Back in 2012/13 when I began research for my PhD I had the opportunity to spend time with a number of major resources project personnel, where I interviewed them as part of my research data collection on the good and bad of using virtual teams to deliver their projects. Within a few months, practically all of the teams I interviewed had dissolved as the resources boom began to end, but my research continued on.
After spending the succeeding years analyzing the data and reflecting on the insights, I am now watching the emerging wave of new resources projects and wondering how many the lessons of the last wave have been retained. So, just in case they weren’t, here are a few points for those leading or working in these new projects to consider.
New tools, old thoughts
Since the end of the last wave technology has clearly advanced, its now easier than ever to talk to team members in other locations, we have a far more robust and user friendly version of Skype, most mobile phones have at least one built in app for face to face communications, there are a number of free to use tools on most computers and tools like Slack are part of the day to day landscape of many businesses.
However, for many organisations and many individuals the tools are all that has changed. The same thought processes and level of understanding of what constitutes good communications remain. Many still see technical prowess as the yard stick to measure their abilities and the abilities of their colleagues, ignoring or at best minimising the need and perceived value of empathy and good communications skills.
All this is a little like repainting a rusty and unreliable car, yes it may have the most fashionable paint scheme but underneath it still runs the same. Many project managers are still indoctrinated to lead by control and their mastery of Gantt charts, budgets and earned value curves, issuing commands and edicts by email and then grudgingly holding a quarterly town hall meeting to inform their personnel of the project status (often only in one location regardless of the locations of their people). Cross cultural skills are still seen as the domain of HR, and organisational culture is typically given a passing reference in a few pieces of corporate and project handbooks.
Much of the above could be seen as just a task waiting to be completed if there were a sense that the fundamentals of leadership that differentiate a virtual team project from a co-located one were in place. Sadly though this seems to be rarely the case. Projects are essentially still applying the same practices to these new projects as the last time. Budgets are developed that do not acknowledge the differences such as increased integration costs to keep the different locations aligned, increased travel costs (still projects delude themselves by believing the technology will remove the need for travel) and the needs for additional checking for consistency and localised standards needs.
Loss of corporate knowledge
When the last project wave ended most companies shed their project personnel as they had no work for them. For a while these personnel remained on the market then progressively were lost to other roles, retirement or relocation. This shedding of staff was done quickly with little thought of capturing corporate knowledge – many companies assume they will just hire that knowledge back in or buy it elsewhere.
However, reality is that much of this corporate knowledge is irreplaceable as it is held in a collective conscious rather than in written documents or individual heads. Groups of personnel will have developed ways of working together across distance over month to years of collaboration, that knowledge and ability will take at least as long to rebuild as it did the first time.
Similarly many personnel will have learnt through experience who had what skills and skill gaps, what communications approaches and workarounds worked and didn’t work, how to communicate and how not to over those years of working together, all lost and all needing rebuilding. Yet there is never a budget and definitely no time allocated for this in any estimate or project schedule I have ever seen.
Denying of mistakes of the past
So, as new projects get started, staffed by those who were promoted during the last boom and have managed to hold their roles during the quiet period, alongside a cohort of new hires, all of whom collectively may have memories of just the last wave, it is easy for them to believe they were not part of the problems of the past and as such will not make them again. This may be true for some, but equally human nature would suggest that they will both repeat many previous mistakes (they were largely trained in the same skills as their predecessors) and also make a whole set of new mistakes, just like those before did.
Regardless of whether the past mistakes are denied or not they need to be acknowledged honestly and learned from. In the context of this article, this is that fundamentally during the last boom many involved in the projects were simply not equipped technically or emotionally to work in effectively virtual teams. Yes some were, and I met some amazingly capable and insightful individuals as part of my research and elsewhere, but many were just not equipped for the environment they found themselves in, not by their organisations, their universities or the culture of their projects.
For those starting these new projects it is easy to believe we have absorbed the lessons of the past, that this time will be better, that this time we will take the time to build relationships and trust.
But, will it happen. Will the dreams of that perfect project be consumed by the day-to-day pressures of managing schedules, producing specifications and designs, placing orders and meeting client demands. Putting the technical ahead of the human, believing that the human side of the project will take care of itself, that the disparate groups of individuals hastily thrown together around the project objectives somehow coalesce into a well oiled machine of a team. I hope it will but I fear the situation may well become a partial repeat of the previous phase, like a remake of a film, different cast but similar storyline.
Push to be first, again
One of the characteristics of the last wave of resources projects, certainly here in my home state of Western Australia and from what I understand in many other jurisdictions was a rush to be first. And not only to be first but to do so with no regard for the impact on the marketplace of everyone else also rushing to be first.
It didn’t matter if you were in the same sector or industry, you were likely still trying to access largely the same skill pool, physical resources, logistics channels etc. Once the local pool was fully utilised projects looked further and further afield, engaging personnel with often low understanding of the needs of the client environment, often with low levels of skills in the language, culture and practices in the client environment and collectively with a low base of experience in accommodating these gaps in others.
As the race to be first resumes I hope those leading the projects involved will be a little more considered in their planning and leadership. That they will build a bit of time into their schedules to allow for some flexibility and collective learning among their teams. Let people get to know each other well enough that they can work effectively together and so they can each bring their local skills and knowledge to help the overall project succeed.
The above then brings me to the cost side of these new projects. During the post boom downturn there has been intense pressure across the entire resources sector on costs. Some of this was long overdue, cleaning out poor practices and waste. But if the pendulum swings too far, and these new projects have been endorsed on the assumption that the immediate future will be the same as the immediate past, that prices will remain stable and appropriately skilled personnel will be readily available at todays prices, many of these project may already be starting to see budgets come under pressure and schedules slip.
This pressure situation is where discretionary budgets and schedule float get sacrificed to meet deadlines, so team building is cancelled, travel budgets get reduced and suddenly the things needed to build and maintain a virtual team begin to disappear. This can then become a death spiral for the project impacted as teams become increasingly closed, defensive and insular due to a lack of time and opportunity to interface and build relationships.
New generation of project leaders at home and abroad
So, it is critical at this early stage for these new projects at the corporate level to acknowledge that the great majority of these new projects are being led by or, at the least, are largely staffed by people new to their roles. Many will have been in the sector for a long time but in different roles with different requirements and skill sets.
Many of these pew people will not know what new skills they need to develop to work in their new roles, we need to help them fill these gaps. Some will believe they already have the skills they need, some will be right but may not so, and organisations need to provide the opportunities for those who want to or are willing to build these skills to do so and equally ways to redeploy those who refuse.
These same needs are in all locations, at the home of the project and elsewhere, in the ownership of the project, in their immediate subcontractors and in every level of subcontractor and business partner below them. They all need the same support.
Many of these personnel will of course be technology specialists, individuals whose career to date has been defined by their technical prowess, a prowess that instills a belief that the tech will solve all problems. These individuals, often more than any other need to be helped to recognise that they now need to fill the gaps, round out their skills, and embrace the fact that much of their future opportunity will depend as much or more on their abilities to integrate into and eventually lead virtual teams.