Monday, June 11, 2012

Honest Dialog with Stakeholders on Distributed Teams’ Constraints

My talk on “Effective Distributed Teams” always garners polarized feedback. I get kudos from folks who’ve left with a few new ideas, and I always get one or two evals where I’m skewered for talking too much about the human side of teams and the criticality of working hard, VERY HARD, to ensure you get the right folks on your distributed teams. In my talk I spend nearly 30 minutes at the start focusing on hiring your team members, assembling your team, and dealing with the inevitable issue of offshore workers.

(If you’re interested, here’s my deck from StarEast.)

One attendee at my StarEast talk wrote that I was naïve in my assertions about controlling offshore hiring. The same attendee also felt I was unrealistic in my position on working with the stakeholders/business partners to ensure the team has proper time to get tasks done. I’ve been called a lot of things in life, many of which are I earned, but I’m not sure “naïve” and “unrealistic” are labels which stick…

Here’s why I think it’s absolutely critical for you as a team lead/member to have open and honest dialog with your stakeholders/management/whatever: stakeholders/management/whatever need to understand the risks to the success of their project. They’re putting constraints on your team by asking you to work in a distributed fashion. They’re also potentially putting additional constraints on you by expecting to realize cost savings by using offshore help.

If they’re putting those constraints on you, then they must be made aware of the impacts of those actions: reduced velocity, and potentially reduced quality of work due to all the things inherent with offshored work. (Differing skills, communication difficulties, cultural differences, and of course timezone barriers.)

If your team members aren’t working out, regardless of whether they’re direct reports, distributed employees, or offshored subcontractors, then you need to be empowered to change the makeup of that team. That should include having input on changing a business partner relationship and terminating contracts with poorly performing individuals or companies. Be clear: this is NOT an easy effort, nor is it generally a quick one. I’ve never said otherwise. To the contrary, I emphasize it may take months to terminate a relationship with a poorly performing team member or subcontractor.

The same concept applies to unreasonable expectations around timelines. There’s a huge amount of writing on this topic by folks who are much smarter and wiser than I. The bottom line is you can’t simply accept the situation; you’ve got to ensure some rational discussion happens around scope, effort, and dates.

You need to make sure you’re clear on what YOU need to flex on too: just because you’re the QA lead doesn’t mean you get to hold up the project until you feel comfortable about quality. Your job is not to be the final voice on shipping or not. Your job is to ensure the stakeholders have a clear picture of the overall quality and risk at any given time. Stakeholders make shipping decisions, not you!

Again, I’ll repeat myself: these conversations are rarely easy, but you need to have them, and you need to have them earlier in the project versus later. (Actually, these conversations need to happen constantly through a project’s lifecycle.)

Your project’s stakeholders, believe it or not, really are looking for a project to succeed and help out their bottom line. If something is jeopardizing the project’s success, then they’re going to want to know about the issue. [1] The conversation may not be an easy one to have, and it will likely take several attempts to get clear, but you need to step up to the plate and get the issues out in the open. (You may also find you’re tilting at windmills with management who’s unwilling to support you. In that case, remember you can change where you work or you can change where you work.

I’ve had these conversations a number of times in different organizations and roles. I’ve been part of efforts getting rid of poorly performing workers and subcontractors, and I’ve been part of efforts getting poorly performing workers/subcontractors up to being productive members of our teams. It’s hard work, but it’s worth the effort.

It’s not naïve or unrealistic to think you can change these bad situations. It’s defeatist to think you can’t. Step up to the plate, do the work. You’ll be happy you did.


[1]Yes, yes, there are rare environments where an organization’s politics are so horrific that management actually looks to sabotage teams and projects. All I can say is that if you’re working in such an environment you’re there by choice. Flee that environment immediately or accept you’re making a choice to stay where you’re at. Leave right now or deal with it.

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