The foundation of teamwork is having a shared vision of the situation. From that, the team can create an action plan to move towards a common objective. When the team is dispersed on different campuses, different cities or different countries, creating the shared vision and plans becomes even more difficult, so in most cases, its poorly done or not done at all. This leads to people working on the wrong things, the right things in the wrong order, or right things with the wrong information. These situations are called “synchronization errors”.
Some of the most synchronization errors arising from location confusion can be boiled down to two root causes:
Time Phasing – delays in communications. When working across multiple time zones and across different schedules, the critical information is often communicated at different times. In an environment with a distributed team, it’s difficult for people to get the answer when they need it, leading to blockages (waiting), quality problems (working with erroneous assumptions), and missed opportunities to accelerate progress.
Batch Communications – not all information is shared with everyone. When the teams come together once or twice a week (or even every day) on a conference call, the communication is limited in scope and duration. The typical informal communication around lunch or in the coffee room when teams are co-located just does not happen with remote teams. Thus, the team loses a critical aspect of collaboration – information and insight.
Since the time shifting and distance are difficult (until someone changes the need for sleep and invents the teleporter), you’ll have to work on two dimensions of team communication: frequency and content.
So first, the content. We typically don’t have much time, so we want to give the team a quick overview of the project and the status so we can focus on moving forward. We like visual project boards to show project context combined with purposeful, stand up meetings to focus on moving forward. With a distributed team, you’ll need two identical boards or one electronic board.
Anyone can put up a board that visualizes the project, but the key to creating value is how the board is designed and how you run your formal communications process. The stand up meeting sets the stage and establishes a hierarchy to solve problems; it focuses the team on the future and orients them to action. Additionally, this reduces the need to meet other times and even if you need a high frequency of meetings per week, the duration is shorter and the content more meaningful than traditional project reviews.
The critical information to synchronization are:
Which projects have the highest risk? The board shows the status of ALL work in the system, so the team can see big picture and how each piece fits together.
Which tasks are the most critical in those projects? The board shows the flow of each project or work stream to quickly identify those tasks that are stuck.
Who owns them? Each task has a name of the manager accountable for the completion.
What is the action to accelerate completion? The resolution is assigned in the stand up meeting.
This solution was implemented in at one of our client’s site. They were concerned that they would fail to deliver a new product, and identified a specific chipset design for a critical component as the main cause of the delay. The team responsible for the design was far from the assembly site and had fallen months behind without even knowing it. By using an electronic visual project management tool, the chipset team saw the overall progress of the project and saw their role in the project execution. The visual project system helped the team bring focus to their efforts. By being alerted to the significance of their contribution and the delay in their progress, they had re-prioritized other less critical work and assigned additional resources to their task, closing a four month output gap in just one and a half months.
Read more about how to synchronize work at the right times in our new eBook, Remote Control: How to Get Productive Teamwork from Distributed Project Teams.