Business Management, Executive Interviews, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps on Building High Performance Teams

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps on Building High Performance Teams
May 2009 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps
Jessica Lipnack, CEO, and Jeffrey Stamps, Ph.D., Chief Scientist, are co-founders of NetAge.

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  • It’s almost five years since you (along with your co-authors) wrote that wonderful piece in Harvard Business Review, "Can Absence Make a Team Grow Stronger?" (May 2004, HBR). Any updates on this?
    Yes, because of the dramatic increases in technology capacity and changes in the economy around the world, “farflung” teams, as they’re called in the article, have gone from being optional to being mandatory. This means that organizations are scrambling to figure out how to make such teams successful, usually without the “new ways of working” that they need. Companies continue to throw different kinds of technology at their organizations without thinking through the behavioral aspects. Result? People are confused and not as effective as they could be.

    Meanwhile, outside the corporate walls, employees are adept with social networking tools that organizations tend to resist. So for the first time, with Web 2.0 – like blogs, wikis, Twitter, and Facebook – we see the public as way ahead of big enterprises when it comes to good use of the tremendous communication tools at our disposal. Finally, video conferencing, which our teams didn’t use, is now becoming a viable option. It is becoming widely used, but not yet there. We still have some way to go before video’s really good and affordable – and it will always be limited by the size of screens for larger teams and such but it’s somuch more useful than it was in 2002 when we did the original research.

  • Can you elaborate on the background research for this article? What was the trigger point for this research?
    We were asked to participate by Professor Ann Marjchzak, who was working with her colleague, Arvind Malhotra. They had done a detailed study of a highly successful Boeing- Rocketdyne project that had been conducted virtually, which led them to secure sponsorship from the Society for Information Management for a more in-depth study with a larger sample. They were having trouble getting enough respondents. Because we had written a number of books and consulted extensively about this topic, we had a large database of interested people. And, indeed, when we wrote to our folks, they responded immediately and enthusiastically about participating.

  • What are virtual teams? What are their unique characters and distinguishing strengths?
    We use a broad definition: A virtual team is a small group with a common purpose interacting interdependently on agreed tasks across boundaries of space, time, and organization, supported by technology. Unique virtual characteristics are the boundary-crossing nature, which demands strict adherence to good operating agreements and collaborative behavior, and the extensive use of technology. Distinguishing strengths include: reduced costs (for example, less travel); shortened cycle time (due to improved work processes); increased innovation (due in large measure to the ability to recruit diverse experts with specific expertise regardless of location); and direct leveraged learning (due to work being done online in real-time, as opposed to captured later in a “knowledge management” system or in a postproject review).

  • What do you think are the critical success factors for virtual teams really pulling it off?
    Four principal success factors apply:

  1. clarity of purpose across the team and with stakeholders;
  2. independent and interdependent people among whom leadership shifts, depending on the task at hand;
  3. multiple links creating high-trust environments using simple technologies and supported by explicit and easy-to-comply-with operating agreements; and
  4. mindfulness of time as people operate on different “clocks” and the team develops through its life cycle.

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