Rules of Engagement for a Virtual World part 3

Master Virtual Team Makeup for Business Advantage

Small is beautiful

In my experience working with everything from iconic multinational companies to tiny startups, the best virtual team is a small one – under 10 people. Four or five members total is ideal.

OnPoint’s research supports me, noting that 37% of low-performing virtual teams had 13 members or more. Here’s why small is better: relatively minor coordination and communication challenges grow almost exponentially as a virtual team grows.

Do the interpersonal math: Inevitably, someone (or a subgroup) feels left out of the loop. Few things erode trust faster than being left out of important communications about a project with which you are involved.

Yet even the most diligent manager would have difficulty keeping up with the communication needs of a large, geographically dispersed team. Where input from a wide range of people with expertise in different areas is needed, there’s a strong temptation to put together a virtual team that’s too large.

OnPoint found that opting instead to keep the core team small while advisory groups gave input on an as-needed basis was more likely to be successful.

This is the strategy I recommend to clients as well – one that the manufacturer I described above adopted after months of poor coordination and regular communication snafus. Don’t make the mistake of including honorary team members.

And team membership shouldn’t be voluntary or outside the normal job. It is the job. In my experience, teams with a lot of members who have no real stake in the team’s success almost invariably fail.


Getting the structure right

Although I believe it is often beneficial for teams to be cross-functional, OnPoint’s study found that was not the case.

When virtual teams come together from a range of functions – say, finance, operations, HR, and IT – to work on a cost-management initiative, problems resulting from a lack of accountability tend to arise.

The reason is that leaders may not have formal authority over every member of such a matrixed team, making it more difficult for them to hold others accountable. I see this a lot, especially in large firms.

Virtual team members are frequently not evaluated on their contributions to the team or on successful collaboration, but rather on their performance within the line of business they represent.

This sets up an automatic disincentive to collaborate and has the potential to derail important and innovative virtual team initiatives. That said, although OnPoint’s study notes the potential for accountability problems and recommends avoiding crossfunctional teams, it’s not an inevitable outcome.

 I’ve written earlier about the importance of a culture of accountability in any successful virtual team. The important takeaway is that leaders who are putting together cross-functional virtual teams need to ensure that clear lines of accountability and uniform performance measures are established at the outset.


Chris Corey SEO Wildman

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