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Managing Agile Projects with Virtual Teams

1 June 2017

 

Abstract

Agile project management is a unique approach to project management. It is a relatively new paradigm for managing research and development for new products and service-oriented development projects that are high risk and time sensitive. Virtual teams who work on these types of projects are a reality in the workplace because they are cost efficient, and organizations are able to collect a vast pool of talent from various locations. The rise of the internet and the development of collaborative software have given a new dimension to project management. As a result, it will be necessary to assign an Agile project to a virtual team. This plan to assign a virtual team plan has its merits, but it also presents managerial difficulties. Online work is less formalized, and companies often lack clear policies for how to manage the team virtually. Project managers can work more days of the week from home, and they must create a virtual personality to thrive in this environment.

This article outlines how Agile projects can be managed in the context of virtual teams. Agile projects and virtual projects are compatible and therefore practices, principles, tools, and techniques for Agile project management are introduced to the virtual teams to ensure that the Agile projects become successful. We also explore recent literature that evaluates virtual project management to ensure that it achieves its objectives successfully. The discovery is that the new channels of communication offer opportunities for participation, but it is more difficult to manage a virtual team than an on-site team.
 

Introduction

To manage an Agile project for a virtual team successfully, the project manager must be an outstanding leader. The main prerequisite for the success of a distributed team is to ensure that everybody is on the same page with regard to not only the assigned tasks but also the general vision, applied procedures, cultural awareness, information sharing, and trust. Most project leaders with a few years’ experience or more are likely to have managed a project whose members, at least some of them, were remotely located. A virtual team worker is more likely than the colocated worker to suffer from feelings of isolation if the setup is not right. Virtual workers must be more self-managing and direct their efforts in a particular way. Project managers must ensure that they balance communication with their clients while creating a virtual personality as the leader. If leaders are unseen and unheard for days or weeks, team members may interpret this as being irresponsible and a sign of lack of concern, which can make them doubt the needs of the project (Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008).

Creating that virtual personality requires planning, and knowing yourself. As a project manager, there is always a need to manage the communications. Apart from the initial face-to-face meeting, virtual team workers are connected to each other through electronic forms of communication. The problem with being brought together by passive means of communication is that it places a risk on the project performance, so you must manage communication. To prevent the risk, the project manager must understand the benefits of selecting the best communication medium for each type of message. Being highly sensitive to the cultural differences among your team members is important if people are based around the world. On our team, we use Skype for instant messaging and meetings, and we can create groups according to different departments. We can also use Jing for tutorials and when demonstrating an idea. We don’t use emails to communicate, because ideas and requests tend to get lost in long emails.

Leading a virtual team that is meant to achieve a specific objective in an Agile project can be difficult because the people involved in the achievement of the project may fail to meet physically for a given period (Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008). A small blunder made by any of the virtual team members ends up affecting the whole project. Managers of the virtual team need to develop excellent leadership skills so that the team is guided appropriately during the Agile project. To achieve the project goal, there are several mechanisms that should be applied in managing the virtual team. The team leader (manager) directly implements these devices or tools.

Managing communication

Passing information appropriately is an essential aspect of any organization (Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008). Inadequate communication is one of the challenges faced by virtual teams. The manager must ensure that members of the virtual team have excellent communication skills, which is critical since virtual team members may not meet for an extended period. Good communication is therefore encouraged to ensure that they can talk about the proceedings of the project. The project manager should understand the specific communication needs of the virtual team as well as their communication style.

Virtual team members are connected to each other through electronic sources of communication such as email, instant messaging, conference calls, and videoconferences. The constraint of being bound together by a "virtual" communication medium places a risk on project performance that must be managed. The project manager should be highly perceptive of cultural differences if the team operates in different nations. Different cultures may prefer different communication mediums. If the project is based on achieving a milestone, then the manager should encourage the use of videoconference, because it is usually only in this way that positive or negative body language can be detected. Phone calls, which are still a commonly used medium for virtual communication, require that both parties pay attention to the tone being used to detect any signs of discontent or frustration. Use conference calls in most cases, since paying attention is crucial.

To enhance good exchanges during the virtual project, the leader of the team should include face-to-face meetings, as this gives team members a sense of how the overall project is going. Provide schedules, establish a code of conduct to avoid delays, and keep team members on schedule to help develop trust.
 

Keeping people motivated

Feeling isolated from the virtual team directly correlates with how motivated a virtual team member is. When any member of the team is discouraged or not on good terms with the rest, it can result in poor performance that negatively affects the Agile project. "Out of sight" may mean less focus on the Agile project and more on activities with people who are in physical proximity to you (Bergiel & Balsmeier, 2008). Managers of any Agile project consisting of virtual members should keep the members motivated to ensure that they fully concentrate on the goals of the project while they are working from different locations. Managers can do this by identifying ways to keep all the virtual team members engaged and motivated throughout the project.

The manager focuses on making regular phone calls, which are augmented with web meetings. The leader of the team encourages team workers so that they assist each other in achieving the objectives. Some useful tips include motivating members by holding virtual team lunches to discuss lessons and updates. Because videoconferences are somehow expensive, the project manager can assign a budget for these conferences. Managers can also allow opportunity for face-to-face contact to celebrate successes and other project milestones.
 

Regularly assessing the effectiveness of remote communications

In a virtual team, the virtual work does not adequately suit all members because people use different work styles and have varying degrees of comfort with using communication technologies (Bal & Foster, 2000). To manage virtual team communications effectively, the manager assesses each member regularly to determine the levels of support or willingness to be in a virtual setting. He or she will also look for any behavior that may show that a virtual team worker is disconnecting from other members. If any member is affected by the virtual communications methods applied, then the manager can discuss the issue with the member to help the member take action in resolving it. If any member of the virtual team is not happy with the virtual communication method used, the whole process of achieving the project goals is affected.
 

Using virtual communication tools

Virtual team employees should have a means to work effectively in the Agile virtual project. Tools necessary for managing virtual projects include phones with conferencing ability, a global time clock, mobile computers, and online web meeting spaces. Modern online communication systems allow us to determine whether someone is online or not during a meeting (Beise, 2004).

This helps you decide on the best messaging tool to use at the moment. The project manager should ensure that the software used by the team is compatible with those in use in different organizations since better technologies are developing daily. Virtual members should be offered training services so that they feel comfortable while using these communication techniques.
 

Developing project management leadership skills

Being a good virtual project manager not only involves overcoming communication complexities but also requires a particular shift in the project leadership approach. A team manager’s activities include introducing members to key external factors, building systems for data linking, and interfacing with headquarters. The team leader can divide virtual project management into seven clusters that consist of a leader, results catalyst, facilitator, barrier booster, business analyzer, coach, and living example.

The virtual project manager assumes the role of facilitator because virtual teams need a manager who provides clearly defined direction and removes all ambiguity from the process of achieving objectives. The manager is highly centralized in the coordination of events and should formalize roles and responsibilities starting with their own.
 

Building trust

In any ordinary project, confidence is built through frequent interaction. Members of an organization who are colocated know each other better and have the advantage of interacting with their colleagues. Members can visit one another working on the project and can discuss various issues concerning the project, building relationships with members of the project. Distance projects lack these advantages. The appropriate solution for this type of work is to have a face-to-face kick-off meeting for all members to get to know each other. Trust takes a whole new meaning in virtual teams (Bal & Foster, 2000) because face-to-face meetings rarely occur. In a geographically distributed team, confidence is measured almost exclusively in relation to reliability. Managers of virtual teams concentrate on creating a highly defined process whereby team members deliver concrete results in a repeated sequence. If the virtual team leader trusts all members of the virtual team, it's easier to manage the virtual project successfully. Managing the project involves being confident that each member plays his or her part in achieving the project goals.
 

Conclusion

The number of virtual teams worldwide is increasing as a result of growth in technology. The world is shrinking due to advances in technology, which have enabled a variety of communication and collaboration tools that were previously unavailable, or too expensive for many organizations to implement. Nonetheless, to successfully manage an Agile project with virtual teams can be a great challenge to many organizations. The manager of a virtual team needs to develop good leadership skills to ensure that the project objectives are attained (Salo, Ronkaimen & Warsta, 2002).

To become a successful team manager, you must do the following:
  • Put together a good team made up of qualified individuals.
  • Identify dedicated members and insist on good communication among them.
  • Define what makes a successful project, given a good team.
  • Define goals, and provide adequate access to materials and a supportive environment.
  • Act as the facilitator and set precise directions for achieving goals.
  • Ensure that there is coordination and effective communication within the team.
Managing a virtual project team can also be rewarding. It requires core competencies, such as being highly sensitive to communication styles and ensuring that the appropriate techniques are used depending on the occasion. Project managers should assess their ability to be a team worker, as well as their ability to evaluate team members. When all goes well, a successful virtual team is lucky: Both the manager and team members place an importance on the necessary components of good project teams.

References
  • Abrahamsson P., Salo O., Ronkainen J., Warsta J. "Agile Software Development Methods: Review and Analysis." 2002.
  • Ale Ebrahim N., Ahmed S., and Taha Z. "Virtual teams: A literature review." 2009.
  • Bal J. and Foster P. "Managing the virtual team and controlling effectiveness," International Journal of Production Research. 2000: 38(17), 4019-4032.
  • Beise C. M. "IT project management and virtual teams," Proceedings of the 2004 SIGMIS Conference on Computer Personnel Research: Careers, Culture, and Ethics in a Networked Environment. April 2004.
  • Bergiel B. J., Bergiel E. B., and Balsmeier P. W. "Nature of Virtual Teams: A Summary of Their Advantages and Disadvantages," Management Research News. 2008: 31(2), 99-110.

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



Article Rating

Current rating: 1.5 (4 ratings)

Comments

Tim Baffa, CSM, 6/1/2017 2:28:54 PM
Sorry, but there is little if anything "Agile" or Scrum-related in this article. You could remove the work "Agile" from the article, and it would just be about traditional project management for virtual teams.
Olaf Lewitz, CEC,CALE,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/1/2017 3:27:21 PM
"Agile project management is a unique approach to project management."
Thank you for your article, Priti, but it is out of place on the Scrum Alliance web site. For us, Agile is not project management, and since Scrum has been around for two decades, and our community consists of a few hundred thousand Scrum Masters, it is hardly unique, from our perspective.
Leading a virtual team is an interesting challenge, and you name some of the things that are important, like motivation and trust. In agile and Scrum, the responsibility for these things is shared among all team members, so it's not a single project manager who - as you say - "must do the following". That's why we do not have a project manager in Scrum.
Kevin Fargo, CSM, 6/1/2017 4:15:55 PM
Scrum has three roles. Project manager is not a scrum role.

I understand the disclaimer on these articles, but it would be nice to see some justification for how an article like this made it into the Scrum Alliance site.
Syed Amanulla Hussaini, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 6/2/2017 9:10:06 AM
For me it sound like scaled agile with distributed team across the globe. Regardless of the terms/roles used in this article, it still sound informative and useful with some PMI flavor visibility may be because of her background.
Eknath Kandale, CSM, 6/8/2017 6:01:01 AM
This article is more of virtual team management in IT environment rather than Agile project management. It talks more about the key component of any project management that is communication and most of the article moves around. It also covers some other important components of leading team like building trust, motivation, leadership skills etc.
Tom Mellor, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 6/9/2017 4:29:09 PM
I'm with Kevin. How did this article make it on the Scrum Alliance site? Next, we'll be seeing the PMBoK page-by-page. The new meme for that is "Lordy!" I could argue that there is no such thing as "agile project management," but that would be an fruitless and endless debate. But, for sure, there is no project manager in Scrum. Schwaber told me that the role was deliberately omitted - "Those people just cause problems and try to control everything" is the justification if I reall correctly. The post here comes across as purely academic in nature, and therefore mostly theoretical. We know from data that distributed "virtual" teams have unique issues and work slows down with them. Recently, autor Patrick Lencioni wrote that virtual teams were worse than he thought: http://bit.ly/2s5Vgi8. This article would play well in the PMI Journal where such anti-agile thinking is on display fairly regularly.

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