Regardless of the kind of organization you are part of, it is increasingly common to work with others who are based at different physical locations. There are many good reasons to do this. It may be that the expertise you need is unavailable locally, but is available at another location. There may be strategic reasons why you want to work with people at different locations, such as developing a product for multiple markets. There could be exogenous reasons for working apart, such as a requirement from a funding agency or the result of a merger. Or maybe the people you most like to work with live elsewhere.
Whatever the reason, it can be a challenge to work in this way. Thankfully, much has been learned in the past few decades about the challenges of long distance collaboration:
- Crossing time zones can create scheduling challenges.
- It can be difficult to understand the local context of a remote co-worker.
- The technologies available to link with others may be limited.
- There may be cultural differences between you and your co-workers.
- If the group is larger than two or three, there may be leadership challenges that differ from what happens with a collocated group.
Luckily, there is a growing library of literature available on how to work with so-called “virtual teams,” since, despite the challenges involved, such work is increasing.
In order to help those who have, or are planning to have, projects with geographically distributed team members, we have created a tool dubbed the Collaboration Success Wizard (CSW or the Wizard). The Wizard is a free online survey that asks members of a distributed team a number of questions about their work and their motivations for working together, and, at the end, dispenses both a score and a list of actionable items to strengthen the project.
The Wizard comes in three flavors: past, present, and future. The past version is for projects that are completed, and allows for reflection on how a project went. The present version is for projects currently underway, and offers the possibility of making mid-course corrections if flaws are detected. The future version is for projects that are being planned, and can be very helpful in crafting the structure of a project so as to minimize the risk of failure.
This initiative is based on several decades of research on what differentiates successful from unsuccessful projects conducted by distributed teams. A relatively recent summary of much of this research appears in the book Scientific Collaboration on the Internet published in 2008. In broad strokes, the classes of factors that lead to success include:
- Collaboration readiness: Why is the collaboration being undertaken and what kinds of shared experience, if any, do the participants have in working with each other?
- Technical readiness: What kind of experience do participants have with the use of tools that could support distributed collaboration (such as email, audio- or videoconferencing, instant messaging, and the like)?
- Common ground: To what extent do participants share a common understanding of the domain of their project?
- Management, planning, and decision-making: How will the project be managed, how will decisions be made, and what kind of experience do the project leaders have?
- The nature of the work: What kinds of work does the project entail, and how interdependent are the participants as they carry out the work?
Each of these categories has a number of subcomponents, so the resulting online survey that constitutes the Wizard contains more than four dozen questions (see Figure 1).
How Does It Work?
First, we have to decide if the project fits the goal of the assessment. The project leaders describe the project and provide the number and locations of the participants. If it’s a “go,” the leaders provide a list of participants who should be invited to take the Wizard survey. It takes an individual about 20–25 minutes to complete the survey.
At the end, the participants can request a personal report that describes what the project looks like from the perspective of the answers they have given. This report summarizes the strong points of the project and identifies any areas of risk. For each risk, we suggest remedies that might mitigate these risks.
After collecting the data from as many team members as possible, a summary is prepared for the project leaders. It’s normal for the project to look a bit different from the perspective of individual participants, so we provide feedback about trends in the responses, as well as where there is variation.
The Wizard in Action
So far we have studied a dozen projects, with more than two hundred respondents completing the Wizard.
One interesting project that used the Wizard effectively involved a group associated with the University of California Irvine Medical Center in the midst of applying for a very large grant to create a prestigious center. We administered the version of the Wizard focused on planning a future collaboration. Out of a list of sixty-nine names invited to participate, forty-three completed the Wizard survey, a respectable 62 percent response rate. We presented both an oral and written summary of the results to the project’s steering committee.
In the report to the leaders, we identified specific concerns across many of the Wizard categories. For example, more than half of the respondents were concerned that the participants lacked a common vocabulary and working style—a frequent issue in interdisciplinary collaborations. As this was a new collaboration, participants had not yet had a chance to develop trusting relationships with each other, creating issues of collaboration readiness. Survey participants reported concerns about intellectual property, as well as financial issues linked in part to budget uncertainty in the proposal process. Happily, we found that the participants were, overall, optimistic about the success of the proposal and confident in the project leaders.
Key results from our report, together with descriptions of how the project leaders planned to address the vulnerabilities we identified, were included in their grant proposal. The project was funded and the resulting center was launched in the fall of 2010. A follow-up interview with the director revealed that the report helped to stimulate internal discussion of collaborative concerns and raised awareness of issues that needed to be monitored.
Some of the vulnerabilities we reported have been addressed. For example, once the project was funded and the budget nailed down, the financial uncertainty and the mistrust surrounding it disappeared. While participants got to know each other and built trust over time, developing common ground remained a challenge given the inevitable turnover in the project. In order to continually monitor these areas, team members engage in frequent internal evaluations and have a staff person dedicated to tracking issues that arise in the collaborations. They have developed a new charter to formalize various collaborative practices and have established a new office to provide support for conducting collaborative clinical trials.
We continue working with the group and are planning another evaluation to gauge the efficacy of these interventions, understand how the project has changed, and identify any new issues that may have arisen.
We received similar feedback from other project participants who have used the Wizard. Indeed, many report that the mere act of taking the Wizard highlights issues that they should attend to.
The Wizard in its current form focuses on a project. We have been approached for help by other kinds of entities—like research centers or consortia—that involve people working at a distance but on a suite of projects. We plan to develop a version of the Wizard that fits this situation, and would also like to create a version that can be used in corporations with similar issues. The ultimate goal is to provide a practical tool that can help those doing collaborative projects among geographically dispersed participants.
If you have a project involving distributed teams where you think the Wizard might help, go to our Wizard website and complete the application form. If your project fits, we’ll be in touch.
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