The Challenge of Virtual Project Teams

Virtual teams bring their own specific challenges:

Many organisations are needing to or want to deliver projects today via virtual project teams. Business activity requires this, given the global nature of projects and the various parties and partners who can be involved in any given project.  The way we all work today, with heavy use of the Internet also encourages or enables this.

Despite this, there are some major challenges for virtual teams that more ‘co-located’ teams might not have to understand or overcome.  Let me provide one fairly recent example to highlight just one major potential issue.

Case study example that proves the most common challenge:

A customer of ours is a global business, with Operations on every continent.  A couple of years ago they kicked off a major project, that would involve key technologies and people from all around the globe. This was a big project and was as a seriously large opportunity for the business.

The project was intended to be 2 years in duration and had a very large budget.  Sadly around 12 months into the project, it was cancelled, due to a plethora of issues and very little (almost nil) evidence of any real progress, after having already spent £50M – yes £50M –  a great deal of money for any business.

So what was the key cause of the issues?

The project manager was based in the UK and well known to me.  In a long conversation about the project, a good while after the project had been cancelled, I asked him informally about what lessons he thought could be drawn from the experience.  He had clearly already given this much consideration and replied straight away.   It had been decided (not by the Project Manager), right at the outset of the project, that the project would be run virtually – no one would travel, and hence people never met face-to-face. The whole project team (core and extended) would make maximum use of the company’s online meeting tool and similar facilities.

We can all understand the real reason why this decision was made, which sadly turned out to be fool’s gold.

The project manager was convinced that the fact that key project team members never met on a face-to-face basis, led to a situation where no real interpersonal relationships were developed.  This he believes was the root cause that led to all sorts of issues, which became large enough eventually to bring down this huge project.

What lessons could be learned from this example?

So, going forward more and more projects will be attempted to be delivered virtually.  So what lessons can be learned?

  1. developing effective working relationships among key project team members and stakeholders is not a ‘nice to have’, it is a fundamental aspect of delivering projects successfully
  2. making decisions at the front end of projects purely on the basis of project cost alone, where the true cost of the risk associated with that decision is not fully taken into account, is a major failing in Governance of projects at the business level.

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