Project Practitioners > Smoothing Out Distributed Teams

Smoothing Out Distributed Teams

By Niel Nickolaisen

Sometimes I answer a question that ends up getting me in trouble. A recent example of this occurred a couple of years ago. Our CEO and I had just finished a strategic planning session with our New Jersey-based division. As we drove to the airport, the CEO asked a seemingly innocent question, "Have you ever managed a distributed team?" Let's be honest, it is hard to work in IT without managing distributed teams so I gave my equally innocent answer, "Several times." The CEO paused for a moment and then asked, "What was the most challenging project you had to manage?" I then described the time a major product release involved two US-based development teams, a team based in Australia, and a team in India. After that conversation, nothing happened for three months. That was when the CEO asked me to lead the development of our next generation nano-catalysts. Not only is the team distributed (Utah, New Jersey, and Canada) but it involves something I know nothing about – nano-catalysts.

In order to make sure that I delivered the project, I decided to get up to speed on best practices for managing distributed teams (this was also my excuse for why I didn’t have the time to learn about nano-catalysts). This is what I learned:

Any project team has to deal with trust and relationship issues. If not handled properly, these issues can disrupt the flow of the project. With distributed teams, we have a whole new set of potential trust and relationship issues. These issues are a result of the potential boundaries associated with distributed teams. These boundaries include:

  • Geography
  • Time
  • Organization
  • Culture
  • Technology

For example, if our project team spreads across different time zones, we have a time zone boundary. We can have a technology boundary if our team is using different types of site-specific technology. If these boundaries cause us to expend extra, beyond-the-normal, effort, the boundary acts as a point of discontinuity. These discontinuities are one more way the project can be thrown off track.

My research showed that we can smooth out these discontinuities by developing and adhering to project routines. We define a set of standard practices for how we operate as a team. Things such as standard times for teleconferences, a well-defined decision making process, an accepted method of communication, et cetera.

Knowing this, we kicked off my nano-catalyst project with a team meeting in which we defined our rules of engagement. We came up with a pretty comprehensive list that we turned into routines. Our weekly team conference call happened on the same day of the week and at the same time. We had a face-to-face meeting on the third Thursday of every month. We had a standard status report template that was due by noon Eastern every Monday. We defined a common file and library structure. We agreed that we will not make decisions via email. If a team member needed the team to make a decision, we did so at our face-to-face meeting, our regular weekly conference call or we had a conference call (with 24 hours notice) to discuss and make the decision.

This experience taught me two things. First, routines not only help us with our distributed team discontinuities, they provide the additional benefit of helping with the typical forming, storming, norming, and performing of non-distributed project teams. Second, I now think long and hard before I answer the CEO’s questions.

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