problem management

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Communication breakdowns in dispersed teams, and how to overcome them

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Korrine Jones is our guest blogger today. Korrine will offer a workshop at Service Management 2016 on ‘Leading an invisible IT team’. Korrine is Director and Principal Consultant of OD Consulting, and author of Virtual Team Reality: The Secrets to Leading Successful Virtual Teams and Remote Workers. This blog looks at why communication breakdowns occur in dispersed teams and provides tips on using communication tools and processes differently to increase the quality of communication.

A 2014 study undertaken by Software Advice (Radley) found that communication was the top-cited challenge to managing projects with dispersed teams.  In fact, 38% of the almost 300 professionals surveyed for the study said that communication was difficult for dispersed project teams.

With a wide range of communication tools available these days, including instant messaging, project management tools, wikis, blogs and virtual conferencing via telephone or video, it is interesting to note that the survey found the most preferred communication tool for 41% of the respondents was still email. Delving into the data further, phone is seen as the next most preferred communication channel (36%), 12% selected virtual conferencing as the preferred collaboration option, and only 10% of respondents favoured discussion forums and chat rooms.

However, the survey also found that emails, particularly long email threads, are seen as the top obstacle to effective project communication by 23% of respondents.  In line with these findings, my personal experience has been that dispersed teams often overuse email as their most regular form of communication, with the result of deteriorating rather than building communication, rapport and trust across the team.

The survey results also found that 16% of dispersed team members experienced confusion about which communication channel – phone, chat or email – to turn to for which tasks. It is important to remember when we read these results that the tools are merely the communication channels. While teams I have worked with have found it useful to use a range of tools, to be effective in communication your team needs to agree on how they will communicate and then select the appropriate tool/s for their specific communication needs. Which channel will you agree to use for each type of team communication?

The survey also found generational differences in communication preferences. Specifically, it found that preference for digital mediums (such as email) decreased with age, while preference for analogue communications (phone) increased with age. The study also found that these trends change when looking at videoconferencing, discussion forums and chat, with 35-44 year olds less likely to prefer virtual conferencing and more likely to prefer chats and discussion groups than both younger and older age groups.  This confirms my experience that people have very different preferences when it comes to communication modes and channels. Therefore, a multi-pronged approach is best, particularly in teams with diverse preferences. In this regard, the survey report recommends that a comprehensive communication strategy involving a variety of tools and techniques can help to solidify team connections and improve project visibility.

The richness of each communication channel and its appropriateness to specific conversations is also important for us to consider. For example, communication channels with low levels of richness, such as text-based documents and email, are appropriate for information sharing and one-way communication. As the complexity and sensitivity of the communication need increases, so should the richness of the channel. For example, feedback should be provided by telephone as a minimum and, for complex and constructive feedback, this should be undertaken via videoconference or face-to-face. A recent example of inappropriately delivered telephone feedback occurred within a dispersed learning and development team in a national consulting firm. During one feedback discussion and one performance review, a team member received some constructive feedback that she was not expecting. On both occasions she was taken aback by the feedback and became quite upset. She was quiet on the end of the telephone line for a few moments while she collected her thoughts and got her emotions under control. Each time, her manager responded uncomfortably to the silence on the line, promptly wound up the conversation and hung up on her. This left her feeling even more taken aback and upset. She felt that these situations impacted adversely on her relationship with her manager and eroded the trust they had worked to create.

If these conversations had been held via videoconference or face-to-face, the team leader and team member would have been able to read the body language of the other party and therefore respond more effectively. Therefore, sensitive feedback, as well as conflict and tension should, wherever possible, be addressed face-to-face. If this is not possible, then videoconference is the next most appropriate option.

It is also important to remember that you don’t necessarily need to have highly sophisticated tools to be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. However, you do need to have taken the time to build rapport and trust with team members to make it work. One example that illustrates the value of simplicity comes from United Nations Volunteers. I recently interviewed Michael Kolmet, team leader of United Nations Volunteers working in Africa, for my book Virtual Team Reality. Michael finds that communication can be effective even if the only tools available are email, Skype and telephone, and for them, the video for Skype can be very patchy. So, his team members will always begin a Skype call with the video, but will continue with voice if the video drops out. They find the initial video is sufficient to build the rapport they need to continue the conversation openly.  However, to make this work, Michael and his team members had previously spent time agreeing on shared values and taking the time to build trust and rapport.

The dispersed teams I have worked with, who communicate particularly well, opt for the communication tools that provide greater interactivity. For example, telephone is more interactive than email or texting and Skype or videoconferencing is more interactive than telephone. As the report findings illustrate, we are often guilty of defaulting to email, even with those we do see regularly, but we need to ensure that the more sensitive, complex and substantial discussions are made via phone, videoconference and, if possible, face-to-face.

As a final note, it is also important to choose a form of technology that everyone can use, and to ensure that every team member has access to the technology and has been trained to use it correctly. I have worked with many team members who have a range of interactive communication tools available, but either don’t know that they have access to them, don’t know their full capabilities or don’t know how to use them. It is essential for team members to be familiar with how to use the tools properly so that the team can maximise their capability.

Find out more about Service Management 2016 or register for Korrine’s workshop!

By |2018-03-19T16:23:19+00:00June 9th, 2016|guest blogger, problem management, Workshop|

The Missing Ingredient For Successful Problem Management

Michael-Hall

 

 

 

 

 

With guest blogger Michael Hall.

Many problem management implementations fail or have limited success because they miss one key ingredient in their practice: having trained problem managers leading problem investigations using structured methods. By following a few simple guidelines, your problem management function can be successful from day one or rescued from its current low levels of performance.

Typical implementation

A typical problem management process document usually covers roles and responsibilities, how the process works and a little bit about governance.

Roles and responsibilities usually covers just resolver groups and the process owner. It is surprising how frequently the problem manager role is not defined at all. Responsibilities for the resolver group usually includes ‘investigate root cause’ and ‘update and close problems’. The problem manager is often given responsibilities like ‘assign problems to resolver groups’ and ‘track problem progress’.

The process normally covers the steps but does not say how to go about solving problems. Commonly, the process is simply ‘assign the problem to a resolver group for investigation’. Usually the resolver group also owns closure. This means that there is no way of knowing if the root cause found is correct or if the solution is adequate.

The result is that many implementations do not achieve their expected results. I call this approach ‘passive’ or administrative problem management. The impact on reducing incidents is usually minimal.

If your monthly major incident data looks like this, you may have one of these typical implementations:

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Figure 1: Monthly Occurrence of Major Incidents.

The Alternative – ‘Active’ Problem Management

The missing ingredient in a typical implementation is skilled problem managers using a structured approach to solving problems. By structured, I mean a consistent, evidence-based method, either by adopting one of the major problem-solving frameworks such as Kepner and Fourie, or by agreeing your own set of steps (I set out one version in my book). Deciding on a standard method that everyone will use with NO exceptions is the critical success factor for effective problem management.

The benefits are:

    • Speed to root cause – a standard approach yields results more quickly –around  60% quicker in fact (see Figure 2)
    • Consistency – all your problem managers can be equally successful
    • Certainty that real causes are found – because investigations are based on evidence and not guesswork and theories, you can show that the causes found are correct
    • Collaboration – if you do problem management the same way every time, teams know what to expect, they can see the good results and they get used to working together without confusion

SMAC-2015-Blog-Michael-Hall-Graph-Average-time-to-root-causeFigure 2: Average time to find root cause in two problem management implementations.

Problem Managers Lead Investigation Sessions

Because it is the problem managers who are highly skilled in problem solving techniques, they should facilitate problem management investigations in conjunction with the technical experts, then work with subject matter experts to determine solutions to problems and track implementation to ensure the problem is entirely fixed. The problem management function should be responsible for reporting root cause, progress on resolution and all the metrics and KPIs related to problem management, but (very important!) making sure that the subject matter experts get the credit for solving the problems.

Track and validate solutions

To gain the main benefit you are after – reducing the occurrence of major incidents – problem management also needs to apply a structured approach to finding solutions, getting approval to implement and tracking the implementation to an agreed target due date.

The Results

This is what successful problem management looks like when you have skilled problem managers using a structured approach to finding root cause and finding and implementing permanent solutions. When problems stop causing incidents, the incident rate goes down quite rapidly.

SMAC-2015-Blog-Michael-Hall-Graph-Major-Incidents-2

Figure 3: Monthly Occurrence of Major Incidents.

 

Michael has over 25 years experience in IT, developing and leading teams, managing change programs and implementing Service Management. Now a specialist in Service Operations, he founded Problem Management as a global function at Deutsche Bank and is a Chartered IT Professional (CITP). Michael will be leading a workshop on Implementing Real World Problem Management at Service Management 2015.