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Leading projects with distributed teams

Jul 21, 2020 / Agile Leadership Remote Work

Leading projects with distributed teams

Scenario: Leading a technology project with multiple teams with different locations, cultures and functional managers considerations

It’s without a question that leading a new technology project in of itself has its own challenges and obstacles.  How about if we throw in a curveball?  Actually, let’s make that a knuckleball. What if the project involves multiple teams, different locations, different cultures, and different functional managers?  Inherently, this introduces difficulties that would not be present if this was a single team, or even multiple teams in the same office.

1. DIFFERENT LOCATIONS– It’s more difficult to get on the same page if we cannot get together face-to-face, due to a higher likelihood of miscommunication

2. DIFFERENT CULTURES– Different work cultures introduces a great amount of tension between teams that need to be reconciled.  This is oftentimes the reason many of these projects fail, but yet few talk about.

3. DIFFERENT FUNCTIONAL MANAGERS– This situation involves utilizing team members under different functional managers.  This can lead to differing expectations, perspectives, conflict of interest, and motivating factors.  When we do not move as a united front towards a common objective, it becomes another source for tension.

So, how do we get everyone working together, leveraging each other and collaborating? It is not a simple task, and we would have to consider LOGISTICS, PEOPLE, and PROCESS.

Let’s review some of the LOGISTICAL solutions first. As miscommunication can create a significant amount of issues and problems, we need to plan to mitigate this.

1. MEETING– Some things are extremely difficult or nearly impossible to do remotely.  Yet, people can be reluctant to recognize and address it.  We have to identify what they are, and plan work-trips accordingly. If we completely eliminate this option, we can greatly handicap ourselves. If we plan for such events, we need to maximize the value that we get out of it.

2. AVAILABILITY – Teams in different locations, management, and culture often have their own unique schedule.  This leads to challenges in coinciding differences in availability.  We must get on the same page, because coordination becomes impossible otherwise.  There’s a good likelihood that we may even have to be flexible and adapt our schedules in order to make this happen.

3. TECHNOLOGY AS AN ENABLER – Whenever possible, utilize telepresence/video call applications to maximize communication and minimize miscommunication.  Studies have shown that communication matters least on the words (only 7% of the message), but more on the tone (38% of the message) and body language (55% of the message). Understand your available communication tools:

  • EMAIL/SLACK/TEXT- Utilizes only words.  This may be quick, but 93% of the message can be lost in translation
  • PHONE/CONFERENCE CALLS- Utilizes words and tone.  This is simple, because everyone has a phone and just requires people to be available at the same time.  However, 55% of the message can still be lost.
  • VIDEO CALLS/TELEPRESENCE- Utilizes words, tone, and body language.  Without actually being face to face, this is your best shot at reducing communication barriers.

Even if we overcome logistical obstacles, it’s important to recognize that bringing PEOPLE together will likely be your biggest challenge. Different teams in different locations perform their work differently.

1. TRANSITION FROM MANAGING TO LEADING – Management skills have a heavier focus on task management, planning, and organization. This may be very effective for a single team, but it becomes less relevant as we oversee more teams, especially when they are in different locations and cultures. Task-based management becomes less relevant in those situations. There’s too many moving pieces and coordination barriers. If we only rely on management skills, the project may become unsustainable and has a higher likelihood of failing. Rather, we need to shift our focus towards leading. Leading involves influence. It helps us bridge the gaps that are inherent with different work cultures, authority structures, and work processes. It inspires self-direction and problem solving. That’s how we build a mutually trusting dynamic where everyone works towards a common goal–filling the gaps from both ends, rather than a unilateral approach.

2. CHANGE MANAGEMENT – Differences in work cultures account for some of the largest barriers for success of such projects. This can greatly impact engagement, ownership, problem solving, and collaboration. These attributes do not appear organically, so you need to be intentional about it. Therefore, you’ll likely need to step up and facilitate culture changes.

  • AWARENESS- We need to build awareness that the difference in work culture creates a tremendous amount of barriers
  • EDUCATE- Once we have the awareness, then we can begin educating how both worlds can come together and work collaboratively.  Be prepared to give people the tools to thrive in this world.
  • MANAGE BUY-IN, RESISTANCE, AND MOMENTUM- Not everyone will be bought-in at the start.  Partner with the early adopters, identify obstacles and mitigate the risks from the resistors.  If we don’t nurture this momentum, it will die out.

3. POLITICAL MANEUVERING – If we have multiple teams in different locations and different work cultures, it is very likely that we’re also dealing with differences in decision making flows and authority structures. This is different from what you see on an organizational chart, which outlines the official hierarchical structure. The true flow of decision making is intangible and must be assessed situationally as missteps can escalate quickly.

  • HIERARCHICAL- A hierarchical structure moves top-down.  Leaders in these structures usually have a lot of decision-making authority and can mobilize their people swiftly.  However, there lacks the adaptability and innovation that many technology teams require to thrive.
  • COLLABORATIVE- A collaborative structure often moves bottom-up.  Leaders focus on empowering their team members to propose solutions.  Maintaining an environment of Engagement, Ownership, and Innovation is critical.

Ultimately, agile and software development teams tend to thrive in a collaborative environment. However, it’s important to have realistic expectations, because such changes do not occur overnight and need to be managed.

Up until now, we discussed the people-related challenges of different teams, and how to consolidate cultures. We also need to consolidate the PROCESSES associated with the technology project. Believe it or not, this is usually simpler than consolidating cultures, especially if you have already established buy-in and engagement. This is oftentimes the case because there’s less resistance to PROCESS integration and/or the introduction of improved processes.

1. METHODOLOGY – Do we have an existing structured methodology for project/task management? Is this through Traditional Waterfall Project Management or an Agile Methodology? They function differently and have different ways of coordinating. Many companies have already adapted to the Agile Methodology in the software development space, as it usually adapts to the market well through its deliverable-based focus. Even if there’s a shared methodology, every organization and team implements/adapts to it differently. It’s also important to understand the nuances of how different teams apply the methodology, so that you can plan to reconcile those differences.

2. CONSOLIDATING RHYTHMS AND CREATING NEW ONES – Teams usually have their own existing meeting schedule, frequencies, formats and styles. The teams will need to evaluate their similarities and consolidate them. Additionally, the teams will need to identify the gaps and create new meeting rhythms, as there will likely be additional coordination needs. This is more involved than the structure and schedule of the meetings. In fact, many people have the perception that meetings are a waste of time. This is usually the side-effect of having bad meetings. So, we actually need to re-evaluate the quality of the meetings. Are we planning (pre-meeting), engaging (in-meeting), and following up (post-meeting)?  If there are issues identified here, then we will need to focus on the quality of the meetings.

3. TECHNOLOGY STACK – This depends on the project, keeping this here to keep the list comprehensive.

Sarah Kim

Sarah Kim

Co-Founder, CEO

Sarah is an entrepreneur, speaker, leadership coach and avid technologist. She positions herself at the intersection of technology, business, and leadership, which allows her to relate and adapt to real business and organizational needs, particularly as those needs relate to the people working in those organizations.

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