Virtual Teams: One question can change everything

Chris Lema

virtualTeamsAfter years of managing virtual teams I felt like I had a pretty good handle on things. My new project, which would require running several distributed teams, should have been a technical challenge but not a management one.

And then I did something that turned it into a management challenge.

I changed the question I was asking.

Until that time, and since that time, I’ve asked the question, “What did you get done today?”

It’s a powerful question for a lot of reasons.

1. It helps people announce their success. That has a nice dynamic to it because everyone else on the call gets to hear the good news.

2. It helps us talk about accomplishments rather than activity. That is a real benefit when you’re creating a culture of execution.

3. It helps apply peer pressure because the only people talking are folks getting things done. And you want to be one of them.

But I changed the question

I don’t know why I changed the question. I think because the project was big, and there were a lot of moving parts, and because there were a lot of people I didn’t know on it, or because I was nervous or something, I just changed the question.

I asked a new question: “What do we have left?”

And I noticed two things – one immediately and one much later.

The immediate thing I started noticing is that I started hating my own daily call. That was a really internal thing. And at the time I couldn’t articulate why I didn’t like the call. I kept thinking it was specific people or tasks that were bothering me.

But it wasn’t that. I just couldn’t put my finger on why I didn’t like my own call.

The other thing I started noticing – after some time.

My teams started performing worse

If you’ve always managed high performing teams, if you’ve been focused on creating high performing teams – then a poor performing team is kind of like your very own Kryptonite.

I started noticing that the energy in the team was down a bit and that we were getting to the point where we might start missing some deadlines. That was freaking me out.

I don’t know about you, but I hate missing deadlines – it keeps me up at night.

I noticed something else. And this was by chance.

We got some feedback, negative feedback, from a customer about what we were doing and the entire team just rolled over. No push back. No perspective. Just pure – “we suck.”

That’s when I knew something was wrong.

I started reviewing everything

I looked at every single thing I was doing. Clearly, if the whole team was doing poorly this wasn’t about them. It was about me.

What had I done to cause this team to turn into slow, frustrated, unhappy engineers?

And why was I hating my own calls?

And that’s when I noticed I had changed the question.

I wish I could tell you it all changed immediately

I wish I could tell you that changing the question had an immediate effect. But it didn’t. This isn’t the movies and my “aha” moment took a few months to have an impact.

But it had an impact. And it was real. And it changed our ability to deliver on time.

And it was a single question that changed it.

“What did you get done today?” instead of “What do we have left to do?”

Why the question is important

The difference between the two questions is pretty significant when you think about it.

The difference is the shift in the emotional energy of the moment.

You may remember the car wash research presented by the Heath brothers in their book Switch. Give people a card with 8 spots to get punched, versus a card with 10 spots to get punched (but where you punch two on the first wash) and more people will come back with the 10 spot cards.

It happens because people feel a sense of accomplishment and it fuels them.

The change in questions fueled the same change in my virtual teams. They were motivated by what was already done, rather than by all they had left to do.

So, if you’re running one or more virtual teams, make sure you’re asking the right question.

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  1. Chris,

    I love this article of yours! I love that you illuminate how the simple re-framing of a question, cause drastic results.

    Have you read the book “Drive” by Daniel Pink? It’s about what does, and what does not, motivate people to work. Great read.

    Keep em coming about virtual teams, your posts are spot on!


  2. This is great advise. Asking the right question affects the answer you get. This is something I will be implementing. Thanks for sharing!

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