Virtual team simulator helps leaders

Leading a virtual team requires different skills than leading a traditional team. For example many virtual team and virtual network outcomes are counter-intuitive due to the complex living nature of the team itself. Discovering this 'on the job' is as crazy as training airline pilots without using flight simulators! This article describes a research project which developed a PC-based simulator tool to help virtual team leaders experience decision making in various scenarios.


Virtual Team Managers need different skills

For example, see ‘Good managers make distributed teams work’ which reports findings of a recent research report by Henley Management College on remote and flexible working which confirms the hypothesis that:

“Managers of flexible workers manage in a different way than traditionally and they therefore have a different competence profile.”

Leading without formal authority

For example, see “Lateral Leadership - Getting it done when you are not the boss” by Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp

Fundamental Mindset Changes

Successful virtual team leadership also requires leaders who are prepared to challenge their long-held ‘golden rules’.

I define a golden rule as a strongly held belief which is no longer open to challenge.

Generally golden rules are expressed as:

  • This worked before THEREFORE it will work this time too

  • This did not work before THEREFORE it will not work this time
  • either

Virtual Teams are more like helicopters than planes

I remember the first (and only) I tried to fly a helicopter.

I was a confident, but relatively inexperienced, fixed wing pilot, with about a hundred hours time flying simple Cessna and Cherokees.

These kind of fixed wing aircraft are very stable flying machines.

You can fly a Cessna with your hands off the controls for quite long periods provided it is properly trimmed and at the right power setting.

Unfortunately you can never fly a helicopter like this - it is inherently unstable!

A chopper demands a constant stream of minute simultaneous interventions by the pilot on three different controls - the collective lever, cyclic stick and rudder pedals.

A small change in one control must be balanced by change in the other two.

This is complicated by the fact there is always a lag between the control input being made and its effect showing up in flight.

As a result every trainee helicopter pilot with few exceptions starts by massively over-controlling the chopper so that it oscillates dangerously out of control much of the time.

This phenomenon is called “pilot induced oscillation” - not a pleasant experience!

Are you ready for virtual team takeoff?

I believe most team leaders put in charge of a virtual team take exactly the same attitude I had to the helicopter before I got my fingers burned:

I can fly traditional teams so I should be able to handle virtual teams in the same way

False - virtual teams and helicopters are totally different to traditional teams and planes - there is a whole new dimension to both!

I just need to apply the correct controls

False - virtual teams and helicopters should not be over-controlled - it simply does not work well!

Learning to fly virtual teams in a safe environment

The frightening thing is that no amount of explanation beforehand would have prepared me for my first helicopter flight.

I had to learn by personal experience.

The idea behind this paper and the simulation system was to create an safe environment where virtual team leaders could personally experience some of the mistakes they would make in running a virtual team but without damaging themselves or other team members or destroying a project’s chance of success.

I survived my first helicopter flight thanks to there being a qualified instructor sitting alongside me to bail me out.

This is a luxury rarely available to most virtual team leaders.

The Virtual Enterprise Network Flight Simulator

The prototype is limited to a particular form of virtual team known as a Virtual Enterprise Network (VEN) and addresses resource trade-off decisions in the areas of business development, member development and network development on a monthly basis over a 12-36 month period.

It highlights lots of counter-intuitive cause and effect linkages.

For example, traditional sales oriented leaders tend to put too much effort into sales before the network has a solid member base and agreed ways of working. The simulator shows very clearly just how ineffective this strategy can be.

Simulating other Areas of Virtual Team Leadership

I believe the methodology and approach described in the paper can be adapted and applied to other forms of Virtual Team.

The paper also introduces some very important background topics which are important in understanding how people form their “golden rules” such as Mental Models, “Espoused” versus “In-Use” Models, The Process of Individual Learning and the Difficulty in anticipating the (time delayed) consequences of actions

In applying this approach to other forms of virtual team you must first identify the key kinds of decisions the team will need to make.

Then you should focus the simulation around those decisions where the link between cause and effect can be counter-intuitive or subject to a disorienting time-lag.

To read the detailed paper A Management Flight Simulator for Virtual Enterprise Network Incubation

A Management Flight Simulator for Virtual Enterprise Network Incubation was originally delivered at the 10th International Conference on Concurrent Enterprising, ICE2004 Seville, Spain, 14-16 June 2004

About the author

Ken Thompson was formerly the European IT Manager with Reuters in London and Managing Director with VISION Consulting in Belfast. At VISION, Ken spent over 10 years successfully delivering services to clients in the Financial Services, Government and the Small Business Sectors. Recognized as a leading expert in the growing area of Virtual Enterprise Networks, Ken also helps distributed business teams in medium and large-sized organizations become successful through a unique approach to team design and working practices. Ken is the founder of – a research blog dedicated to how organizational teams can learn from nature’s best teams.

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Really interesting post to read, it's a shame that more isn't written about the requirements needed for virtual team leadership. It's prompted me to try my own similar experiment using a remote control helicopter toy.


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