The key to managing complexity in distributed teams

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Eldon Pickles


June 7, 2023

Applying learnings from Covid-19.

The ‘rise’ of remote working has been in flow long before Covid. Unfortunately, and at no discredit to remote teams or employees, no one was equipped to handle what happened to us in March 2020. However, the pace of change has been accelerating since long before Covid. More software and data is available to us, and we are increasingly spread across location and time; sometimes, held together only by email.

As we all thought on our feet to find effective working patterns from our living rooms, we learnt new skills that address challenges that extend further than working from home; skills that rethink the way teams collaborate, align teams across businesses and apply to managing the complex structures of global offices.

As a guiding principle and human-centred design practice, user needs come first. In the heightened emotional state of lockdown, different players and egos were quickly distinguished in virtual meetings, with extroverts often dominating the room. Meeting participants often found that it was difficult to interject with thoughts, that it was ‘not their time to contribute’ and that they were physically and virtually not in the room, dealing with a new home situation. Extroverts stepped up to the plate to fill the sometimes silence.

All participants need the ability to contribute and communicate equally, regardless of location, role, experience level, language, or device preference. This is achieved asynchronously, allowing people to collaborate at different times and at the convenience of their schedules.

However, achieving this is not without challenges. Facilitators need to rethink collaboration to lay a foundation of collaborative equity in their zoom calls. By embracing asynchronous collaboration and establishing it as part of business best practices through thoughtful facilitation and tooling, we can ensure that the most amount of data is captured in meetings. This documentation acts as the would-be organic flow of in-person information, which steers teams away from developing silos.

We can leverage mindful, thoughtful facilitation to achieve collaborative equity, improve the effectiveness of online meetings and improve the rate of and quality of documentation.

Whereas silos are really important to keep teams agile and nimble, the struggle is keeping them connected. Documentation is your single source of truth. Business intranets have evolved from an output based Sharepoint (“Here’s a whitepaper prescribing exactly how you do something”) to a process-based active management tool (“We’ve all worked this out together”).

There is a shift in business requirements from a static single source of truth, to collaborative, asynchronous documentation of processes and ways of working.

Sharepoints stagnate, and dead documents float. The challenge of maintaining a single source of truth is to routinely address the content as part of a process, without just spinning up a new document. Process is the key element here - routine updates keep the conversations alive and flexible whilst allowing people to quickly dip in, absorb what they need to and move on, growing a culture of self serve and autonomy.

The challenge with static documentation is maintaining the conversation. Routine reviews need to be maintained to ensure best business practices. This can be automated with Business Process Management Technology/Project Management tools.

This is why we have seen so much success in virtual whiteboards. Aligning teams is all about seeing what is in everyone’s heads and previously, most documentation has been static or flat. Think of Docs, Sheets, Email and Slack - which are mostly all written form. Virtual whiteboards allow us to see a stream of data and be able to make more connections.

Businesses thrive when everyone is focused on the same broader organisational goals. Centering the entire company around the most important objectives allows employees to stay focused, engaged, and productive. Functional alignment starts at the top and needs to be front and centre or centralised cloud based documentation.

"Every company has a small list of golden rituals. A few criteria:
1. They are named.
2. Every employee knows them by the first Friday.
3. They are templated.”

  • Bing Gordon, Partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

Connecting the dots between teams is essential and work management platforms support this process. By sharing goals across teams—and having them in a living system (A Project Management Tool)—you illustrate how each team goal is part of the same company-wide strategy, dissolving the chaotic atmosphere and getting people moving in the same direction.

"Most leadership teams spent less than one hour per month discussing strategy. That lack of leadership and direction erodes all understanding and undermines any inter-departmental coordination."

"Research suggests that just 16% of workers think their company is effective at setting and communicating goals. Just one in four understand how their work ladders up into a broader strategy."

A lack of transparency in decision-making and project progress kills culture. Having more meetings doesn't necessarily promote transparency. People will miss content whether or not they are in the room. Build trusted documentation and easy, repeatable processes to direct people to the value they need fast, so that they can move ahead with confidence.

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