How Do Virtual Strangers Become A Global Project Team?

Our Story. Our Solution.

From 35,000 Feet

At an elevation of 35,000 feet or 10668 meters one may see the curvature of the earth, that is with a wide enough cloud-free view.

In 1922, Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest, and philosopher introduced the idea of the Noosphere in “Cosmogenesis.” He describes the Noosphere as “a sphere of human thought encircling the earth … as much part of nature as the … atmosphere, and biosphere.” In 1929, Albert Einstein shared a similar observation during an interview with the Saturday Evening Post. He said famously that: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”

In 1948, Dr. Fred Hoyle, the physicist-cosmologist wrote: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” Hoyle also coined the term “Big Bang.” Twenty years later, in 1969, during their extraordinary flight to the moon and back, the crew of Apollo 8 took that very photograph. During those turbulent 1960s, Dr. Marshall McLuhan, philosopher, and professor coined the term the “Global Village”. He saw the world becoming a village through the proliferation of electronic media mediating our daily lives and connecting us with “the instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time. This also involved the changeover from consumer to producer, from acquisition to involvement, from job holding to role-playing”.

In 1974, Theodor Holm Nelson, an information technology pioneer, philosopher and sociologist introduced the term “Intertwingularity”. He wrote: “everything is deeply intertwingled … Hierarchical and sequential structures, especially popular since Gutenberg, are usually forced and artificial. Intertwingularity is not generally acknowledged —people keep pretending they can make things hierarchical, categorizable and sequential when they can’t.”

Therefore, So What?

As William Blake observed back in the 1800s, “What is now proved, was once imagined.” Today the Noosphere animates the Global Village and we’re all virtually Intertwingled. We’re just starting to address the implications of learning, working, creating, playing and living this way. Then throw the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Robotics into this hot heady stew.

Our world today is well described as Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. The VUCA acronym was first coined at the United States Army War College. It’s a compact way to describe the “Fog of War” military combatants experiences on the battlefront. This phrase is taken from the writings of von Clausewitz, the 19th Century Prussian general, and theorist.

War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth

– Wikipedia

United Nations Island in Space: Prospectus for A New Idea Vancouver Word’s Fair 1986

A 2010 IBM survey of 1500 CEOs, from 60 nations and 33 industries, is worth noting anew. Their primary concern was the growing global volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Today, eight years later, our world is even more unsettled. These 1500 CEOs in 2010 also acknowledged their organizations weren’t well-equipped. They also chose creativity as the most important skill needed to thrive and succeed in a VUCA world.

In an unrelated study “when asked to choose between prospective hires with technical skills and … (those) who are creative thinkers, 70% of school superintendents and 63% of employers preferred the creative candidate” . What von Clausewitz identified over hundred years ago, is more relevant today. Not only on the military battlefield but in the daily scrum of organizational life in practically every sphere. That is a sensitive, discriminating intelligence to scent out the truth. Creative thinking – i.e. applied imagination – is a good part of this type of intelligence. Remember Einstein’s maxim. This becomes especially germane when working together on shared projects while living on opposite sides of the globe. Often with different worldviews. As visionaries like de Chardin foresaw we need higher elevation to see the bigger picture.

Virtual Teams Rising

By 2020, it’s projected that a billion people will be working remotely. Largely on distributed or virtual project teams that are cross-functional, cross-cultural, and cross-generational. Back in 2010, Cisco’s Executive Chairman, John Chambers, then stated frankly: “Globally linked virtual teams will transform every government and company in the world. Any of our peers who don’t do it won’t survive” (2010). A 2016 Deloitte study states 72% of C-Suite Executives “see virtual teaming capabilities across cultures as becoming significant and normative in the next five years.” There are several benefits including access to a vast global pool of professional talent, lower office/administration costs, reduced travel and time-loss, as well as enabling enterprises to operate round the clock in some way.

Pain Points

Despite the growing use and dependence on virtual teams, research statistics reveal a low success rate. 80% perform poorly. Only 39% of software projects are completed successfully. 43% result in late delivery, cost overruns, and/or reduced features/functions. 18% fail. In one survey, 75% of developers believed their own projects would fail. There is a basic reason. Less than 33% of virtual teams receive relevant training. Learning how to use Skype or Slack does teach virtual teaming skills. All too often, “virtual strangers” are “thrown together” and then told to “get on with it”.

Soft Skills – Team Skills Gap

When teams are not given time to bond during the forming stage especially, this invariably leads to ‘storming”. This manifests as poor communication, interpersonal conflict, personality-ego clashes, lack of civility and trust. In the traditional workplace, such conflict costs $359b annually in the USA alone. The underlying cause is a lack of Soft Skills, also called EQ or Emotional-Social Intelligence. Sadly, all too many institutions, from Kindergarten through University, don’t consistently or uniformly prepare students and their soft skills remain uneven and underdeveloped. Few institutional mechanisms exist that identify, acknowledge, or value these skills in the same way as good grades for example. Happily, there are innovative initiatives underway through the European Union (eLene4work) and the Mozilla Foundation, for example, using digital badging.

For example, in countries like Canada, Australia, and the USA, employers’ struggle to find business grads with soft skills. Students don’t have virtual teamwork experience. Being a “digital native” is insufficient. University capstone team projects are a microcosm of this larger problem. Student teams are tasked to address complex challenges provided by industry sponsors. Their team project results are tied directly to future employability. Corporate recruiters seek students with a successful capstone project. However, research shows these “high-stakes” student projects are often unsuccessful. Generally, virtual project teams, like their professional counterparts, receive little or no training. Moreover, few online tools actually teach “virtual strangers” how to trust or collaborate effectively.

 

Drawing Together Virtually (Based on M.C. Escher)

Lived Experience

In direct response to these market pain points and soft skills training gap, we’ve developed a virtual team training solution called the Prelude Suite™. This is designed to help “virtual strangers” learn to become an effective project team online in a safe, engaging, compact, fast process. The same goes for training facilitators.

We ourselves are a virtual team spread over four countries, three continents, and a dozen time zones. We’ve never met “in the flesh”. Our enterprise is also virtual (although incorporated in Canada). We have no physical office location. We largely serve clientele and train facilitators online.

The Prelude Suite was developed, tested, and iterated over several years and stages. This organic process simultaneously developed, tested and iterated us as a team too. Our resource helped us reveal ourselves to ourselves. It helped us see our diverse team strengths and challenges as well as how best to harmonize and channel these to best use. As the resource has evolved so have we. We use synchronous and asynchronous modes of communication and collaboration as well as whatever digital tools work best for us. We’ve established and consciously maintain a high level of team trust based on mutual respect and deep appreciation of each other’s character, expertise, and work ethic.

Illustration from Icon Archive

Virtual Space: A New Frontier

In some ways, a virtual team is like a team of astronauts. They’re both working together out in space with zero gravity. One needs specialized skills working in space in addition to the relevant ones used on earth. Indeed, one needs an entirely new way of seeing and thinking. We are therefore collaborating with and/or closely following the work of pioneer thinkers and innovators like Dr. Faisal Shehab, Dr. Erin Makarius, Dr. Barbara Larson, and Dr. Karen Sobel Lojeski. They are innovating and mapping out much-needed concepts and models explaining new cognitive, experiential, and structural dimensions like “Virtual Sensing” “Virtual Intelligence”, “Virtual Distance” “Virtual Business Architecture”.

I’m interested in the idea of “Virtual Vibes”. Emotions “travel” as electrical energy at a subatomic level. A “vibe” is a colloquial expression for “vibration”. It’s defined as “a person’s emotional state or the atmosphere of a place as communicated to and felt by others.Good vibes spread when people are positive and having a positive effect on those around them, physically and virtually. Our entire technology now enables our “vibes” to travel, be felt, and reciprocated almost instantly anywhere at any time between almost anyone.

The Prelude Suite

The Prelude Suite™ empowers virtual team performance by accelerating trust. It consists of a proprietary experiential learning platform and software combined with a unique methodology. A facilitator guides teams online through scaffolded modules using: self-assessment, self-expression, co-creation, and dialogue. This includes an interactive journal for reflection and charting progress. Teams meet synchronously/asynchronously in a private online space. Using rich media (VOIP, Video, Chat, Interactive Whiteboard) teammates learn about themselves and each other and practice soft skills. They co-create digital symbols of aspiration and excellence. These artifacts have ongoing value for team dashboards and digital life career portfolios. Teams conclude by producing a Team Alignment Plan™, matching soft skills and project tasks. They also draft a Team Charter outlining how members want to work together. As teammates become attuned, cognitively and emotionally, trust is naturally accelerated.  This is a compact way to establish psychological safety. The Prelude Suite may be easily integrated within any curriculum, training program, and/or learning management system. This is easy to learn and deploy, delivers consistent results, is highly economical. The overall process involves three online sessions of 60 to 120 minutes, depending on team size. A blended learning version for co-located and hybrid teams is available. The Prelude Suite has been described as an “inoculation against bullying” and a “trust accelerator”.  It’s also designed to complement, indeed enhance, a wide range of existing tools and methods, for example Design Thinking, Appreciative Inquiry, Arts-Based Corporate Learning Initiatives, Aggression-Replacement Training. This includes classic assessments like MBTI and Strengths Finder, for example

Background

Our own narrative arc developing the Prelude Suite has been epic (in a modest key). The idea of an online training platform for virtual teams had its genesis several years ago. At the time, we offered our K12 school clients a blended learning version. In 2012, for example, the Software Information Industry Association (SIIA) showcased it as one that year’s most innovative education tech products.

The Prelude Suite is used in schools and the workplace. The original blended learning version has benefitted approx. 15,000 youth and adults in diverse cultures and settings from India to the Gulf States and First Nations in Canada. It’s highly effective for youth at risk, in marginalized communities, and with disabilities. It’s taken us considerable time to refine the online resource and learning methodology, for technology and rich media capacity to evolve, and for the global market need for more effective virtual project teams to become a major pain point for leaders.

We launched our current platform version in 2017 and the response across sectors is consistently positive. It’s been experienced by several hundred students, educators, and business professionals to date. The response is consistently positive as our feedback surveys, word of mouth recommendations, and repeat orders. Our managing team, advisors, and clients all see an immense global market opportunity for the Prelude Suite within both education and business. That is with the right partners to help us to grow and scale.

 

Mandala of Prelude Suite Virtual Team Experience

Conclusion

To reimagine education in today’s global, interconnected community of differences, one may find inspiration from timeless wisdom. In the Vedic texts of India that are thousands of years old, there is the phrase — “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. “The world is a family. One is a relative, the other stranger, say the small minded. The entire world is a family, live the magnanimous.” This is engraved over the entrance to the Parliament of India, the world’s largest democracy. The Prelude Suite is an exemplar of how “the newest digital technologies are returning us to the most ancient form of media — one in which a natural order is restored” [June Cohen, TED Media Director]. Ancient roots give life to new blossoms and vice versa.

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Howard B. Esbin, PhDhttps://teamprelude.com/
My professional life spans the private sector, international development, philanthropic fundraising, and entrepreneurship. Part one, from 1973 – 1988, was spent in the jewellery industry. This included senior management roles in retail and manufacturing. Part two, from 1991 – 1997, involved consulting and senior manager roles in international development. The former included working in Kenya with the International Labour Organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, and the Royal Netherlands Government Embassy. This involved original field research and recommendations for youth entrepreneurship and artisans called Jua Kali. I also later oversaw a $3M fair-trade enterprise called Bridgehead owned by Oxfam Canada. Part three, from 1998 – 2004, saw me as a director of an annual, volunteer-driven philanthropic fundraising event, called HOPE Beachfest. This was the world’s largest one-day volleyball tourney (10,000 players) with an all-day rock concert (15,000 party-goers). Part four, from 2008 – 2018, involves my time as an entrepreneur developing and launching the Prelude Suite™. Additionally, from 1984 – 1998, I attended McGill University on a part-time basis earning three successive degrees culminating with a doctorate in education. My research examined how a carvers’ community transmitted its visual knowledge generationally, informally and non-verbally. Education Canada, the International Labour Organization, and UNESCO have also published my related writings.
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Yvonne A. Jones

The information contained in this article is a reflection of deep research for supporting documentation, which I enjoyed reading. As I read I couldn’t help but wonder what would those visionaries would conclude about what’s happening today.

Enjoyed the comparison between virtual teams and astronauts. As you highlighted It’s still an untapped frontier fraught with many challenges.

Thank you for shedding light on the opportunities and challenges of virtual teams.

Howard B. Esbin
Howard B. Esbin

Thank you very much for your thoughtful response and kind words!I think the visionaries would not be surprised at all at the state of the world. Still I am hopeful that our better angels will tip the scale.

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