This article originally appeared in the March 1997 issue of the
Product Development Best Practices Report Online Edition.



Nothing 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Our 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 now?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Well, 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "The 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Great 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Tom 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 building.

"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.

Lipnack/Stamps: "Great 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 principles."

BPR: What pitfalls should I watch out for and how can I prevent them?

Lipnack/Stamps: "All 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Product 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "NCR's 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "There 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "We've 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "TeamFlow 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?

Lipnack/Stamps: "Look 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 100% annually.

"Distance-spanning communications 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."

Key Learnings:

  • 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 team.

  • Virtual teams face the same pitfalls as collocated teams, with one additional team killer--technology adoration.


Copyright 2000 by Management Roundtable, Inc.