The single most common reason new employees are not promoted is their inability to work well in teams. A college graduate brings talent, knowledge, and skill to a company, but these are only useful when directed toward the common goals of department or team. Everyone on a team is responsible for its overall success, and the most effective teams are made up of people who understand how, when and why to communicate in a team context. Whether you are part of a self-managed team or acting as the leader or supervisor of a team, it’s important to realize thatevery member of the team is important to its success.
Groups typically pass through several stages of development, popularly known as "forming, norming and performing" (Tuckman, 1965). These stages that occur when a collection of individuals learns to function collectively. A few things need to happen before the group ever starts to work. A group that is skilled in the steps of forming can avoid the unpleasantness of an un-managed storming stage, and move quickly into a productive norming conversation. Then, a team is ready to start performing its work.
Being part of a productive team is not a matter of luck. For best results, follow these six steps carefully, and in order. Storming results when teams get ahead of themselves.
A clear sense of team identity and cohesiveness among team members are key factors in group satisfaction and productivity. Sometimes a project requires many people, but these large teams will often arrange communication so that much of the work happens in smaller subgroups. Regardless of the size of the group or its geographic distribution, it is crucial that everyone on the team knows who else is on the team, what their areas of expertise or responsibility are, and how to contact them.
Be sure to attend the first meeting of any new team, and find out who is on the team. A group of individuals cannot become an effective team until everyone in the group knows who is really a member. Learn each person's name, department, and contact information. Generally, the first document created by a a team will be its roster: a list of members with their contact information.
When a team forms at a face-to-face kick-off meeting, a written list of members might seem unnecessary. People look around the room and just see who the members are. Especially if they already know each other, they assume it will be easy to find each other's phone numbers or office locations. However, even when things seem simple, a written team roster is an official recognition of who's on the team. The team might share its roster with the rest of the organization, often with a copy of the team charge, so that everyone knows who is responsible for the project. Even more important for the team, everyone has a handy list of team contact information. When emergencies arise or someone needs a quick decision, this is an important document! Obviously, the more distant or vague the team boundaries, the more important it is to create a team roster before beginning any team communication.
Because a professional team forms to accomplish some kind of task, members need to become acquainted with the values, skills, and resources everyone brings to that job. Any team will be more productive when it spends at least a short time becoming acquainted before jumping into its work. Your team will reach optimal efficiency more quickly if you get to know each other's expertise, personalities, and goals. It's hard to be open and honest with strangers, and research shows the size for a team is five people: large enough to have a variety of skills and resources, but small enough to get to know each other well.
In a large, formal team situation, a well-run kick off meeting is an excellent forum to meet each other and begin to develop a sense of common goals and team identity (Schwalbe, 2000). Even if your team is a short-term, informal group, spend some time communicating with each other in a "social" way to become acquainted with each other's goals, talents, and personalities.
No work should start until individuals know enough about each other to coordinate their efforts. Members should know each other well enough to predict each other's behavior with some accuracy. They need to be aware of each other's strengths, weaknesses, and preferences with respect to the work. Know your individual strengths, resources and preferences, which will save you an enormous amount of time. There's no better way of becoming acquainted than a PARTY! Your team members should get together for a strictly social event before trying to do any task work. Food is good.
Although social relationships are an important part of any professional setting, a skilled team doesn't stop with learning each other's demographics and hobbies. Since this is a work team, not a play team, you can't just communicate about what movies or music you all like. Becoming acquainted in a work situation also includes finding out about work goals, expectations of team members, and decision-making methods.
Most team members assign high importance to arriving on time to meetings, preparing for meetings, and completing assigned work. Yet, most teams also complain that others violate these expectations regularly. Misunderstandings arise from team members' different views on concepts like "on time" or "fully prepared" or "assigned work." Don't just use the same words without finding out what everyone means by them.
Work and Communication Styles
Every individual has preferences for ways of communicating, processing information, and making decisions. There is no "right" way, but people do tend to work most comfortably with those who think like they do. On the other hand, groups are less effective when everyone thinks alike! Spend some times during the "getting acquainted" period to talk about how key items "ought" to be handled by the group.
Most teams experience conflict when members find they disagree on goals, priorities, or fundamental assumptions about what is "valuable" in a situation. Talking about each other's values can allow the team to find a foundation for compromise and conflict resolution before the situation arises.
You are finally ready to get started on the job itself, but a productive team doesn't just run off in separate directions to start working. There is quite a bit of communication that must happen first. The specific communication required for team productivity will depend on the specific needs of the team's task. Just defining the team's task often requires several conversations: any team's success depends on planning its action. Do NOT "jump right into the task" without spending the time it takes to figure out HOW to do the task. Instead, follow these steps:
Define the Task
The first order of business is to agree on the group's goal. This will sometimes be a fully developed statement of the team's charge, but a single sentence can also define a project. Often a team will need to clarify the task with a supervisor, client, or business partner. The typical document to record the agreement on the task is a Memo of Understanding. Typically, the team prepares the memo, and the client signs the document to signify agreement.
Plan the Work
Before any task begins, be sure the team knows exactly what it needs to do the task. Two basic questions need answers: What are the steps of accomplishing this particular task, and what are the resources required to accomplish the task. The team's task is being further redefined at the level of operational detail. In practical terms, that means to translate your group's assignment into a specific work plan. The complexity of a work plan will depend on the complexity of the project, but they all include two key elements:
- List of tasks. A "task" is a thing that can be done by one person in one work (sometimes defined as a four hour work "shift" or as something that can be done by a person in a single effort). A task is something like "make a phone call" or "decide the color of tablecloths." A task is NOT a major responsibility or a series of tasks that make up a larger goal.
For instance,"do the advertising" involves a whole series of tasks, such as locate advertising specs, write ad copy, secure photos, secure permission to use photos, create print-ready copy, delivery copy to printer, pick up brochures, and distribute brochures.
Sometimes no one in the group has a clear idea of what tasks they need to do to complete the team's goal, or how to do some required tasks. Don't simply stop discussing in the hope that you will magically figure out how to do the work! Instead, plan and complete a research task to find out how to do the task!
- Project calendar. A calendar must be created created that includes all the dates by which the must be completed. Generally, due dates drive the process. A team might realize that advertising must begin three weeks prior to the event, for instance. The team will then "back" into the dates that each of the advertising tasks must be done, and in which order, to insure that brochures are distributed on time.
Most business organizations use some kind of software to manage large projects, and even a small work team will generally have access to such basic tools as document sharing software, electronic calendars, and electronic communication tools. Your company might have you become familiar with the use of these tools by assigning you to use Web CT tools, Project Manager, or SharePoint as part of your team responsibilities. Many teams find that Excel as a simple tool for planning the progression of work.
Developing a work plan might take a great deal of communication. Don't stop talking because you can't agree on a work plan! The team will become even less productive if you try to move ahead without one. If your team seems to be stuck at this point, ask for help from a supervisor, mentor, or instructor.
Organize the Work
Once the team knows what work needs to be done, the resources to do that work must be located and assigned. This includes such things as individual team members' time and specific expertise of the team members, as well as monetary resources, outside vendors, or research sources.
Ideally, someone put the group together based on the requirements of the task to be completed. Each team member has a specific skill, functional responsibility, or information that is necessary to the completion of the project. In the perfect team, there would be precisely the right set of resources to get the job done, with nothing missing and no overlaps or "wasted" talent.
In the real world, however, situations are never ideal. The group might have a task before it even forms, perhaps because the company must still hire individuals to do specific parts of the project or because a worker's supervisor must release him from other assignments. Sometimes the politics of team membership gets ugly:
- A boss wants to assign her favorite worker to a team, but Human Resource insists that others have more seniority and thus must have a chance to take on the added responsibility.
- Upper management assumes the heads of each functional department will form the group, but two of these managers work out of town most of the time, and one is getting ready to retire and doesn't care about the project. Several other people affected by the project want to attend the meetings, even though they aren't department heads.
An entirely different set of problems can arise with a self-organized team. Political and social groups, for instance, will form because a few people believe that something needs to get done. A few neighborhood parents might decide they should band together to create a play structure, for instance, in the local park. A group of gamers might decide to form a club to sponsor competitions on their college campus. There is no guarantee that the individuals have the right set of skills to do the job, and the group will need to spend some time identifying its resources and determining what role each member will play.
Team productivity depends to some extent on three types of members' individual skills: technical, administrative, and interpersonal. Technical skills are those that allow people to perform the required tasks. The ability to analyze an equity investment, for instance, might allow one group member to perform a task in a finance team's portfolio analysis project. Projects always require organizing, coordinating and controlling a number of activities, and individuals with administrative skills are often the best prepared for handling those team activities. Finally, a productive team is one that engages in productive communication and quickly manages conflict, which is dependent on members' interpersonal skills.
Plan the Communication
The final step of any work plan involves planning the communication that makes the job happen. The goal of coordinating tasks requires that people doing each task communicate their status, problems, and outcomes to those doing interconnected tasks. Don't assume a regular meeting is the only way to conduct your team's communication. It's probably one of the worst ways to communicate!
- Be sure to assign someone to handle the communication. Necessary communication tasks typically include updating team members, interaction with clients, supervisors, and resources outside the team, and written documents that keep everything on track. A single person can do all these jobs, but more commonly, people do the jobs they like or do best. Some groups will rotate communication responsibilities or split up the various tasks so that each person does some part.
- Update team members consistently and regularly. Project teams function most effectively when one person distributes relevant information to everyone in the group, resolving transmission difficulties as they come up and summarizing any changes, agreements, decisions, and commitments for the project records. Team members can rotate or share this job, but the handoff can create enormous confusion if not handled well.
- Relationship communication matters. Many groups find that one person takes responsibility for the social relationships within the group, making sure that everyone stays involved in the conversation, that issues and misunderstandings are identified and aired before they become conflicts, that people respect personality and cultural differences, and conflicts are lovingly resolved when they do arise. Group members can successfully share this job, and it seldom hurts when everyone takes a role.
- Coordinate documentation. Although different team members might handle specific documentation tasks, a single person should maintain permanent project records, coordinate the creation of project reports, and insure their timely distribution. This person can also act as the final editor to insure that external documents (e.g. status reports, user documentation, transfer documents) maintain a consistent format and style.
- External communication. In general, others find it easiest to communicate with just one member of a team. This eliminates confusion as well as the wasted time involved in multiple phone calls or contradictory emails. A team might assign a different liaison for each external contact (e.g. supervisor, client, resources), who can develop an effective working relationship with the individual.
An important characteristic of effective teams is that they spend some time evaluating their own processes and outcomes. In most work situations, a team works together as a permanent work unit, handling one project after another. The team that evaluates and improves its own work processes will become increasingly effective over time.
Teams usually measure their results in terms of how well they met the team charge. If the task involves delivering something to a client or supervisor, then that customer has the final word on success. However, a team might need to decide whether it will meet the goal long before it delivers its work. Assessment thus includes both an assessment of the outcome and of group processes along the way.
- Outcome measures. When delivering results, be sure to get feedback on how well the work measured up to the client or supervisor's expectations. When things go bad, feedback comes quickly, but when a team has met its charge, members tend to assume a perfect outcome. In fact, some aspects of the outcome could have been better, which becomes important information for the next project.
- Satisfaction measures. Teams that enjoy working together tend to over value the work they actually performed. Unfortunately, group cohesiveness turns out to be largely unrelated to group productivity. A team could be quite happy because members spend too much time socializing, for instance, and fail to realize that they are producing far less than other teams doing the same work.
- Process measures. Review the team's calendar and charter to determine the effectiveness of team processes. Do this at least once at mid-project, but more often on a lengthy or complicated project. Systematically compare scheduled deadlines with actual deadlines, quantity and quality expectations with actual outcomes, and budgeted expenditures with actual costs. Trace every discrepancy to a cause, which might involve a failure of the group to abide by its charter, an omission in the charter, a failure to plan for a key task step, a lack of expected resources, or a change in the client's desires or the business environment.
A team might give a formal status report to the client or supervisor, but every team should discuss its assessment results internally. An effective team takes the crucial next step and makes changes that will solve the problem. Once the cause is determined, the team must insure that it learn the skills, adjust the work plan, locate the resources, or negotiate expectations to gain a better outcome.
Many teams remain together and begin working on a new year, a new project, or a new client. With ongoing assessment, the team might develop good processes, but a new project should always start with a fresh look at team resources and a team charge. Often, teams will spend some social time getting reacquainted, especially when new team members come on board. Times change, people change, and resources change. The group rules and communication processes you had in place for the last project probably won't be perfect for the next one.
When a team breaks up at the end of the project (as classroom teams usually do) take stock of the skills, behaviors, and resources that will make you a better member of your next team. You can also give each other important feedback regarding individual strengths, contributions, and areas for improvement. Now that you are all good friends, it can seem awkward to start criticizing each other, but real friends don't let friends go through a career with big blind spots about their professional skills.
A good kickoff event helps team members become acquainted, but ongoing productivity require continuing attention to the team's interpersonal climate. Some of the complexity of team communication comes from the unusually close interpersonal relationships that are part of any team experience. Even close friends have disagreements now and then, but they can take a break to cool off or agree not to talk about certain topics. With a work team, there might be no time for a break-and the topic of disagreement might be critical to the project. There's simply no way to avoid the more difficult aspects of interpersonal communication when working closely together. (For more on interpersonal communication issues, hover over Professional Attitude and select Emotional Intelligence, Diversity, Leadership, and Conflict Management.)
Balancing Social and Task Goals
Working in any business organization presents a fundamental contradiction in the reasons we communicate. As human beings, we value rich social communication to develop rewarding relationships, but the business purpose simultaneously requires an objective, task focus that minimizes extraneous communication. (For more on the business-oriented communication, hover over Communication & Presentation Skills and select Businesslike Style and Tone.) Sometimes these goals conflict with each other, leading to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and unproductive behavior.
- Team members will work harder for their friends. On a related note, team members interpret pleasant social feelings as cohesiveness, a rather vaguely defined sense of attraction and togetherness (Evans and Dion, 1991; Langfred 1998; Shaw, 1981). The result is an honest desire on the part of team members to cooperate and work hard to do whatever the rest of the group wants to accomplish (Nixon, 1979; Prapavessis and Carron, 1997; Whitney, 1994). The downside here becomes "groupthink," the very real danger of going along with others ideas simply to continue that warm sense of camaraderie. Every team member has a responsibility to create conflict when the group might be going in a poor direction.
- Productivity is unrelated to cohesiveness. In spite of our very human desire for social communication, the harsh reality of objective outcome measures finds no correlation between a group's cohesiveness and its productivity (Miranda & Bostrum, 1999; Kelly and Duran, 1991). In fact, based on the real dangers of excessive socializing and groupthink, one might appreciate the professional advantages of a group that doesn't get along too well.
- People can work well with those who they do not like. Finally, as much as we do enjoy social relationships, they do not actually have to occur in a productive work group. Even in groups that have developed a highly productive cohesiveness, individual members do not necessarily like each other (Hogg, Cooper-Shaw, & Holzworth, 1993). Professionalism includes the ability to work respectfully with those you would never chose to see on a social basis.
Understanding Work and Communication Styles
In general, we tend to understand and like people most like ourselves. We gravitate toward people who enjoy the same activities, make decisions in the same way, hold similar values, and share the same priorities and goals. However, the most productive "knowledge work" teams have a diversity of knowledge, perspectives, and skills (Jackson 1992). Members in these teams are more willing to disagree with each other, come up with new ideas, and be critical of each other's contributions (Morehead and Montanari 1986).
In order to take advantage of the diversity, a productive team must understand how different ways of working and communicating add to the project. A number of personality frameworks can help a team understand its differences in terms of diverse talents, preferences, and orientations. Some explain the differences in terms of culture or personality, while others explore cognitive styles or relationship history. Take advantage of professional development resources to learn more about these basic differences:
- Task focus versus people focus. People who focus on getting things done can set aside their personal feelings to accomplish a great deal of work. A healthy team will balance these implementers with some relators, people willing to set aside work when relationships with people need attention. Any team that balances deadlines with client service will depend on both types of people to share and defend their perspectives.
- External energy versus internal energy. Some people draw energy from others, while others use up their own internal energy to interact with others. The extraverts enjoy meeting new clients, attending large meetings, and seem to get more ideas and more work done with lots of people around. Their introverted teammates get more work done alone, thrive on quiet time to think, and need to recharge after a big conference. A smart team balances its tasks to take advantage of both workstyles.
- Detail versus big picture. Everyone can do careful, detailed work, and everyone can look past the details to grasp the big picture of a situation. However, most people do one more naturally and need to think harder to do the other. Since most projects involve a complicated mix of strategic vision and implementation details, a productive team will mix both types of people-who need to be patient with each other as they look at the world in very different ways.
- Structure versus fluidity. Every team loves its structured, well-organized members. They take care of the calendar, keep everyone on task when deadlines loom, and take immediate steps to implement decisions. However, when circumstances change, plans go awry, and the client changes his mind for the fifth time, the team loves its flexible, responsive members. These folks enjoy changing plans on the fly, figuring out contingency plans, and don't share the stress of redoing the schedule. A productive team recognizes when the baton must be passed from person to person when their strengths match the needs of the moment.
Professionals appreciate the complexity of a team communication context. Rather than one sender predicting the needs of one receiver and creating an effective message to meet them-an already difficult task in many situations-team work requires several communicators to maintain continuing shared perceptions over the course of a project, engaging in common communication without outside audiences, who might themselves be dynamically changing over time. In collaborative work, every member of the team must be in a position to know what needs to be done, what the next step is supposed to be, and whether any problems are looming on the horizon. Effective teams use management tools of planning, leading, and controlling.
Plan Communication Processes
A productive group decides ahead of time how it will share information, make decisions and deal with changes as they occur over the course of the project (Hackman, Brousseau and Weiss 1976; Weingart 1992). With a job complicated enough to need several minds, success depends on having a workable system for sharing knowledge among those minds. Plans should consider what to communicate at every stage of the project, how that communication should happen, and who will be responsible for participating in the various communication events.
- Anticipate topics of communication. Any job involves the coordination of resources, information, and change. Insure that your communication plan includes steps to identify and locate needed resources in time to use them. (e.g., Call the photocopy service before your team decides to allocate 24 hours for printing; it might take 72 hours!). As you create your task calendar, schedule all points where group members need to share information (e.g., The programmer with specs on the software design will need to talk to the client representative who knows the user's needs.) Finally, your team will be communicating change. You can be sure that somewhere along the line, an emergency will come up, a plan will change, or someone will discover a problem the team hadn't anticipated. Decide in advance what channels of communication will best accommodate your team's situation. (e.g., If the client calls with a change order, should the whole team be notified with an immediate text? or only some members with a phone call on the next workday?)
- Create a communication calendar. Once a team has created the overall work plan, it can determine the times it will need to engage in communication to complete its tasks. Determine the dates on the calendar at which a) information must be transferred, b) decisions must be made, c) resources must be secured, or d) external stakeholders require communication or interim deliverables. Then determine the optimal communication format for each date.
Generally, information transfer works best electronically, decisions involve face-to-face conversation, and client/supervisor contact includes written documentation. Create another calendar for the team's emails, meetings, and status reports. Many teams will combine their task and communication calendars so that all team activities can be monitored at once, but budgets and status reports generally require that task work (i.e. "billable hours") and communication work (i.e. "administrative hours") be calculated separately.
- Create communication processes. In addition to planned task communication, every project requires a great deal of communication about unplanned events. A productive team will determine how communication should take place when a) the client, supervisor, or resource availability necessitates a change in plans, b) unexpected decisions are required, c) follow-up or discipline of team members is required.
Determine the procedure that one member of the group should use to make a decision "on the fly" and the level or type of responsibility that each person has for making such decisions without whole group approval. Most groups will decide on a dollar amount, for instance, that a team member can spend over a budgeted expense, or determine a range of product specifications that will be acceptable, allowing the person assigned to the actually purchasing trip to make the final choice in the vendor's showroom.
Determine the procedure for annotating the team's work plan, calendar, and documentation. Most disasters do not come from an unexpected change in the teams work; they arise because of a client not informed of a change or a subsequent task on the calendar not adjusted to reflect the changed circumstances. The most important communication in a team situation informs others of changes that have taken place over the course of the team's work.
- Optimize communication channels. Although meetings, emails or phone calls are already scheduled to accomplish the team's task, a second level of communication is required to handle the contingency events, interpersonal issues, and misunderstandings that are a normal part of team work. This requires that all team members are aware of the optimal methods for communicating with each other under various circumstances: How is each group member best reached? (email? pager? voicemail?) What is the timeframe that responses can be expected? (within an hour? overnight?) What are the cost issues to consider? (phone vs. computer? meeting vs. phone?)
- Specify communication responsibilities. Every team member becomes responsible for maintaining the communication plan, but several key duties typically go to specific individuals: organizing and facilitating planned group meetings, maintaining and updating the team work plan and communication calendars, client and/or supervisor contact, and creating and maintaining team documentation. Most communication events involve the entire team, however, and every member has a responsibility to understand the plan, keep his or her technology working, and perform the expected communication job.
Engage in Effective Communication
Each team member plays a role in recognizing and resolving communication deficiencies. Make sure that everyone understands what should happen if expected information doesn't arrive, or isn't clear.
- Can everyone trust the information? For effective work, everyone must have a sense of confidence in the facts, evidence, and analysis provided by others. Obviously, each project will use different kinds of information, but finding out mid-project that team members don't mean the same thing by "good information" will be a disaster. Be sure to set standards as part of the planning process, and then speak up when something seems amiss.
- What is the best way to communicate? In general, groups do best with communication perceived as "open" and "supportive" (Di Salvo and Larsen, 1987; Gladstein, 1984), but those words can mean different things to different people. Take some time to talk about how proper communication styles, how criticism should be handled, and what counts as constructive discussion. You can learn to communicate with each other, but it will be much easier if you find out about your different expectations before the project problems start.
- What about impolite communication? If someone communicates the necessary information, does politeness matter? What if the communicator was late to the meeting? Ignores requests for information until the very last minute? In many groups, members with very important skills violate politeness norms more often than others (Hefley, 1999; Wood 1989), but the group grows less cohesive and less productive.
Monitor Communication Success
Just as you would create benchmarks or metrics to monitor the success of any critical path event, a team should have some kind of calendar, schedule, or feedback loop to insure that scheduled phone calls, meetings, or reports actually happen. Typically, teams self-monitor their communication processes. As individuals note any communication failures, they bring them to the attention of those who are involved and make ad hoc corrections. On a large project, an effective team also spends some time evaluating its own processes, and it should review communication effectiveness right along with budget performance and quality measures.
The meeting is one of a team's most important communication tools, but useless meetings are also an organization's biggest expense. Effective meetings require facilitation. The steps are simple, but missing one will result in a boring, unpleasant or useless meeting.
Choose a Facilitator
A supervisor or team leader might facilitate the meeting, but the roles are not synonymous. Some companies use trained employees or outside contractors to facilitate meetings. A self-managed team will sometimes rotate the job among all its members. Many groups split the facilitation job into several parts, with one person setting the agenda, a second handling the meeting itself, and a third responsible for its documentation.
Without an assigned or elected meeting facilitator, self-managed teams can waste precious meeting time. Sometimes a team member takes over the facilitation role simply because he or she is particularly good at the job. On a more negative note, an individual will sometimes take over the role as a way of grabbing power. Although power grabbing sounds awful, the results might still be more efficient than a meeting with no facilitator at all.
A very experienced team might collaboratively manage its meetings, but most teams need to designate a single facilitator in order to have optimally effective meetings. Rotating the role can be an excellent policy for student groups so that everyone can learn and practice these important skills.
Prepare the Participants
Meetings are only effective when the participants are ready to communicate effectively. As one professional put it, "80% of what makes a business meeting effective happens before and after the actual meeting" (Duell, 2001). The facilitator's job begins with ensuring that the preparation has been done.
Define the Goals
A good meeting begins with participants who are clear about its purposes and a meeting venue that allows the team to fulfill its purposes. Generally, the person who decides to arrange a meeting is responsible for meeting these requirements.
- Determine goals. Don't schedule a meeting until you know what is it that you hope to accomplish at the meeting. Only then can you decide who needs to be at the meeting, what participants will need to have done ahead of time, and what resources will be needed at the meeting. If the goals could be met (perhaps at much less cost) with a phone call or there is insufficient time for preparation, don't schedule a meeting! Meetings that try to accomplish unnecessary or impossible objectives are a waste of everyone's time, costing businesses billions of dollars each year.
- Routine meetings. Some meetings seem to occur just because they always occur. A staff meeting might happen every Tuesday, for example, and everyone simply shows up without any invitation or reminder. When work, status updates, or group decisions result, these are wonderfully useful meetings. When folks arrive, stare at each other for a while, and wonder why the boss insists on wasting their time, take another look.
Identify and Invite Participants
Invite the participants whose presence is required for the task at hand. A productive meeting includes everyone who needs to be there, but no one who doesn't. Be cautious about inviting "everyone on the team" or "anyone who might be interested."
Although having all the stakeholders present is crucial, inviting people with no real purpose or interest in the outcome can create conflict and waste everyone's time. When different people are required for different agenda items, it is common to have individuals attend only for the portion of the meeting at which their presence is needed.
Do consider politics and protocol when inviting participants. In some cases, the chain of command or common courtesy will dictate that a person be invited. For example, a person's idea might be under discussion, and would thus be invited to observe even though he or she is not part of the decision-making group.
Prepare the Agenda
The agenda is a list of everything that will happen at the meeting, along with the time and date, location, and invited attendees. (See Project Documentation for more detail.)
- Agenda items. A meeting could have multiple goals, including decisions, status reports, information sharing, or collaborative work. Each item should begin with a verb that requires a clear measurable outcome. An effective objective might be, "Review the new marketing plan, and determine responsibilities of all members of this group." A vague objective such as "discuss the new plan" does not give the group a clear indication of what it is to accomplish.
- Time allocated. The facilitator should insure that enough time is allocated for each agenda item, including the planned times on the agenda. This gives participants an idea of how much preparation they need to do, along with a chance for everyone to agree that enough time is planned. If not, multiple meetings need to be scheduled or other communication methods used to accomplish the goals effectively.
- Preparation required. The agenda should indicate any specific preparation, background information needed, or resources the participants will need to bring. Often, attachments to an agenda will include documents or data for participants to read or analyze ahead of time.
- Decision making. Meetings that are devoted to a decision-making discussion will follow a problem solving agenda that guides the conversation toward an effective outcome. For more information on this special agenda, see Decision Making Discussions from the Presentations portion of Communication and Presentation Skills at the right, as well as Problem Solving under Writing and Reasoning Skills.
Set the Location and Time
Meetings can take place nearly anywhere and anytime, from dawn on the tailgate of a job-site truck, to a lunch meeting in a multi-media conference room, to after work at a local bar. Suitability for the meeting's purposes fosters effective communication.
- Location. The primary consideration for a meeting location is generally convenience to the participants. If most attendees are coming from one location, holding the meeting there will reduce the net costs of travel. It is also important, however, to choose a room that is large enough for the entire group, well lit, and properly ventilated. Pleasant surroundings will make the group more productive, as will suitable technology.
- Time. The meeting time should accommodate the schedules of the participants, but the choice can influence the effectiveness of a meeting. Research has shown that most people are more creative before mid-morning (Mosuick and Nelson, 1987). Participants might try to cut discussion short if they are rushing to another appointment or meeting. On the other hand, meetings can get off track when the group feels no time pressure and lets the meeting extend beyond its stated duration. A meeting held over the lunch hour or right after work can have the advantage of less interference with people's other work responsibilities, but some will resent the imposition on their personal time.
Distribute the Agenda
Send the agenda to everyone invited to the meeting early enough so that everyone can prepare for the listed activities. You might send the agenda to others, other team members, for instance, or a supervisor, to keep them aware of the team's plans. In case of cancellation, notify everyone who received an agenda as far in advance as possible. Any changes to the agenda call for a revised agenda, but if time is short, the facilitator might distribute this at the meeting.
Prepare the Location
Most companies have rooms available for meetings, but the meeting facilitator should insure that doors will be unlocked, equipment available, and clean up chores handled.
Arrange the Room
The placement of the furniture makes a big difference to the interpersonal dynamics of a meeting. If the purpose of the meeting is to work cooperatively and collaboratively, the most important factor is to keep everyone within a comfortable conversational distance. This means people should sit so they can comfortably see each other, with no one sitting outside the conversational range.
Consider also the need for table space to perform work activities, white board, or flip chart to record group-generated lists, or appropriate modifications for participants with hearing or mobility difficulties.
If organizational protocol dictates a seating order, be sure to follow it. Generally, the most powerful person (who might also be the facilitator) will sit at the "head" of the table, which is defined as the narrow side of a table closest to any speaking equipment (i.e. the white board or laptop) or facing the door.
Meeting refreshments are often the meeting facilitator's area of responsibility, possibly working with an event planner for large events. In some organizations, refreshments are a normal part of meetings, and participants will be unhappy (and potentially unproductive) when hungry. In other organizations, such amenities are considered a waste of time and money. The best advice is to provide the "normal" amount of food, decoration, or entertainment. That way, the issue is not a distraction from the productivity of the meeting.
Some food and beverage choices can have effects on both the group's attitude and its decision-making process. Sugary foods will create a buzz, but bring on lethargy within an hour or two. Proteins, on the other hand, offer sustained energy for long or stressful meetings. Caffeine can boost attention, but under some circumstances, it seems to make people more easily persuaded (Martin et al, 2006).
Follow the Agenda
The agenda outlines what participants prepared to do, so an effective meeting follows that plan. If a written agenda was not prepared or distributed, the meeting should start with a review of its purpose and scope, insuring that everyone's expectations are the same. The meeting facilitator has four basic responsibilities:
Start the Meeting
If meeting participants are not already well-acquainted, initiate introductions and small-talk as participants are arriving. Meetings are most effective when people are comfortable talking to each other in a conversational way. When the meeting time arrives, it is also the facilitator's job to stop the chit-chat.
Meetings should always start on time. It is the responsibility of attendees to arrive on time, and the facilitator should not wait for latecomers. Nor should meeting time be spent reviewing items a latecomer has missed. Rearrange the agenda order, if necessary, when an item cannot be accomplished without the missing individual, but latecomers are otherwise responsible for their own actions.
Accomplish Agenda Items
Covering the agenda is the most fundamental duty of the meeting facilitator. Introduce each agenda item,paying attention to the time estimated for each task. Participants have seen the agenda ahead of time, and they should have requested any adjustments prior to the meeting. This means the group will be ready to proceed, and the facilitator's job is simply to keep the meeting on schedule.
Keeping on schedule involves paying attention to the kind and quantity of communication needed. An agenda item that calls for "reports from each of the team leaders," for example, probably calls for each team leader to speak in turn, for roughly the same amount of time, and provide comparable data. It would be the facilitator's job to insure that each team leader has a chance to speak, that no individual takes an inappropriately long time to speak, and that each speaker provides all the expected and relevant information.
As each agenda item is completed, the facilitator should verify that everyone agrees it is complete, often with a simple statement that the group is ready to move on; "so, we've identified all the late parts that will impact this production run, right?" This gives everyone a chance to clarify their own understanding and allows the person keeping meeting notes to accurately record the group's work.
Sometimes a group avoids coming to a decision, especially when disagreement exists on a point. If the time allotted for the agenda item is ending, the facilitator can simply ask for a decision, which will often be sufficient. If not, suggest an alternative way of making the decision ("Shall we just let the customer select a format?") or defer the decision until a later meeting ("Shall we hold off on a decision until Pat can get back to us with the information?")
It is the facilitator's job to make sure that everyone with relevant information or knowledge participates in the discussion of an agenda item. Equally important, the facilitator must limit the contributions of those who would dominate the discussion.
- Encourage. Some individuals need encouragement to speak up, especially when older or more senior people seem to have plenty to say. Usually, a simple suggestion will do the job: "Sandy has some experience on this item," and a group of professionals will pick up the cue. When many people need to speak, the facilitator can ask everyone to take a turn "around the circle" to insure that everyone gets a turn. As individuals hear their ideas used by others, they become more comfortable with contributing.
- Discourage. The opposite situation calls for the opposite comment. When a single person has taken too much time, a simple comment will generally work, "Thanks, Chris, but let's hold off on that idea until we're sure we have no more input on this topic." All group members need to relate their comments to the discussion, and with the tactful help of a facilitator, professionals will try to do so.
- Summarize. Misunderstandings often occur when participants think they agree, but have actually heard very different things during the meeting discussion. A good facilitator will paraphrase key points to make sure everyone agrees on the interpretation or impact. This is particularly true with the agenda involves a sequential communication structure, such as a decision-making protocol or a conflict resolution method.
- Intervention. Some people fear taking on the facilitator role because they anticipate
conflict. In reality, a good facilitator avoids conflict by understanding that the agenda controls
When people seem to disagree or misunderstand each other, offer a way of combining the ideas offered by others or restate one person's idea so that others can understand its relevance to the topic.
When an individual tries to "hijack" the agenda to meet his or her own goals, make a note of the topics or concerns for a future meeting, but then return to the agenda item.
When conflict surfaces that has nothing to do with the agenda, ask the participants to "agree to disagree" for the duration of the meeting, and then return to the agenda item.
Finish the Meeting
Every meeting should end with a short summary session, during which the group reviews the decisions made, the assigned responsibilities, and relevant follow-up dates and actions. Often a date is set for the next conversation or meeting. Generally, someone records all this information in writing, either as formal meeting minutes or as informal notes that a team or supervisor keeps about the meeting.
Document the Results
Poor documentation leads to the very worst of all meeting outcomes: the results "disappear" into people's faulty memories. Everyone's time is wasted when a meeting must be repeated to make the decisions or do the work all over again.
The facilitator does not typically take complete notes, and a second person performs the documentation task. Some groups have a person designated to fulfill that role at all meetings, such as a secretary, historian, or administrative assistant. Otherwise, a dependable and accurate group member creates a written record of the meeting. Most professionals take meeting minutes on a laptop or tablet, allowing easy, electronic distribution.
Although groups pick this person for his or her ability to take accurate, detailed notes, a good minute taker will still take time to confirm that the final document agrees with the facilitator's meeting notes and the notes of other meeting participants as well. Most minute takers take another few minutes to type the notes up with complete sentences and properly spelled words. This insures the record is more complete and accurate, recognizing that executives, lawyers, or industry regulators might read the document in the future.
The most important point of documentation is to record the results, not merely the topics of conversation. In general, the meeting minutes do not include a full transcript of everything said. Instead, the note-taker should focus on:
- facts and figures that were reported (collecting a copy of any handouts, exhibits, or photos),
- decisions that were made, including the outcome as well as any concerns or disclaimers that affect implementation,
- action items that were developed, including any individual responsibilities or assignments
- work outcomes that will be used later such as the list of items generated in a brainstorming session or the resources identified to solve a problem.
(For more detail on meeting minutes, see the Project Documentation section below.)
After the meeting, distribute copies of the minutes to everyone who attended the meeting, any team members or expected attendees who were absent, and perhaps to supervisors, clients, or others who are interested in the progress made by the group. Place a copy in the team's project files as well.
Meeting participants often remember different details of what happened at a meeting. Even when minutes are distributed, individuals can interpret the brief written notes in different ways. A facilitator can avoid misunderstandings by contacting people individually after the meeting to confirm that everyone understands the decisions and action plans in the same way. This is also a good time to ask individuals to offer any clarifications or additions to the written record (Thomseth, 1989).
In particular, ask for a confirmation from anyone who has taken on a responsibility or agreed to a deadline. When action items are especially critical, the facilitator might remind individuals of action items or deadlines as they grow closer (Duell, 2001).
Sometimes meetings happen accidentally. Conversation among colleagues in the photocopy room or the coffee machine serve important functions in an organization (Katz & Kahn 1978; Peters & Waterman, 1982; Fayard & Weeks, 2004; Mangrum, Fairley, & Weider 2001). Whenever these conversations turn to business topics, professionals will "self-facilitate" to insure that shared information or decisions don't disappear. Someone will take appropriate notes, the group will confirm its understanding, and even thought there was no agenda and no facilitator, someone will insure that minutes are added to the team's files.
Not every meeting involves discussion, but when a decision is needed, a productive meeting is crucial. The decision-making process is complex, requiring a skilled facilitator. Sometimes, a team will bring in a trained discussion leader, but every professional businessperson should understand the basic steps in order to participate effectively.
The Facilitator Role
The primary assumption of the facilitator role is that of one who helps a group to avoid the emotional or personality pitfalls of group interaction and guides the conversation process without taking sides or imposing his or her own ideas or decision (Aakhus, 1998). Often, the meeting agenda will simply indicate that there will be a discussion on a topic, and the facilitator must insure that the group works though each of the decision-making steps. (For more on these steps, select Problem Solving from Writing & Reasoning Skills at the right.) A facilitator should have enough knowledge of the decision to anticipate steps that might need lengthy discussion as well as uncontroversial points where discussion can move quickly toward agreement.
An effective facilitator can offer insights, opinions, or interpretations to reenergize or refocus a group or help navigate an impasse, but should not take on the role of thought leader. A facilitator who states his or her preferences can suppress discussion and foster groupthink conditions. Facilitators must maintain some authority within the group, however, in order to motivate participation or quell conflicts (Miranda & Bostrum, 1999).
Even without taking any role as a contributor or stakeholder, an effective facilitator will be vigilant with respect to faulty evidence, unclear reasoning or pragmatic organizational constraints. Sometimes discussants become attached to unrealistic plans or are stuck in preconceived biases (Young, 2001), and it is the facilitator's job to challenge the discussion to rethink areas that appear to be leading toward a dead end.
As in any meeting, the facilitator must insure that participants participate appropriately and stay focused on agenda items. The higher stakes of a decision situation can make this task more difficult, so a discussion facilitator will resort to additional tools.
- Help people get acquainted. Even when this information is already available to the rest of the group, the facilitator will generally ask for quick introductions to insure that everyone puts a face with the name, position, and background. The facilitator will also call a halt to socializing in a timely manner.
- Ask questions. Questions are the facilitatorâ€™s primary method of directing a conversation. Questions are a turn-taking cue, and the facilitator who asks a question is cueing others to participate without having to provide his or her own views. A facilitator can use open-ended questions, which oblige another to respond without a simple "yes" or "no."
- Silence. One of the most important things a facilitator can provide is "permission" for the group to remain silent while its members gather their thoughts or digest an idea (Rogers, 2000). Due to the social embarrassment implied by conversational silence, discussion participants sometimes make insignificant or irrelevant contributions just to keep the conversation flowing. The presence of a formal facilitator relieves the group members of this social obligation and allows them to focus on the task of substantive information sharing.
- Positive environment. The facilitator should monitor the physical space, ensuring that comfortable seating, adequate workspace, proper supplies and minimal interruptions and distractions create the setting for a productive discussion. Ensure that participants have refreshments, or at least a break for refreshments and use of the restrooms, during any discussion that lasts more than an hour (Young, 2001).
- Form breakout groups. If the discussion group is too large, most individuals will not feel comfortable participating, leaving about 20% of the participants making 80% of the contributions. A facilitator might break the discussion into smaller groups of 5-7 to explore an idea, asking a representative from each to report its perspectives back to the whole group.
- Air issues. Prior conflicts can inhibit thorough, honest, and accurate communication. The facilitator will sometimes engage in conflict resolution to air issues and repair relationships before continuing with the discussion. (Find more on Conflict Management under the Professional Attitude tab at the right.)
- Maintain relationships. The most productive discussions occur when each team member has a positive impression of every other member as a valuable contributor to the conversation. The facilitator will show respect to everyone, taking care to note contributions others might have missed or offering face-saving measures to maintain everyone's favorable connections with the group.
- Promote team identity. A sense of group identity and shared group goals influences both motivation and ability to work collaboratively. The facilitator can promote cohesiveness by highlighting group progress, encouraging identity-creating behaviors, and reviewing common goals and purposes.
The fundamental task of a discussion facilitator is to keep the conversation on track, moving the group from one problem-solving step to the next.
- Articulate the problem-solving agenda. Before starting the discussion, the facilitator should review the steps and insure that all participants understand them.
- Test for consensus. Before moving the conversation along, the facilitator will verify completion of the previous step. Not everyone need agree on every fact, interpretation, or value, but the group does need to agree on which decision issues remain open.
- Highlight connections. As a neutral observer, the facilitator can often see connections among issues discussed at different times or by different people. Pointing them out can help the group move forward.
- Summarize each step. Summaries should be explicit at points of transition from one problem-solving step to the next, but an effective facilitator will watch for any points where people have reached an agreement and end conversation with a summary of the point.
- Call for agenda changes. The facilitator must insure that the team thoroughly considers issues before moving to the next step, but when the allotted time will not accommodate the necessary discussion, he or she will need to raise the issue of revising the agenda.
Whether working on a project or a permanent job function, a team will create documents to record aspects of its work. Often these documents will communicate the team results to others, perhaps a client or supervisor, but often to future members of the team as well.
In addition to meetings, team members will communicate by way of email, text, and face-to-face conversations. They will develop, internal documents such as a charter, work plan, and meeting minutes, along with job-related documents such as lists of resources, budgets for activities, and records of their interactions with clients or supervisors. All of these records are typically kept in a single location, usually a shared electronic drive, allowing easy use of the contents.
Although several people in the team might be in contact with clients, supervisors, or resources, the entire team needs to know the outcome of the communication. A system for logging external communications collects the data about each contact, recording when communication occurred, who was involved, and the outcome. A team might use a sophisticated company-wide Customer Relationship Management software to accomplish this task, or a simple shared file in which each person manually logs the communication.
Teams charged with the creation of a product, service, or procedure for other employees or clients typically provide instructions, explanations, or procedural guidelines for the users of their work. Quality documentation involves more than simply recording the team's decisions in the project records. The format and content must take into account whatever accessibility, readability, and usability issues will affect the ability of the user to actually perform the desired behaviors or use the team's output (Guillemette, 1989; Smart, Seawright, & DeTienne). User documentation will often require extensive editing and reorganization of material so that it provides a context for understanding the process, clear functional expectations, and clear instructions for behavior.
Transfer documents involve the collection, and usually revision, of project records so that another person or team can effectively extend or replicate the work done. In a business environment, there is never an assumption that a new worker can simply go back to the last person who did the job and ask for additional information or clarification. People leave the company, transfer to foreign locations, or are simply too busy with the new job to be bothered answering questions. It is thus a team's final responsibility to insure that all project documentation is accurate, complete, and in a format that will allow the next team to pick up the ball. The transfer document is therefore a comprehensive document that:
- summarizes the team's aims and goals
- reports specific results
- provides complete instructions for completing the project in an optimum way
- lists any anticipated future work steps to complete or extend the project
- provides complete information on resources needed to conduct a similar project
The transfer documents are not a "data dump" of all the paper that was created by a team. There is no value in providing indecipherable notes, meaningless meeting minutes, stacks of research documents, or work plans that did not include crucial tasks or decisions. Instead, the transfer documents involve a revision of the team's work plan and resource list, designed so that the next team will have more information, more understanding of the task, and more chance of success.
One study found teams produce 87% of all business writing, and even individuals writing "alone" can expect three to five levels of review before their work goes to its audience. Even the professional whose work is so routine that it goes to clients without review will realize that his or her writing is constrained by corporate formats, organizational expectations, and an internal "ear" that has learned to write in a way that acknowledges and represents the views of everyone in the organization. A letter from a company is never "just" from its writer; it also represents the company as a whole and all of its employees.
The Collaborative Writing Process
Time and resource management issues loom just as large in the writing process as they do with any other project or task. In fact, writing projects can have even more impact on the organization because they require people to agree-or at least discuss-fundamental assumptions about who, why, and what to communicate.
- Get acquainted. Start no team project, including a writing task before members know each other well enough to take on collaborative work. For a writing task, in particular, the development of a clear and consistent "voice" often requires high levels of understanding and agreement among group members.
- Define the task. Schedule enough interaction to make careful decisions about the document's purpose, expected audience, and persuasive strategies. If a group has not worked closely together before, of if the proper organizational "voice" is unfamiliar to the writers, be sure that everyone agrees on definitions, expectations and goals.
- Plan the work. When multiple researchers, writers or editors are involved, an initial meeting should set up the project time-line, set intermediate tasks, and due dates, allocate resources and responsibilities, and decide on a consistent format and style.
- Plan the communication. The basic steps of the productive writing process do not change with the addition of authors, reviewers, or corporate expectations. Efficient collaborative writing requires timely and productive communication at each stage of the drafting, revision, and editing processes. A group without experience writing together should set multiple intermediate due dates, expecting to spend quite a bit of time talking through the various ways to express ideas.
- Anticipate complexity. The production of a single document seems simple, but a client proposal from one international company typically requires input, revisions, and approvals from 50 team members around the world, polished formatting and production, and delivery to the prospective client-all within two weeks (Rauch, J., 2000, personal communication). A collaborative writing project requires sophisticated project management skills.
Drafting, Revising, and Editing Collaboratively
Don't underestimate the amount of time it takes to draft, revise, and edit a document collectively. Experienced writers can spend a great deal of time composing a complex thought or achieving just the right tone in a politically or emotionally charged situation. A writing collaboration can expect to multiply that time by the size of its membership.
- Drafting. A group can distribute the job of putting words to paper in various ways, but it will work most effectively by starting with an organizing outline. Typically, individuals will each start with a piece of the overall outline, putting their pieces together before starting on revisions.
- Revising. There will probably be several rounds of revision, and each might require a different procedure. Each member of the team should read each part of the document at least once, and often each person reads from a different perspective.
- Editing. Once the team has agreed on a final organizational structure and the content of the document, editing can focus on style and tone. There might be several rounds of editing, but each editor should review the entire document to insure logical coherence as well as a consistent style and format.
- Technology. Every team member should be up to speed on every feature of your company's software. Useful tools like style templates, version controls, and change tracking or histories become crucial when multiple writers work on a project. Sometimes, just one or two individuals on a team will do the bulk of the editing simply because others cannot use the tools. This is not an effective use of the technology and reduces the amount of knowledge, insight, and perspective contributed by those without technical skills.
Language, Meaning, and Politics
Along with the information and production elements, collaborative writing requires explicit attention to the creative, cognitive and language dynamics of any writing project. Any writer makes sophisticated judgments about organizational goals, anticipated audience responses, and language meaning, but often unconsciously. A group must discuss these choices explicitly.
- Organizational politics. Every project impacts an organization, sometimes in very subtle ways and sometimes with huge, dramatic change. Furthermore, the dynamic changes over time. A seemingly simple step like selecting the "right" source of information for report data sends a message about organizational authority, expectations of quality and work effort, and the comparative value of other resource options. In the process the organization learns a bit about itself, sometimes a painful process. The best editor is not always the best writer, but sometimes the person most sensitive to how the organization will respond to a document.
- Moving targets. During the course of a large project, it is common to find that the goals and purposes have changed, the audience has changed, or circumstances have changed sufficiently that a document must meet different goals from what was originally discussed at the prewriting stage. It is a good idea to schedule additional time for the group to review these issues and make sure that individual writers are responsive to the changes.
- Editing manners Carefully distinguish between stylistic choices, formatting details, and language mechanics. Stylistic edits (i.e. word choice, formality, tense, mood, etc.) require clear, constructive, and reliable explanations in terms of goals, audience, or strategy. Saying something "doesn't sound right" provides nothing helpful for the team's ongoing strategy decisions. Format changes (i.e. margins, pagination, fonts, etc.) should correspond with decisions already agreed upon by the team (or in conformity with a company style guide). Correct only mechanics (i.e. spelling, grammar, or punctuation) without comment or guidance.
- Format choices. Sometimes different members of the group have different preferences with regard to format (i.e. Times Roman or Arial font?) or style (i.e. Oxford commas?) that don't fall within any corporate style guide. Try not to waste time arguing over the choice; either works as long as it's consistent throughout the document.
- Proofreading. Every editor should proofread, and the more individuals who proofread a document the better. Compile the final document as a single word-processed document, which facilitates final proofing with the software's tools.
Virtually all oral presentations of teamwork, from proposals to status reports to final project reviews, result in collaborative presentations. As with preparing a written document, the shift from individual to collective speech preparation requires some additional steps.
Because everyone in the team plays a role in the final presentation, collaboration at every step of the preparation process becomes crucial. An audience can easily perceive the dysfunctional interactions of a group that hasn't reached agreement on its own message.
- Drafting. Draft the presentation as a group, working out the conceptual flow of the whole, leaving spaces and holes to be filled - perhaps by individuals-as the presentation takes shape (Zielinski, 2000). All members of the team should be present, tossing out ideas, suggestions, clarifications, and potential audience questions.
- Revisions. Although individuals might contribute key information to different parts of the speech, revise that outline together so that everyone understands the purpose and meaning of every word of the presentation. In the end, each member of the team should be able to deliver the entire presentation, not merely his or her own area of expertise.
- Technological support. Don't expect one person to prepare slides, handouts, or interactive exercises without another round of collaborative revision. Not only does their design need to support the overall style and tone of the presentation, but each member of the team needs to understand how the various tools work together to support the goals of the presentation.
Most groups entrust the delivery to one or two lead presenters who might tap secondary speakers to contribute on specific points. However, a superlative group presentation highlights each team member's contribution to the project (Zielinski, 2000).
- Presentation roles. As you plan and rehearse the presentation, consider the placement of all team members and insure that both their movements and their speaking consistently support the presentation as a whole. Often, one person will handle technical and hardware issues, leaving the speakers to concentrate completely on interacting with the audience.
- Rehearsals. The team should collectively rehearse so well that each member becomes aware of what is in everyone else's mind during the whole presentation. Individuals who practice just their own choreographed roles cannot support their team adequately during the actual presentation.
- Audience interaction. Be very careful that someone is always building rapport with the audience. It is extremely impolite for a team to ignore its audience while it is engaged in conversation, set-up, or trouble-shooting.
A virtual team involves members who do not regularly meet in face-to-face meetings, generally because they contribute from different geographical locations, different organizations, or at different times of the day or week. The possible configurations include team members from around the world who have never met in person, to nearby co-workers who choose to conduct their meetings by email.
Effective virtual teams follow the same formation steps, communication principles, and documentation protocols as face-to-face teams. In fact, virtual teams have contributed greatly to our understanding of effective team principles. Because the members can't fall back on personal relationships, non-verbal communication, or shared lifestyles to smooth over the difficulties, effective virtual teams learn to manage themselves intentionally. Just two areas need particular attention:
Even when the project will involve members who work thousands of miles apart, many corporate teams will stage an initial face-to-face kickoff meeting or team retreat. This can jumpstart the process, but the equally important task of staying up to date on each other's interests, values, priorities, and responsibilities deserves attention as well.
Take Enough Time
Even if the team is able to meet once face to face, a single lunch meeting doesn't provide enough time to clarify the charge, talk through everyone's perspectives, resources, and values, and develop team rules. Use the face-to-face time to solidify personal rapport, but plan at least a couple of virtual meetings to handle all the steps of getting acquainted.
Because these meetings might also involve the team's first use of technology, expect them to be lengthy and possibly frustrating. Don't give up, and don't settle for unfinished work. Take the time you need to get started on the right foot. It's important for any team, but crucial for a virtual team.
After even a short meeting, humans encode a vast amount of information about another person. We would have difficulty listing all the facts and feelings; in fact, much of the information is tacit. Nevertheless, when we see the person's face, a flood of recognition elicits emotional responses, remembered details, and a sense of how to respond appropriately to the individual.
Trigger this human ability by using thumbnail photos on all communication technology, posting each other's pictures at all locations, using video communication whenever possible, and anything else that will allow you to see each other's faces. Make a point to update photos, perhaps even sharing photos of each other at their desks, in their own towns, or even at home with the family.
Adults' basic personalities and work/communication style preferences don't typically change over time, but work resources, personal circumstances, and job responsibilities can change dramatically over the course of a project. A busy team that dismisses these important topics as "too personal" for work conversation or "extraneous" to the project can find itself facing serious misunderstandings or conflict.
Starting each meeting with a quick round of personal status updates offers one easy way to stay updated. Team technology might include a space to post each members' personal bio, which individuals can update regularly. Some teams stage periodic social events that allow sufficient time for catching up. One company discovered that one of its most effective teams regularly played an online battle game during its off hours, with the result that members regularly chatted and stayed well acquainted on a personal level.
Virtual groups face two communication challenges: geographical separation or schedule separation, sometimes both. Electronic communication technologies offer solutions, but with very different capabilities and implementation issues.
A team might be geographically scattered but working in the same time zone with similar work schedules. For example, team members might find that all members have Wednesday afternoon available and schedule a weekly meeting. Two members work at one facility and a third visits regularly, so they gather in a conference room. Other members join the meeting by way of a corporate teleconferencing system (a student group might use Google Hangouts in the same way).
In general, text is the least expensive technology while high quality video is the most. Any team should be cautious about scheduling expensive, face-to-face meetings when a simple email or phone call will do the job. Virtual teams should be cautious, as well, that they are not investing in technical quality that exceeds the needs of the group.
- Teleconferencing. Most telephone systems have the capacity to include multiple parties on a call, and some teams use a commercial service to create a conference call.
- Videoconferencing. Some organizations boast conference rooms with high-speed international transmission capacity, while others make do with a webcam and speakerphone sitting on a team members' desk.
- Computer conferencing. With more complex software, multiple users can share documents or slides, a meeting leader can facilitate access and participation, and team members can chat privately, post comments or documents, or utilize a common white board.
The more challenging situation involves asynchronous communication, which simply means that individuals are sending communication across time. Shift workers will often engage in asynchronous communication at a single location, such as a shift change log or a message board, but virtual teams nearly always face geographically separation as well.
Technologies range in their complexity, from simple message transmission to fully automated document version control and project management features, as well as their capacity for audio and graphics.
- Email. Nearly any team will use email for at least some of its communication. The most obvious use involves simple messages back and forth or team "reply all" emails. Formal or informal meetings, document sharing and editing, and documentation updates represent other effective uses for email.
- Bulletin boards and forums. Bulletin boards and forums Many online groups use bulletin board or forum software to sort their messages into threads and maintain a complete record of their communications. Some platforms allow the sharing or storage of documents, photos, or media as well.
- Shared documents. Teams that must share information or create collaborative reports will nearly always keep their work on a shared computer drive or commercial service like Dropbox. Some, like Google Drive, also feature collaborative documenting editing and version control features.
- Project management software. Teams increasingly turn to project management software to schedule and track the multiple tasks of a complicated or long-term project. Some money and time might be involved, but once everyone is up to speed, these tools can keep everyone up to speed on project status without extra communication.
- Social media. Many organizations use social media to foster better team communication and collaboration, and younger workers are most likely to consider these tools (Cardon & Marshall, 2015). A company platform might incorporate a knowledge base, intranet, or corporate resource directory along with linking and chat tools, but many teams use commercial services like Facebook to set up private groups.
Virtual Work Flow
Electronic communication technologies offer multiple options for virtual work, but they also require some planning. Consider these examples:
A team decides to hold a virtual meeting by email and sets up a 24-hour window to discuss the various options on a client question. One European member doesn't log on to read the emails after two members in the US have already gone to bed. She and the rest of the team chat by email for the rest of their workday and post the final list of pros and cons for the client. The next day, the two US members wake up to discover their options have been misinterpreted, and the client runs a risk of choosing a far too expensive solution.
A team agrees on an editing hierarchy to complete its final report of recommendations. The interim milestone dates are carefully set to meet the project due dates, and team members are fully committed to performing their assigned duties. As the second stage of editing begins, two section leaders begin to look at the same document, but neither realizes the other is also online. They begin making changes, which seem to disappear, so they make them again-and again, and again. Only after several minutes do they realize they disagree on the wording of a product description and open a chat room to work out a solution.
Endless scenarios for misunderstanding, conflict, and outright disaster exist, and there is no single solution. Just remember to ask a few key questions when planning to use communication technology (and especially asynchronous communication):
- What time will members actually be able to participate?
- What training do members need on the technology?
- Do the tools support the work that needs to be done?
Virtual meetings require facilitation much like face-to-face meetings, but communication technology can create some special challenges.
At every stage, insure that everyone has received all transmissions before starting the discussion. Verify that everyone received the agenda, any updates, and was able to open attached files. Take an oral roll call so that everyone can check the video and audio. Throughout the discussion, be alert for dropped signals and halt the proceedings so you don't inadvertently lose a meeting participant. Monitor the chat and sharing tools to make sure everyone has access.
Audio visual issues
Glitches can happen with even the best technology, and it is up to the meeting facilitator to notice when individuals cannot see or hear other or share materials and take steps to solve the problem. The facilitator should meet with the technical providers ahead of time to obtain sufficient training, access codes, and helpdesk contact information.
Similarly, the facilitator should point out distracting background noise or images. Participants might not realize their mic is off or that a child has wandered into the frame. Poor lighting or camera quality can also compromise visibility of a demonstration or document, and the facilitator might need to provide an alternative spot to upload files or photos.
Even with high quality of video connections, much of the information conveyed in facial expressions, which we take for granted in face-to-face conversations, is encoded too quickly (in milliseconds) to be captured by videoconference equipment. People can appear unemotional, unhappy, or even deceptive simply because their faces lack normal expressiveness (Adams & Clark, 2001).
Subtle cues that govern conversational turn taking can also be difficult to see (or invisible with a teleconference). People who seem to be interrupting or ignoring each other might simply lack cues. Especially with systems that highlight just one individual on screen, participants need to learn to give verbal cues when they are ready to speak or done with their turns. Or, the facilitator might ask for participants to give a signal and take formal control of the conversation.
Participants should fully participate in a virtual meeting, just as they do in a face-to-face meeting. In reality, multi-tasking happens in both venues, but distractions can get out of hand more easily when the group lacks an enclosed meeting space. Participants should shut their office doors, minimize other applications (including email and calendar alarms), and strictly control noise at their location. The meeting facilitator should comment immediately when a disruption compromises everyone's ability to hear in a mediated environment. Often the perpetrator cannot hear the problem locally or realize how the technology intensifies it.