VIRTUAL TEAMING -- CAPT AJIT VADAKAYIL
this 21st century has just begun and lot of companies are boasting of their flat organisational structures (with hierarchy still deeply entrenched!).
in my vision for the next century i see the need for the management structure to be perfect like the nervous system of the human body—
this is the ultimate form of management as the human body is the most complex structure you can ever imagine—what could be more complex that the micro-science of human senses or DNA ?
we now move from flat to unreal structures ( patience ulysses! , i will explain your tool value later ) -- or for the matter virtual teaming.
a virtual team ensures the best minds work on a project from their unique vantage points regardless of where they reside and they are all afforded a level field.
brilliant minds do not care to play on a tilted playing field—whether to their advantage or not. it is realised that sometimes difficult topics are not best addressed face to face as in a office meeting. the member ship of the virtual team is dynamic, it shifts in response to changing project needs as usual in ship management.
before i proceed further let me recapitulate what a ordinary team is—individuals in a team share a common goal ( like a football team ) and depend on one another to achieve that goal. nothing can be achieved individually—no one man show is possible.
in this technologically switched on , modern age , it is impossible to get highly qualified people under one roof especially if they are not financially vulnerable and if they are loathe to sacrifice their personal values and private lives. these people of high autonomy and self direction may be unwilling to uproot and relocate their family . for their priorities might be in their children's education or family happiness . or maybe they do not care for the all too familiar dog eat dog office politics—i will come back to this later as a DC .
this nonsense of location restriction in a high tech age is done away with. virtual teaming affords them the much needed flexibility of balancing their personal and professional lives. any team LOVES to work with people having expertise in their own field. they have the opportunity to leverage others’ expertise in pursuit of team goals and use each other effectively.
modern technology enables the best committed minds to come together where ever roof they reside. teaming opportunity exists under different roofs all working towards a common goal. communication technologies like email , mobile phones are used instead of visual eye contact. when you can have your laptop and mobile hooked on even on an airplane –work goes where the employee goes. what cannot be conveyed by a nokia mobile N95 digital dvd movie sent by attachment on a email. it is now possible for on the spot member to be part of a virtual team. how many masters have a superintendent tell him by telex—you are the man on the spot—yet strangely he was not part of any vital decision making team—the man on the spot was just a feed back machine for a decision maker who was less competent and had NIL experience on that strain.
decentralized decision making enables us to focus jointly on work objectives, mutual problems and to develop innovative and effective solutions . cross organisational teamwork creates enormous savings starting from less central office space`and less travel time and costs.
most of the time the people sitting in the central office space is unaware of the detrimental effects of the things they do or decide on ( to make their own lives simpler ) the others doing the actual job in a far flung place and difficult environment.
we are lucky to be born in this era of change. since the wheel has been invented maximum changes have happened in our lifetime. this change has to be managed, information is the most powerful tool . this is where a catalysing multipoint feedback from a virtual team comes in handy. this “to the point information” is more powerful than all the voluminous and vague information on the internet superhighway (where time management takes a backseat). virtual teaming causing 360 degrees feedback ( aaha a new buzzword eh? ) creates an environment that allows change management to flourish.
when i was on sichem pace it was usual for me to comment /advise or even decide on problems of fairchem colt and north vessels—the idea is to gain quick access to my on the spot experience—the delay of re-inventing the wheel is thus avoided. it was usual for me to help a young master make a maiden entry into the amazon at night or even to comment on a delicate shipboard problems while i was on leave.
accelerated learning and knowledge sharing is the result when you have the maturity to have the team as the unit of performance. i my case i was tightly affiliated with the concerned superintendents—but this is not necessary. sharing databases does not need tight affiliations as long as the prior human trusting and open relation ships have been there. imagine the increased knowledge base when you have instant and ready access to experiences of others –especially in the chemical field.
in my piece on time management i spoke of the need to save time and money by decrease in travel—this is made possible by virtual teaming. communications and feedback are mostly in writing which makes documentation and retrieval easy as long as the email subject header is taken care of. persuasion is through written words than though mannerisms with adequate time for reflection. in a real meeting 80% of what is said is forgotten in 24 hours—things retained in external memory like yesterdays draft or yesterdays forepeak tank sounding.
traditional teams under one rood interact in meetings—unless this meeting is well conducted there are many pitfalls. office politics play a major role. i will be penning a short para on meetings and office politics in this piece.
in virtual teaming trust ,SYNERGY and sense of belonging is essential—the people under different roofs must be able to count on each other to share information quickly and completely. this trust is more important as virtual teaming eliminates tone of voice, eye contact and body language—the trust indicators.
virtual team members are highly interdependent—contrary to what the general feeling may be. yet paradoxically the team is diverse –made of individuals excelling in problem solving and innovation. unity is strength provided all are pulling in the same direction.
the team members must have a commitment never to allow the baby to get burnt. all must appreciate the experience and skills each member can bring to the team. a member is there for what he can contribute ( that leaves out cooks , right? ). members can brainstorm each other with cc and bcc by email to the relevant rest of the team. the copied to members can add to the feedback database. so it goes without saying that the virtual team members must be excellent communicators and must be given the communication mantras.
all the virtual team requires is a good strong respected leader who need not reside necessarily in the central office space . the leader must establish a process for storing and retrieving team members knowledge and work experiences. the leader must be aware of the difference in perspectives and work practises or even styles ( which are confused often with bad intent –remember bad boy vadakayil ?)—
the leader clarifies the role each individual will play in accomplishing virtual team tasks. the eye must be told to see and not to hear—a small definition of accountability. he must demonstrate an awareness of the challenges others face in their work. autonomy to execute work details is desirable. he encourages open discussions with key players before making a significant decision or policy shift. a frank question say “am i missing something you feel is important? “
the leader is a misfit if he has a problem in unlearning outdated ways—remember we are in the era of change management—dog eared ledgers are out—microchips are in. the leader encourages the virtual team to take initiative , be self starters and be future focused. he honestly seeks the input of the virtual team to build strategies and action plans.
the team is no dirty dozen rubbing shoulders with each other. team members must desist from making judgements bases on their own perceptions and history. often the least obvious perspective will bring the most valuable idea or probable solution. so this means each perspective must be encouraged.
so let us imagine the perspectives offered by a virtual team consisting of a kiss guy ( keep it short and simple ), philanthropist, a scientist, a risk taker, a strategist, a visionary, our own good old establishment, a fact finder and a random virtual team member.
why were the bridge wing doors shut?
kiss guy—to keep away moisture laden fog from entering the wheelhouse
philanthropist- for the greater good of the bridge team and bridge equipment blah blah
tunnel visioned scientist—the dew point using bridge 2007 xp was measured to be --blah blah
risk taker- a bold decision was made on the basis of—blah blah
strategist—the fact that the doors were open were threatening the sanctity of the wheelhouse, the open door was challenging the security and the well being of the equipment and the denizens. using the latest integration checklist it was determined that if humidity increases to blah blah
visionary—in mE vision for the next century i see the need for bridge wing doors to the closed using a computer controlled remote mechanism blah blah
our own establishment--- WE saw the need to shutteth the door and WE got it done . WE shall launcheth a full fledged inquiry to find the reason why the door was kept open in the first place
fact finder—i saw the doors being shut with my own eyes –why i don’t know yet
virtual team member on email — open the fog signal receptacle from inside the wheelhouse.
as you can see , the virtual team member has a trigger mindset. he does care for going through the motions like the others and thinks out of the box. one good idea often triggers another. he encourages each person to express positive and negative feelings. the focus is on creativity, innovation , conflict resolution , sharing/ seeking and harvesting information and to fine tune ideas for better decision making. he believes firmly that everybody must be self directed and flexible in order to work creatively together.
the virtual team leader realises that brainstorming is a process which must not have knee jerk reactions.
virtual teaming is not a tennis match where ideas are lobbed to and fro on email between a few dominant personalities sitting in shore office , ill equipped for the task with everybody else looks on helplessly. reflection time soothes the effect of upsetting voice mail or email if on line etiquette is not fully followed . the team leaders task is to release and harness the potential latent in the virtual team. He does not suppress conflict rather he channels it. He must not abdicate or take sides –rather he remains the impartial arbitrator. He has the maturity to invite team members of the relevant expertise to kickstart change—and wont feel threatened .
He wears his authority lightly and he reduces his role to a minimum.
Tao te ching spake 2000 years back—
The best conqueror does not take part in the war
The best employer of men keeps himself below them
This is the called the ability of using men—
so the culture must be more on listening to each other than advocating vehemently what they believe is right. however leader ship and respect for authority remain in place—the dynamic thing is the freedom in decision making for the team members depending on their own areas of expertise.
so here is an oath for the virtual team:
i recognise that i am in the midst of major change. i am willing to be vulnerable and change personal traits to manage this change. i agree to shift from the role model reinforced rigid mindset to a flexible future focused mindset. i recognise that the rules of the game has changed and that even as a leader of change i am on a learning curve. i commit myself to transparent and clear communications for 360 degrees feedback
some thoughts on pitfalls of real teaming meetings under the single roof
meetings without agenda can be an lame excuse to bring people together to sound them
a group can think only as well as its most proficient member on the topic –the tongue must taste and the ear must hear – not vice versa --right?
when meetings succeed it can be felt and when it fails it can be felt even better
a failed meeting can do a lot of harm
quite often solving a problem just needs the attention of just one single expert rather than the time and wasted energies of a whole onlooking gaping bunch
some team sub managers use a meeting to buffer them from frightening decisions— safety in numbers
meetings can degenerate to a matter of habit which nobody dares to challenge
a dictatorial topgun chair can repress discussion rather than control it
if the chair can hold the interest the comfort of the venue is not important
a meetings success is judged from the actions that it forced
Our much misunderstood ulysses software is basically an open , written and thus permanent ( not a passing fad ) employee suggestion system which cuts across departmental lines and rank levels. it allows “structured upwards and down wards communications” under one roof or different. virtual teaming to grass root levels is possible under the same roof or different roofs using this as one of the tools.
imagine a ulyssess program for upward and down ward communications being filled up by the manchester united soccer team after every match—the idea being to foster openness and transparency among team members ---with sensitivity and caring, of course.
from manager to goalkeeper/ stop looking at the girls and signing autographs when a match is going on.
from captain to center forward/ concentrate on not being offside when the corner kick is taken.
from coach to star striker / to confuse and shake off the guy tagging you cheek by jowl once every 15 minutes interchange positions with the midfielder briefly for 2 minutes.
a culture now develops that people can listen to constructive feedback without getting defensive—and the team can watch who is falling into the same hole again and again and letting the whole adventure down. the culture of not retaliating for people telling the truth as they see it from their perspective now develops. people are introduced to the culture that they must be open to perceptions others have on their performance even if they do not agree. and there must be a follow up to those who provide the feedback. maturity lies in not getting defensive and punishing others for being honest with you.
it can be used to relay information or to provide status updates. action items can be clearly stated. the prose must be thoughtful and meaningful as it is permanent. ideas can be channelled to the appropriate expert for evaluation. this results of which can be can be communicated back in a timely manner. this basket software facilitates the team members to utilise their creative and analytical ideas ( and still retain the patent – i will talk of office politics as a DC later ).
ulysses realises that the most successful organisations , especially in the chemical field, are learning machines who keep harvesting ideas. it recognises that every sailor is capable of generating improvement ideas and that a formal system is required to manage ideas. the grassroot level is more familiar with daily problems and inefficiencies / frustrations of their jobs especially when the management is an unseen outdated non english speaking monarch who is only interested in filing dishonest reports not actual facts.
what was good 20 years back may be unacceptable in this modern age. ulysses works on the principle that every thing can be improved. some team members can bring the best practises from previous employers. a rewarding experience with one suggestion can lead to another one for the system will not allow personality problems to affect decisions. ulysses sets rest to fears that ideas may be ignored , ridiculed or stolen or even blocked by opponents. most humans when they hear an idea they know will gain them recognition will pass it off as their own.
ulysses realises that the race for quality has no finish line. it ensures that questions and concerns have to be analysed and responded to within a time frame. for quick response time is the most important element of a successful suggestion programme. when used well to benefit the company and its employees it is a morale booster.
of course this must have an off limits agenda and framework. it cannot be used as a collective bargaining tool ( likewhat happens at TESMA seminars ) or to wrangle more overtime –unless it is solution oriented, has a better / less tiring method , reduces paperwork or challenges old obsolete habits.
the software can be further developed to include a tracking module for date recd, date closed, adopted/ not adopted/ under consideration/ unfeasible due to budget constraints.
once ulysses takes off it will debunk the 80/20 rule—that 80% of the best suggestions come from 20% of the population. all my ex chief officers ajay/ amit/ sanjay/ pankaj/ jain / rahul/ prasad all will vouch that is comes to 90/95 for this—as i hold a oral ulysses exercise on the bridge every month. and remember any thing you do must be measured, lest you lose control.
ulysses can be used to convey critical performance gaps and to suggest the training to fill up the gaps and thus convert the weaker areas into strengths. it can be used to reverse negative trends to develop specific action plans for moulding individual behaviours that can improve team performance. best practises learnt from other companies can be communicated sideways or upwards.
multipoint feedback is an effective and ideal tool into motivating action and personal change.
and the sacred cows—it is time to use ulysses and kick them where it hurts. ---for the uninitiated –sacred cows of every organisation will not be subjected ( or will not submit themselves ) to any suggestion system .
surviving office politics –
knowledge of human nature and even style is the corner stone of political education. recognise tactics used on you.
power does not come with position of authority. sometimes a slave could be more powerful than the great almighty Ceaser . having said that be aware that knowledge is power—be respected and valued at all levels .
be confident. every powerplay attacker enjoys seeing fear in the victim
if you cant change the policy either FO or follow it.
it is a valuable skill to know when to yield
the greatest survival tool is the art of win win negotiation
keep your emotions under a leash even when you are outraged, but don’t allow yourself to be the scapegoat for someone else’s mistakes.
show respect and appreciation to others, but first be honest with yourself
keep away from vicious smear campaigns
do not encourage lying and deception
you will be judged by your communication styles—if you are defensive all the time—you give yourself away.
be aware , stay focused and continue being the team player who will share man of the match awards.
to stay focused you need to know the larger picture. do not use the larger picture as a convenient exit route.
build solid relationships and socialise —even if it means that you have to allow moses on wheels to lead you by your nostrils for lunch. unni-san take note—there is zilch advantage in being a loner
in a shore office ( unlike a ship ) do not tell anyone anything that can be used against you—don’t let go too much even over a saturday night beer session with buddies who may be opportunists —don’t even pass on rumours or share negative career experiences. be a friend on matters that do not involve the office and an employee on issues that involve your career prospects. there is no need to prove your friendship at the expense of compromising your values.
the truth is without engaging in some sort of political activity or tying to develop followers , your career will stagnate. this is why old blunt seadogs who are not limelight oriented are misfits ashore.
do favours and help others out. even asking for help creates bonding ( what a paradox!).
know your power—unleash it only when necessary at the right time.. control impulses and rushes of blood.
gain the trust of those with influence, be genuine here.
there are insecurity driven turds in every office with the “crippler, undermining ,divide and conquer mindset” who enjoy telling you that you are worthless and unloved. it gives them temporary happiness and how. be proactive and not reactive with such miserable souls .
do not allow yourself to be emotionally blackmailed by con artists who misrepresent their authority. use your intelligence and gut feeling here.
when your big boss gives you meaningless jobs , withholds information or makes you travel the whole month --take the hint. recognise and seal your vulnerable areas. he might be reacting so due to outside pressures.
don’t upstage your boss or give him untactful advise in public
don’t hurt working relation ships—you may need to be a hypocrite here. maintain your sense of humour.
when negative politics are used by team members or negative energies are channelised for selfish needs, the resulting conflict can corrode the core of the team. team efforts are swamped by power struggles.
don’t cry wolf every time there is a common place power struggle.
play only by your own rules or the rules of the company. and don’t get too predictable lest you become a easy target ( aaha now every body knows why vadakayil keeps a cat as a pet ) . timing is everything .
and if you are too sensitive and get stressed in office, here is the vadakayil remedy , which hold good till the 3rd world war—based on the principle that HAPPINESS IS THE BEST STRESS BUSTER
be respected by all in office
have a busy schedule and do perfect time management
make sure you want what you get and not vice versa
surround your desk which trivia which makes you feel good—no!, you cant bring your pet along!!
do not expect things beyond your talent
happiness is a victory lap—so solve problems, talk big ( like you know who ), keep the colour in your cheek and the glint in your eye.
be yourself, and have good friends who accept you as you are.
laughing and crying are signs of relief valve lifting on the overstrung—JUST SMILE
and finally some wisdom---
keep your CDC and yourself , marketable and valuable.
champions and heroes who challenge themselves have the knowledge, talent, skill , attitude and determination to easily handle the lifetime ahead of them—it is a piece of cake.
CAPT AJIT VADAKAYIL ( 28 YEARS IN COMMAND )