How to ensure your virtual team members are all on the same page.

Getting on the same page means each team member has a shared mental model of the task and the team. Mental models are internalized representations of the world around us; they are the way we make sense of things.

In a high-functioning team, each person has a mental model that is similar enough to the others, so that the team have a common understanding of the task and how they operate as a group.

Mental models for the task includes things like the resources, tools, risks, processes, systems and procedures. The technology, systems and processes you use help you create, share and discuss the way you see the team operating. The more you interact with each other, the more you learn about each other’s’ ways of thinking and develop shared mental models. Representing these visually can help ensure that everyone in the team sees it the same way.

Mental models about the team include roles, responsibilities, communication structures, and information-sharing practices. Understanding who your team-mates are (e.g. personality, skillsets, expertise, style, preferences and other individual differences) and appreciating what they bring to the team are vital for performance.

Teams that don’t understand and value the diversity in individual members can easily fracture into silos divided by demographic or other characteristics.

These characteristics constitute a faultline within the team along which it may subdivide. A virtual team is at the mercy of geographic, culture and language faultlines, in addition to the well-known attributes that create division (e.g. gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation etc). Most teams today are made up of different subject matter or functional expertise which can easily cause segregation (e.g. product vs sales, engineers vs designers, poets vs quants, techies vs users).

Two factors help teams overcome these barriers to team performance: i) the strength of the team’s shared objectives; and, ii) understanding and valuing the differences that each team member brings.

The overarching goal and the reason why you are a team must be crystal clear to each member and regularly reiterated.

When we observe things going wrong in other parts of a virtual team, we tend to blame the problem on the person rather than to the situation: (“Jill just doesn’t know how to get things done”). This is known as the fundamental attribution error and it is exacerbated in virtual teams. You need to make a real effort to understand the individual person and their local context so that when things go wrong you have an appreciation for the situation, otherwise your instinct may be to blame “the useless operations team”. Cross-training, knowledge sharing, perspective taking, and agreeing on operational structures can all help overcome the risk of splitting into silos.

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