not true. I have one chief job – more important than any other. That's to be the storyteller for my team. I need to keep sharing the story of our client, the story of our product, the story of our project's timeline (and political pressures), and the story of our profits. These stories provide my staff with the context they need to make good decisions.

If I don't share the context, then they'll make poor decisions and won't even bubble up the important ones because they won't even know which ones are important. My job is constantly sharing context so that decisions on every level are made better. And you can imagine what I'll say next: no technology solves that for me. I have to do it on my own.

Technology Won't Solve Decision Making Issues

In many of the teams I help lead – whether for work or when I'm coaching other companies – I see the same thing. The folks doing the majority of the work are making 10% of the decisions. The middle management team is making 30%. And the remaining 60% are made by the execs in charge.

This centralized decision-making model, a seriously command/control approach, still works in specific contexts where it's necessary. But in many cases this approach only makes things more challenging – as decisions have to be made and remade as more information bubbles up.

Technology will help communicate a decision down to “the troops” but it won't do anything to flip the decision making model on its head.

What is Needed?

So having spent this whole time telling you why technology won't solve your virtual teams challenges, is there any hope for managers who are currently in that situation?

Well sure, I share all the answers in my two, easy to read, and inexpensive… just kidding.

The real answer is that leadership and culture are the two tools I know that really help virtual teams success.

I've heard people say that culture eats strategy for lunch (or pick your favorite meal). I'd like to suggest culture eats training & technology for lunch.

But that's for another time when I introduce you to my #fortymantras to help you create an effective and powerful team culture.