I’ve been working remotely with clients in faraway places for going on four years. Just lately I’ve been in discussions with a large nonprofit org about a work opportunity, and am mulling over what I’ve learned about working with and managing geographically decentralized teams. Hunting around for how others have put together best-practices guidelines, I found this deck from Kyra Cavanaugh, “fearless leader” of Chicagoland consultancy LifeMeetsWork — it’s really good, and contains not a word I haven’t found to be true in my experience:
Any problems I’ve had in teleworking — as both manager and manage-ee — have boiled down to process/systems failure, in establishing expectations, measuring performance, and inadequate communication. (Gee, that sounds pretty much like a list of what can go wrong in an onsite team….) Kyra puts great emphasis on how important it is to be deliberate about establishing clear protocol in all these areas:
- create a team operating agreement (I like the idea of borrowing some tricks from scrum and scrum-ban project-management frameworks, from the agile development world. scrum guidelines) and review/revise regularly;
- commit to setting goals and tracking performance (daily progress check-ins are, in my experience, often really helpful);
- adopt communications routines that establish a new sense of place — a “team culture,” shared online, so that all team members, whether on-site or off-, feel truly connected. Also, routines that will uncover and address frustrations — she includes a quote I love, “Don’t spend more than 30 seconds being angry without telling someone.”
- pick a handful of web-based tools — project management, bugtracker, conferencing, whiteboard, “watercooler” (she mentions CampFire; I like Yammer a lot); wiki (for KM/documentation of process), etc. — and get the entirety of the team’s workflow onto these systems, without fail.
Lots more good stuff in her presentation. And what comes across is something I can only underscore (in heavy Sharpie, about three times): the only real difference between a smooth-running, kick-ass virtual team and a smooth-running, kick-ass on-site team is that, with the former, setting up and adhering to such principles and protocols has extra urgency. Whatever energy it takes to get the team off to a good start, get buy-in from every team member, and arrive at a point where you’ve got a close-knit group of people that trust one another and bear each other up, it’s worth it — because without that bond among the team, things can go south really fast and can be harder to fix than when team members are literally face-to-face with each other every day.
At the peak of his basketball stardom at Princeton, Bill Bradley was asked how he did the things he did — the eyes-in-the-back-of-his-head passes to teammates, the miracle shots — and he answered “You develop a sense of where you are.” You want each member of a virtual team to feel this way, too — set the bar there and do what you can to get there fast if you want a happy, engaged, productive virtual team.
My gmail is polluted with an enormous glut of “now following you” emails. That, however, doesn’t especially bother me. Sadly, spam activity is just endemic to the internets, and I accept that.
No, what pisses me off is that I can’t make informed decisions — whether to ignore, block or follow — about new followers without leaving email and, one-by-one, visiting Twitter user profiles. Stupid.
It’d be so easy for Twitter to vastly improve this experience, which has been an annoyance for nigh a year. All they’d have to do is include this information in the system email:
- user’s stats (following, followers, updates)
- twitterstream preview (3-5 most recent tweets)
- BLOCK button
- FOLLOW button
- link: message user
- link: user’s profile
That’s all I need to get to action on a new user, which I should be able to do in about a second or two. Pulling this info from the database into an email can’t be a big deal; if it is, then we’re looking at another sign that the platform’s on shaky pins.
If anyone has a predisposition to become the sort of Twitter-induced continuous-partial-attention basket case that Kathy Sierra has warned of on her blog and others, it’d be me. (It’s just the way my brain works — capable of intense focus when I’m locked in on a problem, but also jaw-droppingly prone to spur-of-the-moment digression at other times.) So I’d be advised to take heed, and be mindful of my Twitter usage and habits. As I’ve said before I believe it’s a good tool; this Web Worker Daily post sums up many of the basic virtues.
So how to use it, but avoid falling into the timesucking abyss?
Simple, I think. Twitter can be used in any of three communications channels: web browser, IM program, or SMS on phone. It’s very easy to switch from one mode to another. And for me, the web-browsing mode is pretty much all I’m going to let myself use, except in rare circumstances.
If I use the web-browsing mode, I can treat a Twitter window the same as Marshall Kirkpatrick has described using a Netvibes window as a place to turn to several times a day, to scan key feeds. Keep a lid on that, and Twitter becomes something to look at for a few minutes at a time, between 3-5 times a day.
Exceptions to the rule:
- I’m trying to keep up with the night perambulations of dozens of people (as I was at SXSW). Or otherwise in a situation where I need to keep up with what a bunch of people have to say, where they are, etc.
- I’ve looked to Twitter friends for quick advice on a question. (Switch to IM mode to catch responses.)
Others I’m sure, but for me, keeping IM, email, SMS usage as a planned-for rather than reactive activity is key.
I love watching other people work magic with Photoshop, and I’ve always wanted to master that program myself. But let’s face it — I’m a generalist, and I’ll never have time enough to really worm my way into Photoshop expertise. I’ve mucked around with it for years on little graphics-editing jobs for the websites I’ve edited, and I always feel like I’m trying to fly an F-16 — just far too many controls for the simple jobs I need to do.
Also, I’m now footing the bill for any software I need. I do need a graphics/image editor, but I’m havin’ a hard time justifying paying CS’s four-figure pricetag. Hopefully this will be just what the doctor ordered.
powered by performancing firefox
Reading this post by Kathy Sierra, I was struck yet again by how brightly she burns, nearly every time she writes. Even when I’m not especially jazzed by whatever her topic is, the line-by-line details can light me up for days.
Stumbled into today’s post as I half-heartedly poked around in my newsreader. (I’m still “out of sorts” in a way, still trying to get my groove on after uprooting myself from a heavily rutted life in NYC; feed-reading and blogging have been hard to get back into.) She starts with “creativity on speed (or at least on restrictions)” — sites about recording an album or writing a book in a very tight timeframe. “Constraint-based creativity” — I read that phrase and my mind begins to wake up — “hey, that’s right, that’s the attitude I need to reawaken in myself.”
Then she moves on to talk about an online community firm that she’s helped a bit, in her account by “remind[ing] them to keep focused on making it about helping their users/members grow.” And zapp!! That really woke up my mind. You want to engage the social web, to open a conversational channel with your constituents/customers? Well, then treat your members, constituents or customers with respect. Ask not what they can do for you, but what you can do for them — stay focused on that and you’ll be lifted up on many shoulders.
Anyway, Kathy’s blog has so much energy; it inspires me in many ways. (If only my wife and I could bring ourselves to kill our television, an act that Kathy swears by.)
I can’t quite trace back this feeling to a source, but she reminds me of another hero — d. boon, dead 20 years now but did he ever shine brightly and fearlessly.