Overcoming Virtual Team Challenges: After Action Review

Fittingly, “Leading Virtually” has been operating as a virtual team over the past several weeks. I am currently in New York City, while each of the other team members are located in various parts of New York State and Pennsylvania. The whole team has not had a chance to get together for some time as everyone works on their own individual projects. This has presented its own set of challenges for our team as we attempt to coordinate the various functions of running our site. However, it has also presented an opportunity for us to document some of the issues we are facing and what we are doing (and which tools we are using) to overcome the challenges of leading virtual teams.

One thing we are having trouble with is coordinating our activities. Since we are all busy doing different projects and have different schedules, it has been very tough for us to respond quickly to requests and inquiries from each other. Emails requesting input often go unanswered. Our lack of communication due to schedule differences has presented other problems for our team. Therefore, our project is moving along much slower than planned. This relates to points that Surinder presented in an earlier post about taking ownership in the virtual team. Since we are all separated and having trouble coordinating tasks, all of us are not actively taking “ownership” of the project and pushing it along.

Some members of our team, including myself, find that we prefer structure when dealing with a project. We feel that some kind of formal structure, such as set meeting times and deadlines, would remedy some of the problems our team has been facing recently. Lack of structure seems to be a prominent problem in many virtual or geographically dispersed teams. Oftentimes when there is a lack of structure to the team’s activities and leadership is not physically in front of teammates, the project that the virtual team is working on fails to take priority.

Upon noticing that our team was losing focus on our project when we moved to a virtual platform, Surinder thought it would be useful for us to conduct an “After Action Review” (AAR) to provide some insight on our team’s problems and help provide some structure to our activities. An After Action Review is essentially a tool that explores what has happened with the team, why it has happened, and what we can do in the future to move forward and fix problems. (Click here to read more about an After Action Review.) In Surinder’s experience with virtual teams, he has found that this very simple exercise is extremely powerful in terms of helping a team learn and correct itself. It is a powerful tool because in many cases, individual team members know what to do but have not taken the effort or responsibility to analyze and fix problems that arise in virtual teams. An AAR allows these individuals and teams to pause, learn, and correct problems. Teammates buy into recommendations easily after an AAR since the method places emphasis on situations (what and why something has happened) and the team as a whole, rather than focusing on or blaming individuals. Because of the benefits of performing an After Action Review, our team recommends it to all virtual team leaders as it is an invaluable tool in managing a successful virtual team.

So what happened with our team and our AAR? Surinder began by asking the team to reflect on two sets of questions a week before our virtual meeting would take place via Skype (a great, free tool for conducting virtual meetings):

  1. What has happened so far in our team (focus on significant/consequential happenings)? Why did it happen (what contributed to it)?
  2. What can we do better/what should we do as we move forward?

Some of our findings pertaining to the first set of questions are as follows:

  • Our team members have developed flexible roles, as members are willing to step into a different role than they were originally brought into the project for as demanded by the situation. The knowledge of the team has transferred to individual members as the project has progressed and this knowledge transfer is what has allowed our team’s members to fill new roles as the situation demands. We also account for each others’ strengths and weaknesses as demanded by situations that arise. This happened because of the nature of our project; since this was the first time for most of us to participate in a project of this scope, we had no choice but to step into different roles than the ones we originally had joined the project for as we were presented with challenges or opportunities we never thought we would face.
  • Most of the team is learning new things, such as the nuances of Search Engine Optimization.
  • We are very pleased with the quality of posts. This is because of the review process that developed as we all began writing separate posts. This process has been informal, although some guidelines have been created. However, this has also made the time it takes to publish a post very long.
  • Some members feel like they do not have ownership over their own posts. Some posts get completely changed and creative energy gets taken away. This has happened because of the review process that was implemented to keep our blog interesting yet credible.
  • Emails and communications often go unanswered. As a team, we are not taking “ownership” of our project. The reasons why this was happening were discussed previously in this post.

Some of our findings and courses of action pertaining to the second set of questions are as follows:

  • We could overcome a challenge that is faced by many teams if we can make the transformation to take ownership and understand what we want out of this project.
  • We need to be explicit about each member’s role and what we expect from each other. Particularly as we transition into another stage of the project, being conscious of roles and explicit about commitment levels is crucial.
  • Rethink the review process for posting articles. Create a schedule for posts.
  • Reflect on what the meaning of the project is to us and what we expect to get out of our participation in this project. This will allow all team members to be on the same page in terms of expectations from one another and from ourselves.
  • Review our leadership structure. We need to discuss how we can share the leadership role and how can we motivate each other.
  • We decided to create a “Team Compact” that would allow us to define our team’s mission and create “rules of engagement” for our interactions. This will help us create protocols and structure. It will also allow us to evaluate our long and short term goals. Essentially, this Team Compact will allow us to solve many of the problems listed above. (Readers: Look for a future post detailing how to create a Team Compact for your team, the benefits of a team compact, and how our team compact helped [or didn't help] our team!)

As you can see, our After Action Review allowed the team to celebrate the positive milestones we have reached while also focusing on the problems that have arisen in an honest way. No one member was pinpointed, yet all members made contributions to deliver solutions to our problems. In Surinder’s experience, it usually takes about 3 After Action Reviews to get a team running smoothly; however, our team has felt a positive impact even from the first AAR we conducted. Communication is more fluid and we have a better understanding of our roles and the purpose of our project. We will have to wait and see if this is just a temporary solution or if the change in our attitudes and work is more permanent. However, note that the simple and easy format of an AAR lends itself to all types of geographically dispersed or virtual teams while still remaining effective.

For an example of an after action review and more information about after action reviews, visit our resource center here.

Article written by

Angelo Sasso is an MBA graduate student at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Binghamton focusing on a degree in Marketing. He has a B.A. in History from SUNY Binghamton as well.

4 Responses

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  1. Nat M
    Nat M at |

    I am writing a research paper on virtual team challenges and this is one of the things which I am going to add in my paper. I really appreciate that you discussed this problem over a blog and will look forward to here some more of your experiences on virtual teams.

    Thanks

  2. Susy Floriano
    Susy Floriano at |

    Thanks for sharing this info. It is very useful. As Nat in April, I am preparing a paper for my MBA course.
    Do you have / know where I can find some numbers related to virtual team, like how it grows year to year, it is a world tendency or is concentrate in some countries ?

    Thank again

  3. Surinder Kahai
    Surinder Kahai at |

    Check out our first digest – http://www.leadingvirtually.com/?p=31. The first item refers to a report that may have the information that you need.

    Surinder

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

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