An interview with Peter Ivanov, manager, entrepreneur, father of 5 daughters and virtual teams expert by Łukasz Paluszkiewicz

Peter, you are the author of Virtual Power Teams, a bestseller book about collaboration in virtual or remote teams. In December the book was published in Polish, so it’s a great opportunity to talk about the topic a little bit. At first I would like to ask you who can end up in working in a virtual team? Or in other words who should read your book?

Good question to start with. Maybe I will respond with another question to you. Let’s define virtual team, because many people get confused and say that virtual team is just the team that never meets. They communicate only over online media and for sure there are such teams, and the number of such teams is not so small. But define the virtual team as the team that is in more than one location. So you may have 2 offices in the same city and you are already in a virtual team. You may have collocated unit and then a couple of satellite members, it is a virtual team. If you have more than one location, or regular home office workers it’s a virtual team. So team that is in more than one location is called virtual, or remote, or distributed, or hybrid, those are all synonyms of the same thing. According to this definition, what do you think are the percentage of the virtual teams globally?

From my experience, all of my teams were virtual to be honest.

So you may say it’s a big number, what would you say, what’s the number?

I would say that it might be roughly about 95%.

OK. I have one research from Forrester Research, it’s 4 years old, so the number has grown for the last years, and at that time it was 81%. 60% of those teams are in more than one timezone. If you ask me now which industries may be interested in the book, the answer is –quite a lot. About 80%, probably 90% by now. IT and communication industries are virtual by nature so this percentage is higher there. Marketing departments as well, they use experts quite virtually. Consulting industry works in a very virtual way, they are at the customer site and work on a team beyond their organization. All corporate companies that have shared services, they are all virtual teams. If you look at the mid-size companies, they have production abroad like in China or somewhere else. Some have marketing offices on another continents. Most of those companies are already virtual. Recently I’ve been working with startups and when they start growing, when they leave their incubator or accelerator, have a proper funding and a robust product, they start expanding and growing very virtually. I had a client who has currently 30 people in 22 countries! They hire the best people regardless where they happen to live. This drives them to virtual environment. So yes, answer to your question is that the book is quite universal and that’s probably explains why the book has such success as people can identify with the story that was described there.

Thanks, I think so too. In your book you differentiate Virtual Power Teams to Virtual Teams. How to set up the Virtual Power Team from the first meeting?

Yeah, I think I have a method called 10 big rocks. These are the ten success factors for, I call it, retaining the gravity, as a metaphor, in a virtual team and unleashing the team power. Why gravity? Because if you have more than one location they are dispersed, they are like atoms. If you look at them in micro-level you have nucleus and you have various particles flying around. In a virtual team we aim to retain the gravity despite the distance and also despite cultures and timezones. And the gravity between team members, that are the particles flying around the nucleus, towards the nucleus. In this case the nucleus is not the project manager, it’s not the manager or a leader of the team, it is the purpose and the goal of the team. I put here a special emphasis. So it’s about retaining this gravity and having strong gravity to unleash the power of a virtual team. My method – the 10 big rocks – is described in the book and it’s structure reflects all the big stones. Those stones are broke down in 3 main parts. If you would like to see a virtual team as a human being the first part is the head. In this part I talk about personality and focus. Many people think that if they don’t see their team members, then why should they bother about their personality? From my perspective, it’s a big mistake. Second one is the strengths matrix. People feel anonymous in a poorly lead virtual team, like they are just a resource and not a holistic human being. If you discover the strengths and natural talents of team members and you put them in a strengths matrix and all of the sudden they become heroes. And if it’s diverse team then all of the members bring special strengths to the team and this creates a common approach of “yes, we can”. The third one is interdependent goal. It is very important, regardless how smart the manager or the team leader is. He’s not aware of all problems that may happen when many locations and cultures are involved. So we set up the agenda and goals from bottom up. There is workshop format and a process to establish 3 hottest issues and to turn them into the smart goals and then to develop the road maps. Then people voluntarily take the tasks for the goals. There is no delegation going on. So, this is the first part of the 10 big rocks technique. Those aim in clarity.

Fot. Konrad Zalewski

If the first part is head, what is the second part and which stones can be found there?

Second part is like skeleton and the muscles. Here we have structured communication, knowledge management and regular feedback. Lack of structured communication is when manager organizes meeting only sometimes, when there is a problem. Maybe starts some finger pointing, and dominate the discussion. I propose to structure it in a way that everyone has a slot and everyone can contribute and shine. Structured communication is not manager centric, not a problem centric, it’s structured one where everyone is having a slot regardless how big is the team.

And the last part?

The third and my favorite part is the heart. Here we have the recognition. Sometimes there is not enough recognition even in local teams. People leave managers for not enough recognition. In virtual teams it’s even more important. In the book you can find special tips and tricks and models to recognize progress of individuals in a virtual team. Diversity is another one. If you have a team across many cultures there is a way on leadership decision making. Teams define and decide themselves what is optimum culture for them. What does it mean for them, what does it mean for the leader. The ninth big stone is willing spirit. I love to work with appealing price for outstanding performance. The last one is next generation leaders. If it’s a bigger team the organization needs to think about young leadership talents, put them on their roadmaps and the strategic agenda that they set in the first part of creating goals. So the young leaders can develop on the go and then you can have the gravity on different organizational layers and different locations. If you tune the 10 big rocks that we talked here briefly it is normally a two days workshop. If you tune it for industry, for the locations, and the cultures of the team, you set the foundation of virtual power team. And then of course you need to deliver goals of your project but with reference to the strategic agenda that you tuned during the workshops.

That would be the actions that we would need to do when we start with the team, what shall we do when we join a team? Or we did not know about it when we started and now we see some issues?

The most important thing is to put personality in focus. Because sometimes people start working without any personal introduction, or very brief. If you put the personality in focus, the life line is the great format, I’ve done it in many industries and with different sizes of teams. It always creates some kind of a very strong bonding. And you as manager, when you recruit, you probably ask some personal questions, but this way team cannot know about that person what makes your heart sing. And this is really very powerful.

There are other formats that will help you bring personality in focus, but they need to be properly structured, so people can really feel as individuals. If the travel budget does not allow a face-to-face meeting, I’ve done it with some big teams online. And it works, give a focus to each person, give like 5-10 minutes in a structured way to go through their story. And it will create a really a lot of bonding. The other thing is, work on the strengths. People neglect it, if you discover a strength, regardless of at what stage your team is. You might have worked together one or two years, but when you discover the strength, it’s not a big deal. I have a format that people coach each other and within 10 minutes they come up with their two biggest strengths from their perspective and from external perspective. Once you capture this in the matrix, you create a lot of momentum already. Everybody will feel special, people know about it and they will start to behave differently. Then I would say the bottom-up goal setting is next. Normally you always have a top-down goals for the team if you work in a corporate or even in a startup, but you should do a bottom-up leadership agenda for your team. Team needs to understand how they could get stronger. Then you should polish your structured communication. You probably have already plan for your teleconferences and meetings but if you have different locations, different time zones, it’s worth to develop a team charter, as I call it. It shall have some essential elements. For example if you have many time zones, it’s critical to define channel for urgent communication and to define the time to respond through this channel. The reason for this is that people can feel some frustration and they can start to use different channels and so on. So some level of transparency and communication rules is key as well. I think that would be the elements you could do and immediately feel that you have more gravity and the team starts performing in a better way.

Fot. Konrad Zalewski

That sounds great. Could you share some personal examples when you’ve struggled in work with a virtual team and the way how you overcome this?

That would be probably one of my first experiences, I was working in Budapest, Hungary. I was IT services manager managing a team in two locations, one part of my team was in Budapest and second one in Pecs where we had the factory. Later on I also started to lead a technology shared services team and there were other eight countries involved. The first experience was a struggle. So far I was managing only local teams and I was trying to manage things, sometimes micromanage, give a very, very detailed and clear instruction. If there was a problem of not following up I was trying to resolve conflict by email. So I did some schoolboy errors. I think once I started to lead the technology shared services team for Central Europe I already has learnt recognition, managing conflicts virtually, always in an interactive form and never by e-mail or other asynchronous way. Then I came to Hamburg and I was leading one of my biggest struggles, I was leading a two years project, part of a global program in fact, and I was responsible for project in Europe – establishing shared services. We had to transfer 20 countries from a local IT shared services to a global shared services. At the beginning there was a lot of enthusiasm, that was my first global project, business trips to Kuala Lumpur where the global shared services were located, but then, like after two, or three months I realized that sometimes I try to be the smartest person in the room. Regardless if that was a physical room or a teleconference. I was trying not only to tell my team what to do, which now I think even this is too much – you should work it out as a team, but also how exactly to do it. And I had a team of very qualified experts in HR, legal and finance. After such meetings it became hard to motivate or to push the people. They were located in different locations like Kuala Lumpur, Moscow and so on. And I told to myself that it has to be done in a different way. This way, instead being a productivity factor as a project manager, I become a break factor and the burnout is just around the corner. How I overcome this… It happened that one of the team members left and a Spanish lady came. She suggested the lifeline and we did it with my team of ten full time member and twenty people part time across many countries. I was amazed by the people that I had on the team, it was a game changer. We started a workshop, with task to develop the agenda bottom up, not me telling what exactly we need to do, but we had more interactive forums. We had so much momentum! I went to the project board, there were nine months left for the project and I said: if we finish the project three months earlier, all thirty people, 20 part time and 10 full time, go to Tenerife, Canary Islands.

What did they response?

They agreed because the cost of the project was higher per month then the cost of the trip. We finished three months earlier, project saved 250 thousand dollars and we spend 50 thousand for the trip. To make it possible we established a visual reporting, instead of usual pie-chart or bar-charts we had and island with a palm tree and we had 20 parachuters for each of the markets, who milestone by milestone were approaching the island. Initially there was competition who will land first on the island but after first few landings it became irrelevant. The agreement was that we all need to make it in order to go for the holidays, otherwise nobody goes. Suspense has risen because deadline was approaching, everybody was trying to help and the last parachuter landed one week before deadline. We had a great story, we saved a lot of money and we had a party of our lives few weeks after. For me it was a big journey from being a micromanager and managing by email through realizing the power of the people, motivating, setting bottom-up goals and in the end with finishing the project this outstanding performance. Within one project it was quite a transformation.

Wow, that’s really a great story. However, many of the things that you mention should be a standard for projects managers. Like the bottom-up planning, even when creating WBS for the project scope. You should do it with the people, then roll-up it from bottom to the top. So I’m thinking what kind of mistakes when working with virtual team, project managers may be especially vulnerable to?

I think there are three top mistakes of project managers. First of all, and it doesn’t apply only to project managers, but also to business as usual teams. However I think that it’s more relevant for project managers. It’s neglecting personality factor. Taking people with the skill set and forget that they are human beings. If you do that, you lose a lot of potential. To avoid that, have a forum where everybody can present themselves. Build a structured format. Lifeline is a great format, there are some others. You may use some tests like MBTI, or DISC to analyze the personalities. Whatever you use, you should make sure you put personality in focus. You don’t have to invest in tools, just let people present their stories and you will be amazed. Second most common mistakes is when a project manager dominates the discussion during the meetings. It is part of being a decisive project manager and have all things under control, but you need to allow, and particularly in a virtual team, everyone to have a slot. Everyone should be able to report on the personal highlights from the last meeting and this will retain the gravity and add a spice to the meeting, and then on their task progress. It would be very clear who has delivered and who has not. You don’t have to criticize. By just exposing people, the one that didn’t deliver will feel embarrassed and will probably push more next time. So having structured communication, not being a manager that dominates and calls only in case of problems, but to have a regular communication plan where everyone can contribute is very important. The last one is taking outstanding performance as granted. I am father of five girls and even at home I am using incentives and prizes, that the team, in this case the family, decides upon. You get them for outstanding performance, when something gets done better or faster. Don’t expect outstanding performance just by regular words. Go for something which your team perceives as very appealing and in the end, you can achieve much more if people really go extra mile. Don’t underestimate the meaning and importance of a prize that the team set up for themselves.

Fot. Konrad Zalewski

In a lot of companies the project managers have boundaries set up by managers. They often are not able of creating a recognition budget or they have so many projects that it’s hard to connect with everyone regularly. Is there anything that you can advise those kind of project managers as well?

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to try. If you have big productivity gains and you save a lot of project budget you can still find something. Don’t get discouraged, talk with your sponsor and if you have convincing case you will probably convince them. If not, start to recognize the individual contributions. Praise, praise, praise, that’s one of my secrets. If people deliver good results you as a project manager should recognize their progress. Remember to be reasonable, don’t go always with “fantastic”, “great” or “amazing”. Evaluate the work through good to excellent and so on. If there is no results but the behavior is right, people help each other. Praise the behavior. Even if there is no result yet. Try to put this positive spin of recognition. Sometimes I even encourage people to recognize each other at the end of the meeting. Recognize somebody who helped you out. Who helped you deliver what you had to deliver. This culture of recognition cost nothing in terms of money, but creates a lot of momentum. I had a good experience with a program called “champion of the month”. Within the project team, including extended project team, collect the nominations for the “champion of the month”, somebody who contributed the most. Not the project manager or someone from top team, but rather other members of the team and then do an anonymous voting. Winner gets usually something tangible, we were sending a very nice African doll and one could put it on a desk and if people ask what it is, one could explain. There are ways that are not really expensive, most are in fact for free, but they have bigger impact. All in the recognition space.

Those were great examples, but what with a project managers that have so many projects that they cannot create such structured communication with all of the teams, is there anything to be done in that case as well?

I think you probably need to scale down the meetings, because if you manage a virtual teams you need to have structured communication. You probably need to go back to your boss and try to convince him to not make you so much stretched, because at the end you lose productivity. If you have several projects, for each of them you need some structure. You may look for some opportunities to have one meeting for everyone if the project has some synergies. One way or another, you need to have regular meetings. Normally I would do it weekly for the core team and monthly with extended team. If you have too many projects you may change it to monthly and quarterly. But you need to have a structured communication agenda.

I know an organization that believes that structured communication can go through a tool, so that they don’t have to have regular calls, because all of the communication goes through the tool. Do you think it’s possible to communicate that way in a virtual teams?

Tool is key, and tools like Slack, particularly for multi projects, can add a lot of value. I agree, but I would not discard synchronous, online discussion. Particularly on the quickly one minute personal highlights, hearing everybody’s opinion. Some people may be more reserved and will not share their opinion through a tool. Tool is great but I would advise to have regular, maybe not so often, all hands meeting of core and extended team. Both have totally different purpose. Recognition in the tool is not the same as hearing the voice and seeing the face. The meeting may have structure like that everyone says what they have delivered, what stands on their way and who can help them out. Very structured, you don’t have to recreate whole reporting, because you can do it in the tool. But just telling what you need and you can help you out, if you do this in a synchronous way you may get additional value. People will volunteer to help and will commit, not just one to one, but in front of the whole team. So, tool is great but interactive session is still needed from my perspective.

Fot. Konrad Zalewski

I would like to ask about the future of virtual teams. Do you think we will converse all the work in coming years to virtual environment, or some domains will stay in non-virtual teams setup?

We said that there is between 80 and 90 percent of virtual teams already and it will probably grow in the next years. There are some areas which will probably stay local, particularly if you try to create a very new product and you need to have a very creative sessions, prototype and brainstorm. You can do it in some collaboration tools as well, or even now the virtual reality steps in into the space, but I think that in coming years a lot of creative work will still stay in collocated teams. For the rest, we will see a growth of virtual teams. Especially in an IT industry, where team develops new apps and programs, you need highly skilled professionals. I think they are already virtual and they will move towards virtual teams even further. I observe a new trend called flash teams, where you create a team within hours, you have a demand from a customer for a particular project, and you have to build a team with a very specific skills set. I have some partners that can build such team within an hour. They have tens of thousands of already interviewed, qualified resources. Depending on the demand, they can scale, create, rise and mobilize bigger or smaller team depending on the project need. Having a solid process and a solid tools, I think you don’t go for virtual power teams. Sometimes the experts do not know each other, but you have a very solid process and handover points and very clearly defined micro roles. That’s what they call the expert roles. On top of virtual power team that manage the whole process in the company you have this on-demand teams. They are quickly shaped, delivering the project and quickly discarding. This is a new trend that I monitor very closely and I think that those flash teams will work with virtual power teams and the companies will use them regardless of their size. There is another trend of increasing the flexible workforce. I’ve read somewhere that about 40%, close to 50% of the workforce will be flexible by 2020, as consultants or freelancers and so on. This also will drive the teams virtuality and if you put the flash teams on top you create quite a lot of virtual teams in the project ecosystem.

The last question is my favorite, it’s an open question for you. So here it goes: do you want to share something with Polish project management community?

I have a very fun memories from my keynote speech at PMI Poland Chapter Congress in 2017. I’ve had my Polish book launch last December in Google campus and then had another conference. I always come to Poland with great pleasure. Poland is also a great place to be, not just because the economy performs well, better than in other European countries in terms of GDP growth, that drives the project demand also. You have a lot of companies that look at Poland to build their centers of excellence there and shared services and it will drive move towards virtual teams too. And that’s also why it’s a good place to be. The culture is also right in terms of value driven services culture. I wish you good luck, and if you want to reach out to me to make your virtual team even more powerful I would be very honored.