Communicating With Other Teams on Cross Projects

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Creating a mutually advantageous union with other teams or team members is critical for project managers—especially when teams or team members are dispersed across the nation or worldwide. Managing a distributed team or groups of teams on cross projects, of course, requires project managers to possess the ability to motivate, maintain cohesion and establish trust through various methods of communication.

For Kathryn Shugart, IT director for Sun Microsystems’ Business Engagement and Applications group, communication is a vital part of managing a team of 12 IT professionals dispersed worldwide as well as working in partnership with the Global Sales Organization (GSO), Client Solution Organization (CSO) and primary development and analysis vendor, the Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC). “Because we are dispersed and because we rely quite a bit on our vendor and we work very closely with the business, a key part of what we do is communicate, and that’s probably part of the big message: We focus on developing good relationships with our business partners, amongst our team and with our vendors,” Shugart explained. “So to do that, we always need to be communicating and working together through a variety of communication methods: It’s e-mail, it’s phone, but it’s also face-to-face communication.”

Although much of Shugart’s communication with her team, the business and vendors occurs over the phone, she tries to hold face-to-face meetings with her team on at least a quarterly basis to improve the member’s working relationships and communication. “Periodically my team and I will get together at one location—whether it is in California where I am stationed or in the United Kingdom where many of the team members are located,” she said. “During such meetings we spend a lot of time talking about our goals, our key projects and about the business that we view as our customer. For example, when we had our most recent on-site get together we brought in some of our business customers to talk to us about what they need and where they are going, what their strategies are, etc. so that my team and I could put together our statement of objectives and mission as well as bond and really work together to build camaraderie. This ensures we all understand what it is we are trying to achieve and who is responsible for what.”

Holding face-to-face meetings is an excellent way to establish a positive working relationship with a team or groups of teams, as well as, combat or resolve potential problems. “By cultivating a positive relationship with my team members, business customers and vendors, it makes it easier for project managers or individuals to approach me with problems,” Shugart said. “It’s also me having a good understanding of what it is they are working on and what issues they might be facing because this way I can easily remove any roadblocks for them and help them resolve any issues that they have.”

Shugart said that attaining a common understanding of what it is that the team wants to achieve as well as understanding each other’s responsibilities is vital to their team’s success. She holds weekly or at least bi-weekly phone meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page in terms of project objectives and deadlines. In addition, Shugart holds one-on-one meetings with her team members to troubleshoot any potential problems that may occur during the application development, support and maintenance of Sun’s business applications. She said that the frequency of such meetings is determined on an individual, need-be basis.

However, Shugart said that weekly phone meetings and one-on-one meetings over the phone would not be as successful if the face-to-face meetings were not held regularly because much personal interface is lost while communicating over the phone or via e-mail. “Obviously, over the phone you don’t have all of the non-verbal cues that you normally have during face-to-face interactions. But one of the problems, interestingly enough, is simply timing. A number of my people are in Europe—one in Holland, most are in the United Kingdom—we have people in Colorado and California as well. So where it may be mid-morning in California it is getting to be late in the day in Europe. So it is being aware of the impact it has on people when they have to participate in a lot of meetings day after day and what it means for their personal lives.”

To ensure that no team member is no more or less afflicted by meeting times, Shugart rotates both meeting times for over the phone conversations as well as locations for face-to-face meetings. Rotating the times and locations of the meetings, according Shugart, is extremely beneficial. “Being flexible is extremely important. In my case working with people in Europe, I have called my team members in Europe at 2 p.m. in the afternoon my time thinking that I would get a voicemail and they answer the phone and are working late into the night, which for them is midnight or 1 a.m. So I need to be flexible with people, be considerate of the impact that it has on their lives with the different timing because generally people in Europe have to work later in the day.”

Also, by holding face-to-face meetings in Europe, gives Shugart’s employees a chance to understand the cultures of their European counterparts. “Quite often, people generally will go to the location that has the most employees, but I think it is key for managers and team members to go and visit their coworkers at their own location and really understand what their working environment is like, meet them as a person because I think that it makes the person or team member feel that their manager and other team members are interested in seeing what they are about, where they work, etc.,” she said.

In order to make sure her team members, business customers and vendors are engaged during phone conversations, Shugart often utilizes a round-table approach so that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the call. Also, Shugart is extremely careful during phone conversations to make sure that team members thoroughly understand what is communicated. “I am very careful to make sure that people either repeat back to me or I hear back so that I can make sure that people understand what’s been said or that I understand them.”

Listening, according to Shugart, is another key part of her job as IT director. She said that avidly listening gives her insight into what motivates people thereby unveiling opportunities to either improve engagement or provide employees with opportunities for career growth.

Shugart said that although no management style is faultless, a proactive approach to overseeing distributed team members and collaborating with other businesses or teams can be extremely beneficial to employee engagement, productivity and bottom-line results. “Staying on top of things and being proactive as a result keeps the projects on track and within budget limits as well as enhances employee morale and engagement,” Shugart explained. “I am a firm believer that a happier team is a more productive team and a more productive team is going to deliver better results, problems will be handled more readily and projects will be more successful in the end.”

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