This post follows on from an earlier one on structural complexity in project virtual teams and forms part of a short series on the subject. In the world of complex projects and complex working environment the impact of social complexity is one that needs to be carefully considered and incorporated in any and all planning.
Social complexity in a project environment occurs around one or both of two areas; social interaction and rule based interaction.
Social interaction and social complexity
Social interaction in the complexity sense happens where communication lines between project team members are complex, where it is difficult or impossible to undertake team building, where respect and trust is either not present or not easily built and where commitment and motivation toward the project and teammates are absent.
- Communication – Virtual teams are notorious for the inherent complicated nature of the lines of communication. Even the most compact virtual team, one where only a few members may be located remote to the hub of the team, will suffer from strained communication lines from time to time. The difficulties of coordinating communications when team members are distributed across multiple locations means that it can be hard to manage even simple task based communication, ensuring the phrasing is accurate enough to avoid confusion yet transparent enough for all of the team to understand it is an ongoing problem for virtual team members. On top of this task based communication is then the extra layer of trying to also build and maintain a team spirit and morale through the same platforms. Organisations grasp for any shiny new tool or platform they feel may help them with this task yet frequently forget that the most simple tool is the human voice and physical presence in occasional meetings. I have seen projects that have run for a couple of years burn through numerous different communication tools as new ideas hit the market when in reality they would have been better to stay within a sensible pallet of tools – voice, video, email and some form of immediate text based tool will typically be it – and try as much as possible to retain the same tools for the duration of at least each phase of the project. Solid communication plans need to be developed for the life of the project.
- Team building – As humans we are intensely social creatures, yes some are more outgoing and gregarious while other often prefer their own company, but at our core we work best when we feel included in the team we are tasked to be part of. Consequently, team building is a vital part of the establishment and maintenance of any project. While virtual teams add complexity to team building they do not mean it is impossible or even excessively costly. Team building can be phased across the project, it can be done on a location by location basis with then an overarching exercise held to bring together team members who will work across the boundaries of the locations. Whatever approach is taken there is little argument that doing something is hugely more effective than doing nothing – so long as the something in question is properly considered. Team building also needs to be held at each change of phase of the project and as large proportions of the team change out. Even small changes of numbers in a team can lead to substantial changes in the overall team dynamics so leaders of teams and groups need to be vigilant for these changes and be ready to undertake some form of team building or rebuilding from time to time. Build and nurture your team carefully and rebuild it each time a major change happens.
- Respect – Largely built on the back of effective communication and team building, respect and trust are vital to the running of a virtual team, whether the team is undertaking a simple or a complex project. Respect and trust are formed by different people in different ways with their trust and respect forming approach influenced by their individual personalities, their personal, national and corporate culture and even by the profession in which they practice. Some will form transactional trust, where they determine how much they will trust their colleagues based on how they deliver transactional work. Others will be form trust through social means. Similarly, professional and personal respect, while frequently present, can be easily challenged if one group in a virtual team fails to either keep another fully informed of activities or does not deliver on a deadline. Without trust and respect no virtual team can ever hope to be successful.
- Motivation and commitment – Motivation of team members in environments such as virtual teams where social complexity is a major challenge is often a fraught and challenging field for the leaders of the projects and businesses involved. Typically a project virtual team will have a core of highly motivated and committed personnel who understand and are dedicated to the successful outcomes of the project, this core will then be surrounded by a body of personnel who recognise the commitment of their leaders and who will either be committed to helping the leader achieve their objectives or to the overall project outcome. Often this group will see their personal careers and prestige tied closely to the success of their leaders and projects. However, outside of this inner circle and their supporting cohort are a large group of personnel form whom the project is simply a job. Many will still take great personal and professional pride in the successful outcome of their portion of the project, but others will only work on this job until something else comes along. This outer layer is where much of the work is performed but the distance between the core leaders and these personnel can be such that they may rarely have the opportunity to interact with the passionate leadership and may also not have the opportunity to fully understand the overall objectives of the project. Motivated and committed personnel will stay with a complex project to the end and will inspire others to follow them.
Rule based interaction and social complexity
Rule based social complexity as the other part of the equation occurs around organisational structures that are often new, novel, imprecise or complex in themselves. Where hiring policies add additional complication to the project, where personnel are working under unconventional contracts or where their terms and conditions are not fully aligned with the project outcomes and, where processes and procedures do not align with or do not support the project outcomes:
- Organisation structures – Modern organisational structures have developed largely to exist and be effective in single locations or where the business is structured to put strong control at each business location in the hands of the local manager. Virtual teams and particularly project virtual teams turn the requirements of much of this historical control approach on its head. Project virtual teams rely on centralised leadership with devolved local control of tasks in an environment where each location may well be dependent on its local operational managers for support, but where those local managers may well be rewarded for acting against the interests of the very virtual teams their organisation depends on for its future. Take, for example, a situation where an organisation may be performing a major project using a virtual team with personnel spread across multiple locations, this project could be critical to the future of the organisation, but, if the local managers of the offices where the team is located are rewarded for how well they secure and deliver local work they may well not support a project which is not contributing to this target even if that same project is key to their organisation’s future – reward and structure must replicate the execution model adopted by the organisation.
- Hiring policies – Do your hiring policies reflect the social complexity and profile of your project virtual team needs ore are you hiring to fill roles that are described using old language in your organisation. If you are hiring on technical skills only for roles that require a high degree of social interaction and highly developed social and communication skills, including an ability to manage high degrees of ambiguity and the ability to communicate effectively using a range of different media to people of different cultural and linguistic background. Many organisations overlook the breadth of skills needed for many roles and instead stick to highly technical and bureaucratic hiring practices that exclude diversity of thought and perspective in the hires, the very skills often needed to drive virtual teams forward and to navigate complex environments. So, look to your hiring practices and hire for a balance of technical and social skill rather than only technical skills
- Contracts – Similar to much of the rest of this section, the nature of contract both internal and external can dictate a lot of the success of a complex project, whether that is with a virtual team or a co-located one. Traditional adversarial contract, ones which attempt to defer all or much of the overall risk onto the subcontractor are a huge problem for the complex projects environment. By their very nature these complex projects are dynamic, with frequent and sometimes major change occurring through many phases. An adversarial form of contract is typically written from the perspective of avoiding change and penalising the contractor for changes they make yet those very same changes may be the difference between a successful project outcome and either a failure or at best an average outcome. Similarly, internal agreements between locations, which are essential for a strong operating relationship, need to be written with sufficient flexibility to allow for the agility the project needs to mitigate the complex environment in which it operates. Contracts need to be considered as enablers for complex projects not obstacles.
- Processes and procedures – Far too frequently we see complex projects being undertaken with a mosaic of ill conceived procedures that neither reflect the demands of the project nor help those managing it deliver their outcomes. Procedures are slow moving beasts that were often written for completely different purposes to those in which they are used and rarely reflect the needs of virtual teams, complex projects nor the social complexity of the environment in which the two function. Many procedures and policies are, in fact, written to drive out innovation, inventiveness, original thought, ambiguity and flexibility, instead building an environment of process driven predictability. However, complex environments demand an ability on the part of those working in them to be able to move nimbly from one solution to the next. Procedures and processes must support virtual teams and complex environments if that is where they are to be used.
As can be seen above the social complexity found in project virtual teams demands a different approach to the traditional co-located team one. organisations need to learn to support trust and respect among their teams, using open communication to build motivated teams. These teams need to be able to work in environments where the organisation recognises the new paradigm of business and is structured with processes and practices that support rather then inhibit success.
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