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Long Distance Project Management March 29, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership, Project management.
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Today it’s unlikely that all the key members of a project team are co-located in the same time zone, much less in the same office. Managing a project is hard enough when you can walk over to someone’s desk to find out what’s going on, but it’s obviously a lot more difficult when the team spans geographies in addition to languages and cultures. (NB: I’ve also found that the likelihood of routine face-to-face communication falls off sharply when that person’s desk is more than about 50 meters away. At that point they might as well be on the other side of the world.) The communication delays and additional effort to reduce “frictional losses” due to misunderstandings can be especially taxing. Everything seems to take longer and it’s harder to prevent drift on objectives and priorities. What can be done to minimize the aggravation of remote project management?

1. As with any project, early planning is the key, specifically alignment about the project objectives and roles and responsibilities for all parties. I prefer in-person kick-off meetings with the remote team members to give plenty of time for discussion and questions, although for some that may not be practical due to travel costs or other restrictions. We certainly have the technology today to enable productive meetings without travel, but there’s a lost opportunity to build confidence during informal social encounters. I find that I have a stronger sense of obligation and personal commitment after I’ve shared a meal with someone, at least to have a face and a story to associate with the name. See more at: Managing Remote Teams.

2. I believe that remote teams have the best chance being successful when the project tasks are partitioned and allocated in a way that enables extended intervals of independent action, minimizes back-and-forth hand-offs, and allows them to focus on well-defined and measurable deliverables. This shouldn’t be difficult, assuming the remote teams already have specialized areas of responsibility, but it means designing a work breakdown structure that synchronizes the inputs and other resources those teams require, thereby reducing their daily dependencies.

3. That last point sounds like hands-off Management by Objective (MBO), but ironically remote teams need more — not less — attention from the project manager due to the increased probability of misunderstandings and drift. You can’t wait until formal reviews or phase checkpoints to find out how things are going, especially if the tasks assigned to the remote team are in the critical chain. I recommend regular phone conferences or “text conferences”  (too much delay with e-mail exchanges that aren’t interactive) to check status, answer questions, and generally verify that everything is still on-track.

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