How To Lead High-Performance Distributed Teams
I’ve had a unique privilege of leading high-performance distributed teams for more than ten years. In the early days of the Microsoft patterns & practices team, one of the key driving philosophies was “leverage the best talent in the world, from around the world.”
By opening up the opportunity to distributed teams early on, we got a lot of practice and experience in creating high-performance distributed teams.
While on-site teams have the advantage of face-time and high-bandwidth communication, distributed teams can have the advantage of focus and results, with fewer distractions and more discipline (if done well.) With an on-site team, it’s easy to get distracted. It’s easy to lose focus. When you create high-performance distributed teams, it forces you to be specific and explicit. It also forces you to find ways to create clarity around the basics: What are the key drivers? What are the goals? What are the deliverables? What are the priorities? What do we do next? What are the pressing issues?
Process is paramount when it comes to distributed teams. Why? Because routines help simplify and clarify the work, and create a system for results. This frees up people to spend more time doing their art part and spending more time in their strengths or making their contributions where it counts.
Here is an example of a simple routine that I’ve used on projects small and large for high-performing distributed teams:
The simple story is this: You can save a lot of administration overhead, confusion, rework, and frustration, by putting a few key processes in place. The main things to put in place are:
- Weekly Wins / Daily Wins – Identify the three wins for the week and three wins each day. In a remote scenario, you accomplish this by sharing the three wins on a weekly / daily call, and on Mondays, you send out a simple email to make the goals explicit, as well as other things top of mind. Issues come up, but the key is to take them off-line, get specific, solve them fast, and move on.
- Weekly / Daily Calls – Each week, identify the work for the week with the team. If you make this a weekly thing, you can make the call shorter. I’ve found that 30 minutes or less is a healthy pattern, even for teams of 15+. Timeboxing helps keep focus and energy. A lack of focus quickly kills energy and momentum. Each day do a quick sync up (I’ve found a “Ten at Ten” – ten minutes at 10:00 AM strategy works well – the main idea is to ask folks what they got done, are getting done, and where they need help.
- Mid-Week Course Correction – Wednesday is a great day to do a reset as necessary. It’s a great time to take a step back and see how on track you are against your wins for the week. It’s a great day to see if there are higher-priorities or new windows of opportunity or new items on the hot plate that might disrupt execution. It’s also just a great day to do a real check-in and resolve key bottlenecks. It also helps you check your pace. Maybe there is extra capacity. Maybe you bit off too much and there is too much churn.
- Show and Tells – Thursday is a great day to do Show and Tells of the work for the week. If you demo the work, it puts it under a new lens. When you demo the work, it helps you clarify and simplify the story. It helps you get quick feedback on what’s working and what’s not. It helps you tell and sell the story in a more compelling way, by practicing showing the value of your work.
- Friday Lessons Learned - This is a great day to do a run through of three things going well, and three things to improve. It’s great to do this at both an individual level and a team level. When you ask the question at the team level, you’re really asking is what’s working an what’s not a people, process, and product perspective. Usually, you can find some simple modifications to process that helps debottleneck or empower the team in more effective ways. In a remote scenario, the pattern I’ve found helpful is to ask folks on the team to share their insights into three things going well and three things to improve from a team perspective, then compile, and most importantly, “synthesize” the information into a few actionable things, that you can put into practice the next week. This creates a powerful continuous learning system for the team, and you can quickly create a high-performing team.
On Mondays … (“Three Wins for the Week”)
Before you start your week, what do you actually want out of it?
On Mondays, start the week off strong by identifying the three wins that you want for the week. This is the “synthesized” view. It’s the all up view of the three most important outcomes you want to achieve. One way to figure this out is to fast forward to Friday and imagine that you have to tell and sell the story of your impact for the last week … what would you say?
A focused meeting with the team with the goal of identifying the three wins, and the key work for the work, will go a long way. It’s your best chance to align the work, find synergies, get leverage, and reduce potential forking of focus.
One of the most important things you can do on Monday is to send out a simple email of “Weekly Outcomes” that lists the top three wins you want for the week, and then a simple A-Z list of other items on the radar. This helps you both carve out the high-value wins with clarity, as well as acknowledge what else is what’s hot or flying around or top of people’s minds. The A-Z list forces simple names. What it also does though is help create a quick bird’s-eye view of the work. Most importantly, you can ask for input across the team on what’s missing or what should be on the radar. It’s a fast way to create clarity. You will find yourself referring back to this throughout the week to help keep your sanity and perspective.
Building my list for the week takes anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, but saves many hours across the team by providing a simple topology map of the work. People can better align their work, avoid surprises, re-prioritize, and connect the dots between the tasks and activities they do, to the wins and outcomes that we want to achieve.
Here is a simple example to show what a “Weekly Outcomes” list in email might look like:
Weekly Outcome: 11/12/2012
- Customer impact story (roadmap and story on a page)
- Starter Kit for Foo (prototype and model and addresses the Foo story)
- Library Model (Draft Complete)
A – Z List
- Adoption Story (Integrate feedback and insights)
- Anatomy of an Engagement Walkthrough
- Capabilities and Workloads at a Glance
- Change Management Story
- Cloud story on a Page
- Core Deliverables (against Core Services)
- Demo Deck for Foo 1
- Demo Deck for Foo 2
- Demo Kit for Bar 1
- Demo Kit for Bar 2
- Demo Kit for Bar 3
- Demo Kit for Team Roles and Responsibilities
- Deployment Story at a Glance
- Escalation Alignment Template
- Hot Spot Identification
- How To Videos
- Information Architecture (Names, overlap, splitting services)
- Library Fix (Core scenarios functioning)
- Milestone Map for Foo
- Narrative of an Engagement
- Outcomes and Deliverables List
- Roles and RACI Map
- Starter Kits for Bar
- Starter Kit for Foo
- Sweep of Library to catch up
- Transformation Story
- Video - How To Do Foo
- Video - How To Do Bar
Daily Outcomes (“Three Wins for the Day”)
One of the best ways to start to create a high-performance team is by asking each person to focus on three wins for the day. If they focus on three outcomes, not tasks, they will start to focus on value. Tasks will naturally follow, but now they are the right tasks, because you are starting with “value-first.” By defining an outcome, you rise above the noise and create clarity around what you will be attempting to achieve with your time and energy for the day. After all, if the outcome is not compelling, it will be hard to find your motivation. If the outcome is not clear, it will be hard to focus your efforts or know when you are done or know what good looks like.
By focusing on three wins, everybody starts to get into the habit of focusing on value. Once you know where the value is, you found the short-cut. You just cleared the air of all the distractions and noise that you can stop wasting time on. You can know accelerate your effort because you can actually see a target in your mind’s eye.
In your daily call, when you go around the team and identify the what they achieved the day before, what they’ll achieve today, and where they need help, the focus on wins will elevate the discussion from minutia and tasks, to outcomes and value. The team will shift from “doing a lot of work” to “making things happen” and “shipping value.”
The rhythm and momentum will start to help you over humps and people will find themselves getting over hurdles and walls that previously blocked their paths. Of course, the specific practice of asking people where they need help will play a key role in debottlenecking the team and making incremental progress. This daily incremental progress quickly adds up, and your practice of focusing on three wins at the team level and the individual level, will help you tell and sell the story of impact in ways you never could before.
This appreciation and acknowledgement of wins in an authentic and deeply meaningful way will help people flourish and bring out their best, because they can directly connect the time, energy, and effort they spend to impact that’s recognized and valued.
This simple habit really helps distributed teams flourish well beyond just getting things done or making impact in a big bang way … it builds a system that can learn and respond, and continuously flow value, while dealing with setbacks and hurdles in a more powerful, more unified way. The wins help unify the efforts and get synergy where focus and effort could otherwise fork.
Friday Reflection (“Three Thing Going Well, Three Things to Improve”)
This is your best chance to step back and take the balcony view. The simplest way is to just add a 20-minute appointment with yourself so you can dive deep around the following questions:
- What are three things going well?
- What are three things to improve?
As a team leader, you should ask yourself those questions as a leader, and as a team. What can you improve about your execution or leadership, and what can you improve about the team in terms of the system or the people or the output.
In a distributed team scenario, I simply ask the team to add their own appointment to their calendar at a time in the AM, and make it a priority. I allow space for this, and create buffer. Early on I used to ship on Fridays, but that created problems, pain, and panic, and didn’t create great weekends. Who wants to end the week with that kind of stress and risk? So years ago, I moved to a practice of always shipping on Wednesdays. This allowed time to respond to problems and helped ensure that Fridays could be as stress-free as possible.
As one of my mentors puts it, “Brains work better when their rested and relaxed.”
The other practice I use to help flow the information is I ask each person on the team to share with me their insights into three things going well and three things to improve at the team level (people, process, product.) I then synthesize this across the team to figure out what our best actions might be to fold into the next week. This is the continuous learning loop that helps create a high performance team that is highly adaptive and responsive to change, and learns how to learn in an effective and systematic way, without suffering from “death by process.”
A key insight I learned from one my business strategy mentors is that process is what kills the necessary innovation and learning for growth and survival in a changing landscape. That’s why the key is always “just enough process” while keeping a focus on learning and on flowing value in a continuous way.
At the end of the day, if you use the following mantra, reminders, and rhythm for results, you will achieve great things:
- Monday Vision (“Three wins for the week”)
- Daily Wins (“Three wins for the day”)
- Friday Reflection (“Three things going well, three things to improve”)
It’s a powerful recipe for results that has served me well time and again, with creating high performance teams from scratch around the world.