Friday, August 14, 2015

Successfully managing large and multi-location teams

In the last thirty years I have had the good fortune to work with inter-related teams across continents and multiple cities.  Teams that are seemingly independent but depend on each other to deliver on large projects or just complex projects.  In fact their individual success is determined by their ability to work together.

Specifically, the kind of projects that I got exposed to are:
1. Consulting, Sales, and Setup of Mini Core-sector projects
2. Custom Training Development and Delivery - Product OEM and Bespoke eLearning
3. Product and Services development and distribution across own and franchise network
4. Field Services Operations with hubs and independent professionals relying purely on telecom and internet

Most of these teams had multiple skill types and roles - for example, auditing, surveying, field research, development, design, market research, training needs analysis, business development and sales, project management and consulting. 

In addition to dependent teams like links in a chain, the teams had a flavor of fully independent teams - who were more like partners (franchise, sub-contractors), ones that were independent Business Units but interacting with the other groups and needed support on prioritizing and quality management.

As all people who have worked with spread out teams would know that there are immense challenges, without any exceptions, in working, managing, and getting the such teams to deliver timely quality outcomes.

I cannot claim that I was successful all the times - mostly it was make do and get things moving. However, when I look back at the whole range of experiences the following are top three areas critical to success:

1. Rhythm of review and communication - each team has to have a daily connect - for multiple time zones better to have at least 2 times connect in a day.  Elements of understanding change dynamically and anything more than a day will lead to possibly that much minimum delay in case not addressed.  In one of my large projects, this was insisted upon by the customer project manager, and at that time, it seemed like a pain and much time in going in communicating two times a day.  But as the project progressed and became complex with multiple issues - we realized that this was the key for each of us to move forward.  It brought out both good and bad news upfront and helped resolve issues amicably.

2. Appreciation versus criticism - we have to believe that everyone is working.  Cannot make assumptions that the others are not working.  I have found distrust a slow and sure death of projects.  Yes, they are not thinking like us and sometimes one team's understanding and efficiency will be better than others in the similar work - we should not use that to beat up the under-performing team rather - keenly watch how they are struggling and appreciate every effort.  Jim Collins in his "Good to Great" says get the unaligned/in appropriately skilled people off the bus.  My view is that this aspect should be exercised very carefully and not freely - else we are always in the mode of getting people off and on-board and not really getting anywhere.  Appreciation works much better given that point 1 is executed well.

3.  Clear Common Goals: With only outcomes or expectations for each team in the chain, I found a lot of "throwing over the wall" work.  It is near impossible and more importantly unproductive to keep defining and refining the intermediate outcome requirements as a means of judging the work of a team.  Each of the teams have to figure out among themselves how each of them best contribute to the final product.  Best for all of them to be aligned to the final goal.  This takes communication effort and time to evolve but is definitive and long-lasting.

Of course there are many more aspects that need to be worked upon and agreed, however, I feel they are specific to the different compositions and are usually addressed matter of course anyway - like technical specs, timelines, individual roles and responsibilities, political and administrative hierarchy etc.

With the way the organizations are evolving, the distributed way of working is the only way of working and one needs to accept that fact rather quickly for success.