Ken Thompson enthuses about a Harvard report Virtual Teams: Palaeolithic Insights About the Art of Cyber-Managing.
Three instincts in particular have to be excavated from our caveman days and brought back into our organizational teams…
1. Purpose shapes function and structure. “Purpose is the campfire around which virtual team members gather.” Without a good sense of purpose mission and goals you may have a group but not a team.
2. Leadership rotates according to the task at hand “Palaeolithic societies pooled their human capital simply to survive.” The single leader model of teams will not meet the challenges of a modern high-pressure virtual team – distributed leadership is key.
3. Constant communication fosters a sense of identity. Sometimes the technology makes it too easy for a new team member to find-out all the important team information without the need to invest in the human conversations to acquire it. What we gain in information efficiency we can more than lose in missed opportunity for trust building.
This seems pretty on-the-money to me capturing a lot about what’s different about projects that emerge online. The third point created a particular “ah ha” moment for me, and I think connects to Euan Semple’s metaphor about preferring the Cotswolds to Milton Keynes. It also relates to what I posted about the downside of efficiency.
I’d probably want to caveat what Ken says about point 1, as I feel anxious when anyone alludes to setting missions and goals. That’s probably because I find most conversations around this subject completely lack the immediacy and excitement evoked by the image of sitting round a campfire.
Purpose is something I feel more comfortable about, it sounds down-to-earth and present-moment. Great projects sometimes arise from small talk about small niggles.
(I’m also fond of Eckhart Tolle’s notion that our most important purpose is to be present to whatever it is we are doing right now. I think that can work for groups; if we step off the anxiety bus and take a break from agonising about our long-term meaning, we might connect to something more profound that holds us together right now.)
(Ooh, synchronicity. Chris Corrigan has just blogged something very interesting about purpose, and how we might all find purpose in any meeting we attend…)