Ambiguity is a curse in almost any business environment. Dealing with uncertainty in most endeavours can be frustrating for all concerned, but managing ambiguity in virtual teams is one of the most challenging tasks facing any team.
As discussed in an earlier post, many cultures deal with uncertainty differently, but the cultural side of uncertainty is almost nothing when compared to the general effect of ambiguity in distributed teams. My own research and much of the published material and anecdotal evidence all points to the one conclusion, managing ambiguity in virtual teams is essential and ongoing.
Forms of ambiguity
Ambiguity takes a number of forms in virtual team environments, including some of the key ones of ambiguity of scope, ambiguity of communications, ambiguity of schedule and ambiguity of authority to name but a few.
- Ambiguity of scope – having ambiguity over the assignment of scope between offices leads to work being either performed by more than one location or by none, this can occur in major pieces of scope but is more prevalent at the margins, where one office’s defined scope buts up against the scope of another and there is uncertainty over who does what in the interface to complete things.
- Ambiguity of communications – mixed messages or imprecise messages lead to confusion, frustration and eventually out right animosity and hostility between offices. Having discussions that end without firm agreements as to who will do what, when and how are almost worse than not having any discussions at all, the best way to manage discussions is to have clear ownership of each task at the end of the discussion, such that each person knows who will do what, when they will do it and what is to happen next.
- Ambiguity of schedule – being unclear of dates that tasks are required to be complete, or when input from one office is required by others who are dependant on those tasks for their own schedule. Without clarity of schedule each party will eventually start to work to their own schedule, taking best guesses for when work is needed and when they will receive input from others. This situation will quickly deteriorate into mass confusion and leads to conflict.
- Ambiguity of authority – not knowing who has authority for what in a virtual team is equally a recipe for disaster, the general recommendation that there only be one overall chief is usually in place but the levels of devolved leadership and authority, particularly in each component team, is frequently overlooked when setting up virtual teams. Without clear local leadership, leadership with real authority, teams can fragment and messages, both between the local team and between teams, start to become confused and broken.
Managing ambiguity in virtual teams
The best way to manage ambiguity in virtual teams is similar, though more rigid, to managing ambiguity in co-located teams, and that is to work as hard as possible to eliminate it. Clear guidelines and procedures are a great place to start, but they must be easy to read and understand and must also be sensitive to all of the different cultures and teams involved in your work, then personnel need to be encouraged to have clear discussions, this does not mean they need to be clinical, there is always a place for personal discussions, especially since they help build a team spirit that can help overcome misunderstanding, but the outcomes of discussions, where they involve agreement over scope, schedule etc. need to be clear and ideally also documented, even if just by a quick email.
The other side of the managing ambiguity in virtual teams is that while all personnel must aim for a less ambiguous workplace, they also need to be tolerant of ambiguity when it occurs and work proactively with their colleagues to clarify things. The alternate to this will lead to intolerance, disagreements, frustration and eventually breakdowns of relationships between offices, which in turn will lead to serious business issues, so, “if in doubt, ask!”
Ulfire specialises in assisting organisations develop high performing virtual teams, please feel free to contact us for any assistance or guidance you may need in establishing or managing your team or project.
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