Team Leadership

Managing the Diversity to achieve Agility within Distributed Teams

bridging-the-gap
Bridging the Gap

Intro

Today’s companies more and more work with distributed teams in which the total headcount is spread among local and remote offices. Such teams met, of course, cultural and background differences that can make the difference but some times create operational issues.

Risk comes from not working what you’re doing – W. Buffett

Operating on distributed teams is far from being an easy exercise. Why? Let’s examine the context in which such teams normally operate: i. multiple offices, ii. different time zones, iii. few possibilities to interact 1 on 1 for team mates, iv. misunderstandings (very often due to remote working tools), v. tight schedules not enlisting proper risks planning, vi. work breakdown not  counting the implementation capability differences (which team is able to better execute what) and vii. very scarce possibilities to create empathy among leaders and followers.

Achieving agility is clearly much more difficult in contexts like the one above described. Anyway, in the fast-pace ICT world a few musts exist, one of them is for sure agility. Therefore, how to achieve such operational effectiveness and velocity in distributed teams? Let’s dig into this trying to get some clue.

 

Priorities

Tight deadlines help to having team mates cohesive: shorter is the deadline, sooner the need to cooperate will come and priorities will be faced to attack the plan.

Scheduling priorities is a common sense way to manage, but it results to be not a common practice in managing distributed teams. In fact, often the belief is: creating a schedule and then prioritizing it is the best way forward in a project involving distributed teams. Unfortunately, prioritizing the schedule is not the right way forward: only iterating on priorities allows the team mates to strictly collaborate in order to achieve very short-term goals, and that is not happening in whatever scenario or context governed by a predetermined schedule.

The Key is not prioritize what’s on your Schedule, but schedule your priorities – S. Covey

Are schedules not useful? Are schedule damaging the productivity in some sense? Absolutely not! Planning in advance and traducing the plan in actions is a perfectly fine technique to tackle complex Project Management activities. The point is: schedule has to be there, it has to be in the mind of the team leads (the order of things is in their minds), but the overall team has to work on priorities which are, honestly speaking, actionable items of work finalized to get things done in an effective way – priorities are diverse, let me push this concept!

Aggressive schedules are composed by incremental priorities, and by priorities that need to be simply iterated and re-iterated on very short time frames. Once the overall team gets used to face all together the first priorities, half of the job is done: team mates will self-organize in any successive iteration to get things done, as they did in the previous iterations.

 

“Show Stoppers”

What is dangerous for the velocity of any implementation activity? What is extremely dangerous for the operational capability of the team? In other terms, what represents a show stopper? Simply, the diversity that means: different backgrounds, different way to tackle problems, different way to find solutions, different way to implement solutions, different way to manage the stress, etc. As clear, the common factor is ‘different’ that comes from difference and means diverse behaviors.

Diversity: the Art of thinking independently together – M. Forbes

As soon as people start collaborating in the distributed team, they start realizing that different approaches and way of thinking are remarkably present in the daily activities. The key to avoid problems consists in letting the team mates thinking differently and independently together: they have to solve the same problems, they have to implement the same tasks, the have to accomplish the same priorities, in other terms they have to work and think independently together, having the same focus in mind.

 

Communication

Communication is a big deal, much bigger if the parties are distributed around the globe since many barriers have to be exceeded, like language, communication mean, etc.

As matter of fact, in order to agree on a way forward in any task, a communication among the parties have to be established in the most effective way.

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw

What happens normally in distributed teams? Simply, misunderstandings at least 50% of the time, caused by the above said barriers. People think to have communicated, to have exchanged ideas and found solutions, but, in the end, most of the times such exchanges and so communication never took place, or if it took place that was in part.

In order to make the communication happen, some strategy has to be applied. Firstly, document clearly agendas, action lists, follow-ups and whatever else needed to implement fruitful meetings. Secondly, use online collaborative tools to make the exchanges more effective: real-time chats, shared documents to sketch out concepts and ideas, shared presentation to share with the rest of the team something on which someone else was working on. Thirdly, keep asking for confirmation just after almost any statement. Eventually, re-iterating those three main points will have a huge benefit, and, most important, will assure the communication – like this, it will happen!

 

Adaptability

Again on schedules. The lack of adaptability can be a huge problem, in fact no matter the strategy whenever changes are needed, they have to be implemented as quick as possible; but, in any case, this means reshuffling the priorities, right?

You have to be fast on your feet and adaptive or else a strategy is useless – Charles de Gaulle

Just few paragraphs above the importance of pushing for short-term priorities for a successful distributed team has been discussed. Now, how to re-adapt taking into consideration the needs of reshuffling, or better the needs for adaptability?

Priorities are part of the strategy as said, the key consists in being fast and reactive. Once the need to reshuffle comes, cause the very short term scenario changed for some reason, pending priorities have to be implemented as quick as possible – as usual – and the team has to take in input the newest ones that come from an apparent change. The ability in managing these change-prone situations consists in preserving the normal routine and avoiding that the ‘apparent’ being very ‘much apparent’ in the end: the team might not perceive the apparent change as soon as new priorities are pushed, if it is already well acquainted to work out priority tasks, .

 

Actions

Whenever the overall team does not perform as expected and the measured velocity of execution is not enough to accomplish the prioritized tasks, corrective actions have to be implemented. Which ones?

  • Communication Improvements. Spot the communication issues, in particular the root causes and fix as quick as possible.
  • Further Breakdown. Split more the tasks to reach a finer granularity, and prioritize in a way that the team can quickly react implementing those more fine grained actionable items.
  • “Divide et Impera”. Dispatch smartly the tasks in a way that the individual can use its skills at the best implementing the task, and manage the interleaved deliverables in a way that them, all together, make sense in the overall release plan.

Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does – William James

Do not waste time… act, or react!

 

Conclusion

Coordination among distributed teams is not an easy job but improving the effectiveness of communications and prioritizing the schedules aids in achieving great results by taking the maximum benefit from the intrinsic diversity of such teams. Agility is a straight consequence of  such a management style, and this is valid – intended as statement – even in the case study of distributed teams.

As the very end of this post, I would leave you a thought…

Thinking independently, together. Acting independently, together. Achieving goals independently, together – Me

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