Sunday, April 19, 2009

Getting the most out of virtual teams

Most of the big challenges in information security require a multi-disciplinary approach. It takes specialized knowledge and input from many different areas for leaders to successfully balance costs to the business against the expected benefits of reducing risk while ensuring that operational goals are reached.

In global organizations, this usually involves virtual teams working with a mix of collaboration tools, with relatively few opportunities for face to face interaction. These matrixed teams can often feature a more diverse mix of countries, cultures, educational backgrounds and perspectives. But their value can be easily lost if one or more dominant voices crowd out the rest.

To keep that from happening, there are several decision making tools that can be helpful in a virtual setting which encourage collaborative and creative development within a project structure.

Spiral Development Methodology
If the goal of the project is to develop a process or internal service offering under tight timelines, and if role definitions and/or project deliverables have a significant amount of ambiguity, it may make sense to use the spiral development approach in order to ensure that a working process is implemented right away. While it isn’t labeled a “spiral” methodology, Kevin Behr, Gene Kim and George Spafford detail the essential steps for establishing control over change management in their book The Visible Ops Handbook: Implmenting ITIL in 4 Practical and Auditable Steps.

In contrast to traditional development methodologies that use a top-down approach which begins with fully specified requirements and ends with a final product, the spiral approach uses these steps:
1. Plan – specify requirements in as much detail as possible
2. Design – design the solution based on known requirements
3. Prototype – build a working process / solution and deploy it
4. Evaluate – compare prototype performance against expected performance; have the initial goals been met? Identify lessons learned and new requirements, and repeat steps 1-4 as needed.

By taking an iterative approach, the team can deliver a working solution that meets immediate operational and/or regulatory requirements while gaining experience that will be helpful in refining and improving the solution.

Improving decision making in virtual teams
As typically implemented, brainstorming in a team setting involves a facilitator documenting alternatives in the order in which they are most loudly, and frequently, repeated. Because they’re generated one at a time, some ideas get lost along the way, and at a certain point the list seems “long enough” and that’s the end of the input.

Even in a motivated team with good interpersonal relations, the “tyranny of the enthusiastic” may unwittingly crowd out other options. One way to prevent this is to use what is called the Nominal group technique:
1. Before the meeting, each team member writes down their own ideas on the problem; requirements, design issues, and solution approaches.
2. The team meets:
a. Each member presents one idea to the group; no discussion takes place until all ideas have been recorded.
b. The team asks questions to each presenter to ensure that their approach is clearly understood, and then evaluates it.
3. Each team member ranks the ideas presented and sends their “votes” to the facilitator. A final decision is based on the highest aggregate ranking.

While this involves more pre-work and coordination than the typical “brainstorming” approach, the advantage is a much fuller reflection of the capabilities of the team. And since all team members must present, it makes “social loafing” much less likely as everyone is expected to provide input.

Another approach, originally pioneered by RAND as a forecasting tool is called the “Delphi” method:
1. Each member provides a written forecast, along with supporting arguments and assumptions.
2. The facilitator edits, clarifies and summarizes the data
3. Data is returned as feedback to the members, along with a second round of questions.
4. The process continues, usually for about 4 rounds, until a consensus is reached.

Sometimes it’s possible to just throw people on a conference call and just hash it out. But other times, you need all of the creativity, engagement and effort that a matrixed team can muster, and all on a very short deadline. In those circumstances, an ounce of smart structure can yield a pound of results.

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