Working remotely isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it’s your team under the gun.
Recently, we were in the 11th hour of the largest, most complex project my company has ever pursued. We were already in the beginning stages of patting ourselves on the backs. Our remote team had developed a unique solution for group insurance benefits for a client, and assumed we were in the home stretch.
It was ours to lose, or so we thought, until our client called (of course, he’s also remote). Five minutes later that oh-so-near finish line had evaporated.
How could this happen? Well, there were two major problems.
First, we were managing by committee. I was in St. Louis, another leader on our team was in the Washington, D.C. area, and a third was semi-retired and seldom in his office. Not unimportant, we were all independent contractors who, while having worked together on small deals, had not brought a big deal like this onto our boat before.
Second, the client was fast-talking, fast-thinking and used to getting his way. As a team, our heads were down focused on winning the business while the client’s head was up, looking around, making sure we didn’t miss anything. The client had a tactical twist he wanted included in the launch plan and wasn’t interested in “can’t” as one of the options.
Managing Complexity When You’re Not in the Same Room
If it sounds like I’m trying to make the client the bad guy, nothing could be further from the truth. It’s worse than that: the client was actually doing our job for us. We were the so-called experts, and he was the one thinking around the corner. His idea should have been ours.
A lot went wrong in a short time, primarily because we underestimated the complexity and nuances of managing a large project with a remote team. Beyond the issues I’m sure you can imagine — unclear direction, poor communications, etc. — there was a lack of camaraderie, maybe even trust.
After this experience, our team went through an extensive detox and identified five critical elements of teamwork that were either being ignored or simply didn’t exist.
- Clearly define your roles and responsibilities. We were stepping on each other and, for the most part, weren’t aware. Everyone on the team wanted to be in the spotlight, which left a lot of behind-the-scenes work undone. We reset expectations and clearly defined everyone’s role going forward, with the goal of eliminating the question of “who was responsible for that?” Had we done this in the beginning, I don’t think I would be writing this article.
- Communicate. In fact, over-communicate. I now believe it’s impossible to over-communicate with a remote team and came up with a “Theory of Two” for our teams. Whatever I think is the right level of communications, such as for status reports, I multiply that times two. The worst that can happen is that everyone agrees you don’t need that much, and you simply dial back. At the same time, you have to keep your antennae up regarding how your team members feel about how things are going. Sometimes just a call to check in works wonders. Note: With clients, I find the “Theory of Two” is usually not required. They already have a day job.
- Don’t create a lone wolf. A wolf pack is skilled at hunting because they all know their rank in the pack. Our lack of attention to team members was creating lone wolves because they didn’t feel like they were part of our team. As a result, they challenged the team leaders and one or two came dangerously close to being fired. Funny thing is that we, the leaders of the pack, were to blame. Make sure you are molding your team and pulling from their strengths to keep them focused on the overall success of the team.
- Trust your support staff. Are you guilty of the phrase: “It’s easier if I just do it myself?” While this is true sometimes, more times than not you are simply kicking a problem down the road. Delegating responsibility helps build trust in your support staff and allows the rest of your team to focus on execution. Take a deep breath and give your support staff the chance to prove their abilities.
- Don’t chase shiny objects. This is a popular saying for our team. It’s incredible how easily you can get off course when someone has the next great idea. Steve Jobs said it well: “And, so the hardest decisions we make are all the things not to work on.” Enough said.
In the end, we were lucky. We won the business and have just started rolling the results of our work out now. And, rather than pointing fingers, the team came together. We’re now in a much stronger position to both manage ourselves and continue looking for opportunities around the corner.