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05.23.14 | blog

5 Tips to Successful Communication Across Virtual Teams

I once spoke to a group of high school students about project management and being a project manager. I told this group that a project manager is a lot like a conductor of the marching band. The musicians know the notes to play but the conductor determines what music to be played, decides which musical instruments are needed, negotiates with the musicians, distributes the sheet music, helps create the program and communicates the dates.

During the show, the conductor leads the musicians in changes of tone or tempo, informs the musical sections when it’s time to come in, and most importantly brings the music to life. The conductor can change the music and update the program lead.  Project Management is the process the band follows to make this beautiful music. The project manager fulfills similar job requirements as the conductor, and if successful, instead of a successful performance, the project manager and company will see the results in a successful launch and the program benefits. Project management involves, discovering the project requirements, negotiating with the functional areas for resources, aligning the project team members on the project goals, communicating the project status, project dates, project risks & issues and documenting the project for all stakeholders to review.

Unlike traditional project teams, virtual teams are not physically bound to any one location, but can be dispersed across the globe, bringing their cultural diversity and acumen to the project’s success.

Project Communications

Undoubtedly the most important element of a project in virtual teams is communications. True project management methodologies take a larger part in communicating every step of the process including identifying the initiative (project charter), to documenting cost benefits (cost benefit analysis document), to scoping the idea (project scope), to identifying risks of implementing the initiative (RAID log), to communicating plans (contact sheets & communication plan). Virtual project communications, however, are more difficult than face to face interactions. So how do project communications and virtual project teams work successfully?

1. Identify the Sponsor(s) & Stakeholders

The project manager must identify both the internal and external stakeholders, noting if this person is a positive or negative promoter for the project. First, after you identify the team, meet with the sponsor (C-suite and management level) and agree upon the project success factors.  Second, meet with each of the stakeholders to discuss the project goals and success factors, and to determine their project expectations and understand their stake in the project.

2. Create your communication plan

Your communication plan must document the sponsor and stakeholders’ names, titles, roles for the project, communication methods, and frequency of communication between team members. At the start of each phase, review this contact sheet with the sponsor(s) and correct as necessary. Discuss the reports needed to review the project status and how regularly they want to see them.

3. Create risks, actions, issues and decisions (RAID) log

A RAID log is usually an Excel spreadsheet which houses the risk register, action log, issues log and decision matrix.  This spreadsheet lays out the structure for communications on these four elements (risk, actions, issues and decisions). 

a. Risk Register

Risk management provides valuable insights to help the project team: plan for risks, alert on potential risks, analyze the risks, and develop, implement and monitor the mitigation strategy to address the risks before it adversely affects project cost, performance, or the schedule.

b. Action list

Actions should be documented from each project meeting, aligning team members with the agreed upon actions and completion. Actions are reviewed at each project meeting. The action list should include functional groups, start date of action, action description, names of responsible parties, current status, progress, and deadline.

c. Issues log

Issues must be communicated to the sponsor as soon as they are identified. Your log should include a description of the issue, type of issue (which functional group is impacted), date identified, responsible party (or parties), priority and target resolution date.

d. Decision log

Decision logs keep everything in one place and allow the project manager to review these decisions monthly with the project sponsor.  The logs should include the date the decision was made, what decision was made, who agreed to the decision, where the decision was made and justification for the decision.

4. Develop teamwork and collaboration

For virtual project teams, teamwork and collaboration is essential to successfully implement a project.  While working with the team to negotiate time and resources, the communication of the project goals must be clear and related to the team members’ roles. Encourage and discuss challenges with team members but avoid criticism and negative feedback. 

Project management is a continuous loop of communications and the key element in any project.  Successfully managing and completing projects within a virtual team can be difficult, but with effective communication, victory will quickly follow.

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