Virtual, Smirtual: Is lack of project team face-time hurting your project?

IBM's Dr. David Ferrucci

David Ferrucci was assigned a great project: build a computer smart enough to beat grand champions at the game of “Jeopardy.” So, when his bosses at IBM asked him to do it, my guess is he was really excited and knew it was going to be the project of a lifetime.

He knew finding the right team members was going to be challenging. After all the scientists he needed tended to be in the world of “publish or perish” and they were reluctant to join a “team” when they generally preferred working solo. But he was persistent and presented them with a choice: spend the rest of your career publishing research results from solitary activities, or engage in building technology that could literally transform computing. Twelve folks stepped forward willing to take the plunge, a team which ultimately grew to 25 members.

Ferrucci realized early on that he needed to change the way these  scientists would work. After all, Watson, the name given to the new

“Watson” beat the best!

computer, needed a cross-functional team from a variety of backgrounds, and they needed to work together to accomplish the goal. While technical skill was paramount, Ferrucci realized that team dynamics were going to play an even bigger role. He had to get these experts talking to one another, because no one person alone had the knowledge to solve all the problems.

So, he secured a “war room” and brought everyone together early in the project to get them working “arm pit to eyeball,” or side-by-side if you like that analogy better! It was, he says, an unpopular decision but he knew it needed to be done. Although the early practice rounds for Jeopardy were d

isappointing, the team kept at it, and in the process of solving problems big and small, built a culture of trust and success. Of course, Ferruci’s optimism was the “additive” that spurred them all on.

People speaking to one another..imagine that!

When all was said and done, the team credited their success by being, well, a team, and by being together face-to-face. Imagine doing all this through phone calls, email, IMs, SMS, and fancy (and expensive) video equipment.  While they may have been able to muddle through using all that “whiz bang” technology, I doubt the end result would have been as good as quickly. Sometimes people simply need to talk to one another in person.

Nowadays, the world of project management, especially in large corporations, is a virtual world and folks are expected to make all sorts of things happen without coming into physical contact on a regular basis. But let me ask a few questions: Would your project be more successful if your team were together in one room?  Would your team members trust one another more? Be more productive and efficient, and just plain more satisfied? Would your project be more successful earlier in the game? I think the answer is “probably.”

They even write books on this stuff!

On the positive side, I learned a few years ago that speaking with one another directly was making a comeback when AG Lafley, the former head of Proctor and Gamble, gave it a new name: “high touch” communication. But on a more pessimistic note, and I don’t know about you, but when business psychobabble describes what people have naturally done for thousands of years, and pundits encourage people to actually do it as if it's the greatest thing since sliced bread and cornflakes, one has to wonder what the future may hold.