The Challenges of Distributed-team Work

This morning was my last day in rural Washington State.  After discussing notes for this post on Facebook from the (truly wonderful) Portland Airport this morning, I’m writing this up on the ground back at Stanford.

So what does rural Washington have to do with EPIC?  Well, we passed an interesting milestone a few months ago.  We now have more than ninety colleagues around the world working on EPIC.

That’s incredibly exciting, and deeply encouraging to me.  But the milestone I’m referring to is this:  Except for the occasional conference, no matter who we are, what our role, or where we are…

…from here on out, most of us will always be somewhere else.

This means the center of gravity, and the locus of project control and leadership, has shifted from Stanford, to being globally distributed.  And this means that we at Stanford are beginning to transition from a central, lead role, to a role of

a) supporting a widely dispersed community of passionately committed colleagues, and

b) preparing to support a global network of university, government, business, and NGO partners.


So, one of my goals for the last three weeks was to learn how it feels to work remotely as part of EPIC’s globally dispersed team.

Answer?  Not good.

Distributed teamwork is tough, especially in the early stages of a new, ambitious, complex project.  And while the connection tools are better than ever, things like Skype, streaming video, and WebEx are just good enough to make you really aware of how much you’re missing by not actually being in the same room as your colleagues.

Some conclusions:

1.  Low bandwidth tools (like email lists, chat, and wikis) are actually better for getting real work done on a distributed team–tho they need more upfront thought and effort than just talking to your coworker face to face.

2.  But doing #1 well actually creates its own problem.  Filtering the ensuing message traffic is its own daunting issue.

We’re taking a first shot at addressing this by moving our generic Google group to an apps powered list — This will allow us to create sub-lists by team focus, which will enable project members to subscribe only to the lists relevant to the teams they are on, and not have to see traffic from the entire organization.

At the same time, this will improve the transparency and very high trust environment so basic to our work, because all EPIC members will be able to go see anything anyone is doing, in any part of the organization, at any time.

3.  We have to put much more effort into ensuring that our colleagues around the world are as much or more at the center of the project than we are at Stanford.

4.  Having said all that …after three weeks of feeling very disconnected, yet seeing how the work has forged ahead while I’ve been gone, it’s even clearer to me –my team is an amazing group of committed, determined, very smart people, and I’m more grateful for them than ever.

Thanks, you guys!

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  • Avdi Grimm  On October 18, 2010 at 12:33 pm

    Managing dispersed teams is hard. It was recognition of that fact that led me to create Wide Teams, a website devoted to the topic of dispersed teams and remote work. There are HOWTOS and articles on best practices there, as well as podcast interviews with people who have already made the transition that you are making now. Trust me, you’re not alone in this! I hope you will find some of these resources helpful as you adapt to working in a dispersed team. Best of luck to you!


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