Successful projects with remote teams – is it possible?

You’ve probably had the experience of working on a project with teams in different offices, or countries, or even from different companies. And while there are many horror stories, some of these projects do achieve success.

How do they? Is there a magic recipe? Am I going to provide it, today?

No, there’s no one-size-fits-all. But there are a few key ingredients that must be part of the recipe. If all these are present, chances are the experience will not only be a success, but an excellent opportunity for growth for all involved.

Communication counts big time

Were I presenting in a classroom, with a blackboard, I could not write the word “communication” large enough to represent its importance. It’s crucial in a project with everyone in the same location; imagine how important it is with remote teams!

I hear you thinking: “Of course. This is obvious. Can we move on?”

We will, but first let’s go through a few areas where communication is key. This may help to avoid situations like the famous bridge problem you see below.

Both teams built what they had to build, on time and on budget. But they missed that critical ingredient: communication. Uh oh!

Listening

What do you think of when you think “strong communicator?” Someone who excels at articulating their point?

I don’t. For me, it’s about listening, and understanding.

Before making plans and thinking about technology or solutions, take the time to listen very carefully to perfectly understand what problems the customer is trying to address. Avoid thinking of your plans at all! Just listen.

Also, consider what challenges the other teams involved in the project will have to deal with. Once you understand the global picture, the goals, and the other parties’ challenges – without making assumptions about what these may be – you may find you’re thinking about your solution differently.

Accountability – everyone is accountable

Each and every person on each team must be accountable.

Of course, the level of accountability varies. The Program manager is accountable for the entire project; the Tech Lead is accountable for the technical solution put in place.

When every team member is accountable, they need to be sure they understand the big picture enough to deliver subsets of it with high level of quality and reliability. Note that if only one person on the team does not want to be accountable, it represents a risk for the entire project.

Several teams. One vision. One goal.

Each symphony orchestra musician is a professional and knows their part perfectly. Still, the conductor is there to make sure there is unity between all players.

So with remote teams! Even if everyone on each team is performing perfectly, we still require someone with a global view who is responsible for cohesion.

This ensures we do not end up with  different understanding of the same need, or the same goal. It ensures – from a functional perspective – that we cannot tell the difference between the work delivered by different teams.

Even if each team is responsible for a subset, everyone must still have a clear understanding of the overall project. For example, let’s talk about an interface between an MES and an ERP. The MES team and the ERP team need to have the same vision of the solution in order to continuously focus on the same goal.

If the MES-ers focus only on making sure that the MES is able to read information to the ERP, and it ends up that the ERP team did not have the same vision about the interface, the interface will not work, and the customer will see the project as a failure. The MES team could argue (and they will!) that they were done and ready, but the end result will be the same.

One vision, one goal, for all teams and all people involved.

I don’t have time

Communication takes time.

And that time typically doesn’t show up in the project management software you use, so it’s easy to forget. Make sure that someone is responsible for sharing the common vision and goals, and that this person makes time for the people in the various teams. The quicker you address uncertainty, the less rework you will have. It reminds me of this quote:

There’s never enough time to do it right, but there is always
enough time to do it again.

Especially with remote teams, you need to make time for communication. The fact that people are not working in the same physical space naturally generates additional questions and clarifications. Ten minutes discussing with a member of the team at the beginning of the work, vs. answering a week later, can save hours or days.

Plan that availability, and pretend it’s easy!

A few years ago, working from Canada, I was responsible for a development team in South America. One of the comments the team made after our project was that they appreciated the fact I was always available for them.

I wasn’t really available. I had a heavy workload on my end and it was an ongoing challenge to find the time for the requests from my remote team. But I made sure they didn’t know that. Because shutting down communication, in any way whatsoever, leads to people being blocked in their work or making the wrong assumptions. Make sure to plan availability for your people. It’s key.

Transparency – I mean it

Transparency is the basic element of communication. From the moment you start hiding part of the information, not only do you harm yourself, but you also prevent other people in your team, other teams, the customer, and the stakeholders from seeing an accurate picture.

They’ll all be making decisions based on incomplete information, aka bad decisions.

Something is going better than expected and you’re ahead of schedule? Share it, and ask others if you can help to make sure the next milestone is a success. Something is going wrong with your part of the project? Say it, the sooner the better.

This way, people can make the right call to help the group to be successful. There is nothing wrong admitting that you are in trouble. But hiding it hurts you and others as well. Be a leader. Don’t be afraid of sharing issues. You’ll be surprised how others can help just by talking and brainstorming about it.

Languages and cultures can increase the risk

If your remote teams are in different countries, chances are you will deal with people speaking a different language and having a different culture. The importance of communication ramps up even further.

How many ways to say the same thing – how many shades of meaning?

To get linguistically technical, an average adult native English speaker has an active vocabulary of about 20,000 words. But when we communicate with people who use English as a second language, they often possess only a fraction of that. Such a person may rely on a single word to express an idea that a native English speaker would express in many different ways. And that person’s native-English-speaking listeners may make assumptions, based on when a native English speaker would use that word.

In these situations, ask people to summarize what they understood, what is required, and what the goals are. The extra few minutes invested can end up saving several hours of rework.

Shades of behaviour vary as well

People from different cultures will also have different understandings of the same event. Something that could easily be said between two people from the United States may be perceived as very offensive by a member of a team in Asia.

Cultural differences are inevitable. What matters is to make sure you discuss this openly, and that all parties perfectly understand what the project goal is. How you reach it is often irrelevant. Once again, listen, listen and then… listen.

Once you understand the others, make sure they also understand you. Lather, rinse, repeat, until everyone is on the same page. It’s an investment you will never regret.

Missed interface on a user interface

Many years ago, I was involved in an MES project where we had to deliver new user interfaces. Days after the delivery of the first screen, I heard that I had not delivered what they wanted. Yet during design, they’d never mentioned this.

That’s how I learned that in their culture, it is not acceptable to criticize someone who is in position of authority. Knowing that, instead of me proposing the next drafts, I asked one person of the team to discuss it internally, and to come back to me with their recommendations.

Yes, it required a little bit more time. But the end result was that I was able to get valuable, real feedback. Sure minimized the rework!


Did I mention COMMUNICATION?

I know, I know, I already did. But I will mention it again as it is the #1 cause for project failure.

One last thing I will add: text messages and emails aren’t really communication. Both can be interpreted in too many different ways! So if it’s more than just a quick fact or exchange, grab the phone, Skype or whatever technology you use – just make sure you talk to each other.

Happy ending

No matter what you do, you will encounter issues, snafus and obstacles. But! You can handle them in a more efficient and timely manner if you follow the guidelines I’ve discussed.

You’ll find your teams will be more involved and energized, because there is nothing less motivating than having to work hard to reach a goal you don’t know about or understand.

Finally, you are going to be able to create strong bonds between individuals. Even if they are working remotely, they will work together to reach the same objective, instead of working in silos toward their own objectives.

Follow these guidelines, and you’ll find working with remote teams can be successful, no matter how distanced you are. Go forth and conquer!