As your business scales, projects do the same, growing in complexity faster than even the many-headed mythological Hydra could handle. As Stephane Kasriel points out in his eBook Hire Fast & Build Things, efficient scaling can only occur when you develop independent teams to tackle and tame the various project aspects.
These independent teams are a key component of growing companies. According to Kasriel, “You don’t want one team to be dependent on another team to complete work before they can move forward. This is even more true in a distributed environment where intra-team coordination is complex, and inter-team coordination adds further friction.”
How can you empower these independent teams and still keep everyone on the same page? Strong project management principles can make all the difference between coordination and chaos.
The Big Picture Needs a Frame
The first step in the project management journey is to set up a framework that defines the project.
This means clearly defining the end goal and setting parameters for what the project is and isn’t. From this birds-eye vantage point, your teams can see clearly where you have to go.
Next, divide and conquer. Break the product down into necessary components, then assign each project requirement to a team.
As you develop these teams, remember to make them as autonomous as possible; they need to be able to function without too much input from other teams.
Management that Works
Creating a framework and giving assignments to your teams are the easy part. The rubber meets the road as these teams begin to work and a project manager tries to keep them coordinated and avoid duplicating efforts.
There are many great books and blogs that delve into the nitty gritty of project management best practices, but here are a few tips to get you started.
In order to be successful, each individual team member needs to fully understand what needs to be accomplished. Don’t assume someone knows something unless you have specifically and clearly communicated it to them. As Pawel Brodzinski pointed out on his blog, “The risk of over-communicating is lower than risk of under-communicating.”
As a project manager, it’s important that you keep up with what teams need and how things are going. Regular check-ins are a great way to make sure you’re current with what’s going on. Kasriel points out that independent teams can inadvertently “reinvent the wheel” if there’s not coordination taking place. His teams hosts a regular meeting for Elance-oDesk engineering leads for this very purpose.
Don’t trust project specs and changes to your memory or someone else’s notetaking. Make sure every spec, every requirement, and every bit of pertinent information is written down in a document that is accessible to each team. And don’t just write it down and leave it: keep this document updated as the project grows and changes.
As project manager, your job isn’t to be concerned with how everything is getting done. Your job is to stay on top of the output and look at what is accomplished. Give your people the freedom to be creative and explore alternate ways to accomplish their goals. Let team supervisors truly lead without you getting in their way.
Corresponding to that, provide the resources the teams need to innovate and create. During those regular check-ins, find out whether there’s anything holding a team back and look for ways to give them what they need to get the job done. Your job is to empower them to make it happen.
There are many useful tools for managing projects remotely. Here’s a run-down of some of them.
- JIRA Agile (formerly GreenHopper): This Agile project management tool is used by Kasriel’s team to visually track a project’s progress. It’s designed for software development teams.
- Asana: Designed to help teams with both project and task management. Can be used for teams in any industry.
- Basecamp: A web-based project management system with an integrated chatroom space. The beauty of the chatroom is that it provides daily connection for people working across different timezones to catch up on conversations that happened while they were offline.
- OpenProject: Featuring wikis, project tracking, code management and cost reporting, this program provides a powerful, open source alternative for project management.
Have you worked as a project manager with distributed teams? Share your advice and lessons learned in the comments section below.