Postmortem Post

Postmortem Post

In trying to gauge our team’s performance I have looked at the best practice recommendations for participants in virtual teams provided by Flammia, Cleary & Slattery (2016). There are seven main guidelines:

  1. Identify leaders and define clear roles for team members.
  2. Create clear guidelines and goals.
  3. Create feelings of trust, respect and obligation.
  4. Participate in social- as well as task-oriented communication.
  5. Reward performance.
  6. Allocate adequate time.
  7. Use appropriate technology

There are some areas where we did well: The project manager was excellent at time management, and we always had enough time to do our work (6). The tone of everyone’s posts were always friendly and respectful (3).

In other areas our performance was mixed: We did identify a leader, however there were no clear roles provided for other team members (1). Very clear goals were set, but no guidelines for tasks and processes were established (2). Participants were praised and congratulated on completion of work (5), yet despite general feelings of goodwill, no real feelings of trust or obligation were created.

We did particularly poorly in our use of technology (7), and in social communication (4). While the technology used was ‘appropriate’ to the task, the whole point of this project was to participate in ‘virtual teamwork’, and we really did not leverage the best communication technology in order to create and sustain any kind of team atmosphere or identity. This was also apparent in our complete neglect of socioemotional communication.

In many ways we missed the broader point of the exercise and as a result we have also missed an opportunity: we created documentation but did not create a team.

(Image by Bakerstmd, Creative Commons)

Medium strength

Medium strength

Our final project document was submitted last week with little fuss or fanfare. I have a feeling that most team members found the virtual teamwork experience and the work produced underwhelming. I know that the project manager found it frustrating, as did I and probably a few others.

A more comprehensive postmortem will be required, but a preliminary review of my previous posts show that my own frustrations seem to revolve around our reliance on email and discussion boards as our sole means of communication. Of course, this need not have been the case: we had a range of mediums available to us, from voice calls and video conferencing to specialist virtual teamwork platforms.

At the beginning of the project I suggested that a Skype call may be a good way to initiate the team. This suggestion was opposed by a number of teammates who felt that the time difference between Ireland and the Florida would prove too inconvenient: it never happened. My UL classmate and I also exchanged phone numbers, but neither of us made a call. The team  leader did set up a Microsoft Office ‘groups’ account, but I was the only member to use it – on a single occasion.

We did use a Google Doc to submit work, and this platform has some good features. The different editing modes allow you to comment on, and suggest changes to documents. Email notifications let you know if a suggestion has been made or accepted/rejected. This was very useful. However, formatting in Google Docs was dreadful. This may have been due to the way we used the platform: no design specifications or guidelines were agreed upon, and everyone appears to have actually created their work in Word and just pasted into the Doc with its Word formatting attached. The results were more that unwieldy, they were montrous!

While I’m sure there are many other factors involved here, I do think that the way we communicated shaped the way we worked together, and the work we produced. By limiting our means of communication we also limited our scope for collaboration and our teams potential.

(Image: by GDJ, Open Clipart)

Small talk and stolen wheelbarrows

Small talk and stolen wheelbarrows

Research indicates that socioemotional communication is an important factor in virtual teamwork: successful teams talk about more than just the task at hand, and team members feel more satisfied and appreciated as a result.

Our team has not engaged in any kind of extracurricular conversations, in fact our small talk is so small its barely there at all.  The ‘chat room’ remains empty and I cannot find a single post or email that is not directly concerned with the project. The only hints of socioemotional communication can be found in a few friendly sign-offs.

Initially this came as a relief to me – I do not visit chat rooms, I never use emoticons, and I have an almost pathological need for people to stick to the point. However, I do realize that the act of communication itself can be more important than the message or content involved. The philosopher Slavoj Zizek uses an old joke to illustrate this: A factory guard is sure that a worker is stealing, so everyday he searches the worker’s wheelbarrow thoroughly. Of course the punchline is that the worker is stealing wheelbarrows.

Sometimes the vehicle is more important than the contents, and the act of communication can be more important than what is actually said. Small talk can make us better talkers in general, and straying off the point can help us gain new perspectives. I cannot help but think that if we had talked more, we would have worked better.

(Image by fabuloufabs: Creative Commons)

We have created a monster

We have created a monster

Today we received feedback from the translators in Paris, who had some suggestions and questions about the text we sent them two weeks ago. ‘Translator’ is the only well-defined role on our team, and I think our failure to create other task-orientated roles has been the biggest mistake we have made so far.

The role of project manager was filled – but not defined – early on. The project manager has been excellent at establishing deadlines, and is also good at creating data-sharing platforms. However, the tasks have been divvied out indiscriminately, with everyone else doing a little of everything, and having responsibility for nothing.

The result is a Frankenstein of a document, made up of different parts of different people’s work. No one can be too happy with this: the project manager has had to do a lot of time-consuming stitching together of bits and pieces, while the rest of the team point to problems but do not feel empowered to take action. Much work will also have to be duplicated in order to ensure consistency in writing style, images, and highlighting techniques.

I believe that part of this problem results from the project manager’s view of the project as a text-generating exercise, rather than an information design project. However, the rest of us must share most of the blame here: we have shied away from taking on roles and responsibility. If, as I suspect, we have done this in order to avoid criticism or taking risks, then this kind of ‘CYA‘ activity has left us all exposed.

(Image: Frankenstein’s Monster (Boris Karloff) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Bang Bang, she shot me down…

Bang Bang, she shot me down…

I suspect that online dating services and apps owe at least some of their success to the fact that people don’t have to reject potential suitors face-to-face. When I began this project I thought that there may be similar advantages to virtual teamwork. If someone makes a suggestion that you don’t agree with, it can be easier to air your objections online than in person. This kind of directness may also be useful in international and intercultural contexts: we Irish are more noted for dissembling than directness.

I have never been accused of being overly sensitive, and am often too happy to engage in a frank exchange of opinions and ideas; however I did find it difficult to deal with virtual rejection. I was fine when a couple of early suggestions were shot down – I knew there were not going to any major consequences – but I did struggle when I felt that the rejection of a suggestion would have negative consequences.

It can be difficult to object effectively: you appear to be just repeating yourself and, if the discussion has moved on, you teammates may feel that you are stuck in a loop or holding things up. If you try to point out all the potential consequences your post takes on the appearance of a rant (possibly because it is one). Looking for allies is also difficult: there are no indicators as to who might agree with you, or even who is listening.

I still like the directness engendered by virtual collaboration, but procedures need to be put in place for resolving disputes openly and effectively. In the absence of such procedures all you can do is rephrase your suggestion or try to subtly emphasize the consequences. Of course, the phrase ‘subtle emphasis’ does not imply directness, and is probably an oxymoron to boot. Maybe the Irish gift for dissembling has its own advantages.

(Image: Roy Lichtenstein / Public Domain)

‘Its the office memo turned cancerous’

‘Its the office memo turned cancerous’

Thus spoke Donald Norman when describing email.

In the same interview the design expert noted that: “The problem is in trying to make email do everything when its not particularly good at anything”. It is a truism that people are ruder when emailing, or that they are over-familiar, or that they are pushy, or whatever annoys you most. These claims can often be contradictory, but they are consistent in one regard: they all indicate that people do not like communicating via email.

Asynchronous discussion boards are essentially threads of group emails, and have many similar short-comings. They are not a ‘rich’ form of communication, and the message is always received in a different context to that in which it was sent. Moreover, you can have a dozen or more individuals with different roles, concerns, and attitudes participating in what is supposed to be a single discussion, or not.

And that is the problem. Often there are two or three discussions taking place, with only a minority of participants contributing at any one time. Assertive chairing and skillful leadership is needed, but in message boards this always risks coming across as bossy or controlling.

I have tried to think of some positive aspects of discussion boards for this post, but I have only managed to unearth two:

i) You always have time to compose a reply, thereby avoiding ‘off-the-cuff’ or ‘heat of the moment’ remarks.

ii) You can always walk away from the discussion and have a cup of tea when ever you need to.

(Image by RRZE / Creative Commons)

Is this thing on?

Is this thing on?

Watching Nancy Pelosi spluttering over a malfunctioning mic at a protest rally, I am struck by how even the most confident and accomplished performer can come undone when technology fails. The true extent of the failure is also clear: this clip of Pelosi is now all that the rally will be remembered for. It could be worse. In science fiction over-reliance on technology invariably leads to doom or dystopia, but for most of us it only leads to embarrassment and irritation.

Last week we had to get in touch with the members of our virtual team, which includes students from the University of Limerick, the University of Central Florida, and Univesité Diderot Paris. My UL classmate got the ball rolling with a group email and a post on the designated discussion board. I replied, and so did some teammates from Paris and Florida. However, later on in the week I got another email from my UL classmate expressing concern that no one from the other institutions had replied. My classmate had not received the other replies, and it soon became apparent that some of our teammates in Paris and Florida did not get our emails and/or could not get access to the discussion board.

This highlights one of the main problems with virtual teamwork: it is often impossible to tell whether your message has been received or is being ignored. Perhaps it is the uncertainty which makes technological failures truly annoying. It was not Nancy Pelosi’s dead mic, but her uncertainty that made her flail about: “Is this thing on?”. No Nancy, no it is not.

(Image: Screenshot of C-Span news footage)