Imagine not just leading a remote team (we’re all doing that right now), but leading a team that is delivering on multimillion-dollar technology projects? How do you manage massive complex projects, while working from home?
I recently had the chance to talk to Hassan Osman, who is a Program Management Office Director within Cisco delivering complex IT projects (although he’s quick to point out that his advice is his own, and not endorsed by Cisco). Osman manages his team of project managers from his home office and always has. He’s so passionate about work from home productivity that he maintains a blog dedicated to the topic called, The Couch Manager, and has written several bestselling books on management including Influencing Virtual Teams.
Number One 1 Reason Remote Teams Fail
Osman explained that the reason virtual teams fail can be summed up in two words: ineffective communication. “And ineffective communication is the false assumption that what is being communicated to your remote team is being a 100% understood by them, when in fact it's mostly misunderstood or misconstrued,” he said.
And the more virtual your team is, the more likely it is to be misunderstood or misconstrued. So how do you ensure team communication is actually effective?
#1 Best Practice: Avoid the Curse of Knowledge
The “curse of knowledge” is when we communicate with someone and falsely assume that they have the same knowledge that we have in our own mind. For the person who has the knowledge, it seems inconceivable that the listener wouldn’t understand a message fully. But for those without the knowledge, it’s almost impossible to get a full and accurate understanding.
Osman says the first tactic to overcome this “is to acknowledge that this curse of knowledge exists. And it exists in every single form of communication whether it's in an email or a phone conversation or a presentation or a meeting, it always exists.” And then to simplify your message and make it extremely easy to understand, as if you were trying to explain something to a teenager.
#2 Best Practice: Over Communicate
Osman explains that by the very nature of remote work, it is difficult to build caring relationships among team members which makes it difficult to build trust. He says we know from what psychologists call the propinquity effect, “the more you interact with someone, the more you'll like them and become friends with them.” So how do you increase communication, to improve liking and trust?
The easiest way, Osman explains, is to just reach out via instant message once a day or every other day, even if it's not absolutely essential. Another way is to ensure that everyone's voice is heard. Practice total inclusiveness in (remote) meetings and explicitly ask what each team member's thoughts are on specific issues. And then finally send frequent FYI updates so people have great contextual awareness of what is going on in the rest of the team and the great organization.
#3 Best Practice: Move Up the Pyramid of Communication
Another way to improve team intimacy and trust is to move as high up the Pyramid of Communication as possible. The Pyramid of Communication is typically drawn to show the least effective (but often most convenient to the sender) channel of communication on the bottom of the pyramid and higher fidelity communication at the top. A hierarchy could look like:
- Video conferencing
- Instant Message
Osman explains that remote leaders should “move up the pyramid and mix multiple levels of the pyramid. Let's say you spend most of your time in email. Then what you want to do basically try to take it up a couple of notches. Let's say you've got a team member based in India and you're always used to communicating with them through email. Picking up the phone and calling them is a great idea or having an audio conference just to again get that extra level of fidelity of communication. Or even moving it up a notch to video conferencing.”
#4 Best Practice: Write Assertive Emails
Email is typically viewed as the scourge of business communication because people receive too much of it, and it’s typically written very poorly. People are so busy they typically scan emails instead of actually reading them.
“Assertive emails” according to Osman are as short and concise as possible. He explains, “And the sweet spots is to keep them at five sentences or less. And you should also try to get to the point of your email, in the first sentence or two, so that you don't waste your recipient's time with any fluff. And finally, highlight your calls to action. My default method is to basically list out each call to action in a separate bullet point.
#5 Best Practice: use Deadlines Strategically
There is a concept known as Parkinson’s Law which states that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. In order to hold people accountable, and enable a feeling of progress and accomplishment, you can give strategic deadlines.
Osman says the first thing to remember when setting deadlines is to be reasonable. “A good strategy basically is to ask for an optimistic timeline, a pessimistic timeline, and a most likely timeline, and then sort of average them out.” Then the deadline should be very specific. Instead of giving a deadline like, “I need this done in the next few days, ok? A better example of that would be, I need this done by Thursday, June 16th at 5:00 PM Eastern time.”
#6 Best Practice: Assign Responsibility Right
There is an old saying, “Everyone's responsibility is no one's responsibility.” When it comes to remote teams unless accountability is explicitly assigned it’s rare that someone will just step up and assume responsibility.
The most direct way to assign responsibility according to Osman is to just state it directly. Another powerful way is to ask for volunteers because people are more likely to follow through on getting something done if they signed up voluntarily for it. And a final secret is to always make only one person accountable for a task. They can have help, they can have a team, but it ensures there is no confusion over who is actually responsible.
In summary, managing remote teams successfully is about effective communication. We must overcome our assumptions about other team members’ knowledge and understanding and strive to be crystal clear describing tasks, deadlines and who is responsible.