AN INTERVIEW WITH JESSICA LIPNACK AND
TEAMS ARE THE PEOPLEWARE
FOR THE 21st CENTURY
JEFFREY STAMPS, CO-AUTHORS, "VIRTUAL TEAMS"
was more clear at this month's gathering of the International
Association for Product Development than that, however desirable
they might be, collocated development teams are increasingly
not feasible in a globalized setting. The big challenge,
then, is how to make teamwork work across distances. After
more than 20 years of helping mobilize flexible, cross-boundary
organizations, and with thousands of interviews to draw
from, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps have written a
new book, Virtual Teams: Reaching Across Space, Time
and Organizations With Technology, to demystify this
subject. It won't be out till next month. We caught up with
them for a preview:
BPR: This book is
part of a trilogy. What are the key messages of the other
two, and how does the new book flesh out the trilogy?
1993 book, The TeamNet Factor, centers on the network
as a form of organization. We show its variations at every
size, from small groups, to enterprises, to alliances, to
nations. In that book, we coin the word "teamnet"
to put people back into networks and to emphasize the multi-level
(groups within groups) nature of networks. We show how networks
offer practical approaches to solving old problems and launching
new initiatives. We also offer three chapters on methods
to develop networks, along with several chapters that focus
specifically on small business networks.
"Our 1994 book, The Age of
the Network, provides an overview of the impact of
networks and their strategic importance. There, we place
networks--the signature organization of the Information
Age--in the context of bureaucracy, hierarchy, and small
groups, which dominated earlier eras. We show how companies
use networks to their strategic advantage. These nimble,
boundary-crossing configurations also incorporate what is
uniquely valuable about each of the earlier forms.
"In Virtual Teams, we
look at how this most fundamental organization--the team--is
transforming ('morphing,' in computer lingo) into an extraordinary
new 21st century version. We focus on small groups of people
working across boundaries, supported by the new computer
and communications technologies. Increasingly, this is the
reality of everyday work life for many people."
BPR: What exactly
is virtual teamwork? Is this one of those out-on-the-edge
subjects, or something mainstream managers need to understand
here's the out-on-the-edge response: Virtual teams are the
peopleware for the 21st century. And here's the mainstream
reality: Most people work with others who are more than
50 feet away from them. MIT's Tom Allen has been doing research
on this for more than 20 years. Data indicate that when
people are more than 50 feet apart, their likelihood of
collaborating more than once a week is less than 10%. So,
as people work in teams, crossing space, time, and organizational
boundaries, they must master the principles of virtual work."
BPR: What's the basic
business case for virtual teamwork?
basic business case is simple. Work in the 21st century
is complex, in constant flux, and global. Organizations
that were perfected in the 19th century--bureaucracies--are
not sufficient to deal with the pace of change. The problems
that the companies we write about have solved with virtual
teams are the familiar ones: Time-to-market, product quality,
profitability, customer satisfaction, strategic direction."
BPR: Assume I've barely
figured out how to use e-mail: is virtual teamwork something
I really need to know about?
question. People confuse virtual teams with technology.
We interviewed 75 people for this book and many said exactly
these words without being prompted: 'It's 90% people and
10% technology.' Some of the best virtual teams that we
looked at use very little technology. E-mail serves the
purpose for many efforts. But when a virtual team wants
to gain the productivity advantages that the Internet and
intranets provide, then it benefits enormously from the
construction of online virtual workplaces. We detail this
in Chapter 8 of the book, "A Web Book for Virtual Teams."
BPR: But many in product
development circles, where cross-functional teamwork is
now center stage, believe collocation is essential. How
do you respond?
Allen's research we mentioned earlier is powerful and should
not be ignored by advocates of 'extreme virtual teams,'
those that never get together face-to-face. As humans, we
thrive on spending time together, and these encounters are
where trust develops most rapidly. We encourage virtual
teams to meet regularly, particularly at the beginning of
their work, for quick effective planning and relationship
"However, it is very important
to understand what Tom Allen is saying. In essence, what
his '50-foot rule' indicates is this: It is impossible to
collocate more than about 10 people. Steelcase, which has
done extensive research on workplace performance, uses Allen's
research as a design principle. They make office environments
for pods of no more than 10, located within 50 feet of one
another, and then 'augment,' to use Doug Engelbart's elegant
verb, their collocation with technology."
BPR: Some would argue
that a compromise solution is to collocate the core team
and let the extended team be virtual. We saw this recently
with a new product team at Square D.
idea but it's not always possible. Sometimes, particularly
with complex projects of any scale, the expertise required
far exceeds the number of people who readily can be collocated.
The solution is to collocate the people whom you naturally
can bring together and link them to others. 'Link' is the
operative word here. It is not sufficient to collocate pods
of people and expect them to work with others without careful
design. Complex product development projects require complex
organizational design and intentional communication design.
The most successful virtual teams we document follow these
BPR: What pitfalls
should I watch out for and how can I prevent them?
of the pitfalls that can trip up a collocated team are dangers
to a virtual team, but even more so. Alan and Deborah Slobodnik,
of Options for Change have done the best summary we've seen
of 'team killers.' They include: false consensus, unresolved
overt conflict, underground conflict, closure avoidance,
calcified team meetings, uneven participation, lack of accountability,
and forgetting the customer.
"Interventions, of the types they
provide, address these problems. Virtual teams introduce
yet another 'team killer'--technology adoration. Some people
think that you can solve virtual team problems by setting
up e-mail lists, opening chat rooms, and mounting desktop
conferencing. Wrong. Technology can help virtual teams but
only when used in conjunction with the overall strategy
of the organization."
BPR: I'm a development
team leader: what should I watch out for?
development teams, particularly software development teams,
have been among the true leaders in creating virtual teams.
The most famous virtual team created the Internet more than
25 years ago. Virtual teams have also created dozens of
computer languages, including Ada, which we write about
in the book, that are critical to many global processes
today. Frankly, it is hard to identify any product today
that is not the work of a virtual team, whether explicitly
recognized or not. Sun Microsystems, which launched 70 boundary-crossing
'SunTeams,' used this simple definition: 'Process improvement
through teamwork for customer satisfaction.' If you reverse-engineer
that definition, you will avoid a lot of problems."
BPR: Can you site
concrete examples of virtual teamwork generating better
products quicker and more cheaply?
recent mammoth virtual-team triumph, the creation of its
WorldMark computer system line, is a great example. The
program involved more than 1000 people in multiple locations,
both internally and externally. It came in ahead of schedule
and on budget, thus playing a significant role in contributing
to NCR's remarkable turnaround."
BPR: When is a team
too large for virtual teamwork? How do you manage that problem
if you're working with a project involving masses of players
scattered around the globe?
is an enormous body of research about the effective size
of teams, which generally points to the obvious--5 to 10
people is the ideal size. Virtual teams enable teams to
scale. By working in small groups, connected across boundaries
through commonly shared processes and commitment to a shared
purpose, ever-increasing numbers of people can work together
effectively, as WorldMark proves."
BPR: You say virtual
teams are high-connectivity/low-maintenance organizations.
This seems counterintuitive. One more time: isn't it honestly
a lot easier for a team to stay on top of things and maintain
synergy when it's collocated?
found the best collocated teams use principles incorporated
by the most successful virtual teams: a clear purpose, a
focus on people, and concentration on the links that connect
them. If collocated teams also take the step of creating
virtual workplaces for themselves, they can actually improve
their productivity radically."
BPR: You are advocates
of TeamFlow software, which is based on Toyota's deployment
charting method. What is it and why do you recommend it?
is the next generation of project management software, optimized
for groups that work across boundaries. It allows a team
to see its work--tasks, deliverables, meetings, decisions,
and milestones--in relation to who needs to be involved.
It also allows the team to see its work in relation to the
groups that it is a part of, and the sub-groups that make
it up. Very powerful. We've been using it on all our projects
for the past seven years to great effect. It's PC-based,
runs over networks, and a Web-based version is on its way."
BPR: Let's sum up:
why is virtual teamwork something mainstream managers need
to understand today?
around you. Does everyone you work with work for the same
organization? In the same location? Probably not. The onrushing
explosion in information and communications technologies
makes change in how we team inevitable. Dataquest, which
provides technology research, predicts that personal computer
(PC) sales, of which there were none in the world in the
1960s, will top 100 million annually by the year 2000--one
PC for very 60 people on the planet; and, by the same time,
more than 60 million people will use cellular phones--which
did not even exist in the 1970s--according to Action Cellular
Network. Voicemail, rare in the 1980s, is now widespread
and all but indispensable in most organizations today.
"Fastest growing of all is the
Internet and the World Wide Web, with its internal offspring,
intranets. The number of new daily Internet connections
surpasses anyone's ability to accurately count them. According
to Matrix Information and Directory Services, which has
tracked Internet growth for many years, electronic connections
among people and computers expand perhaps on the order of
tools open up vast new fertile territory soil for 'working
together apart.' For the first time since nomads moved into
towns, work is diffusing rather than concentrating as we
move from predominantly industrial to informational products
and services. In all industries and sectors, people are
working across space and time. Virtual teams thrive in big
companies like Hewlett-Packard and Eastman Chemical Company,
in smaller ones like Rodale Press and Buckman Laboratories,
and even smaller ones known only to their own markets like
Tetra Pak Converting Technologies and US TeleCenters."
Virtual teamwork--linked groups
of geographically dispersed people working collaboratively--is
the "peopleware" of the 21st century.
Virtual teamwork is 90% about people
and only 10% about technology.
Virtual teamwork does not eliminate
the need for occasional face-to-face encounters; conversely,
if a collocated team takes the step of creating a virtual
workplace for itself, it can increase productivity.
The trick is to collocate the people
you can naturally bring together and carefully map processes
and design communication links with the extended virtual
Virtual teams face the same pitfalls
as collocated teams, with one additional team killer--technology