Category Archives: Collaboration

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!


Field Trip

This morning one of our summer interns was able to arrange a meeting with two teenage boys from the Boys and Girls Club in East Palo Alto. We learned that the gang violence in East Palo Alto is not as much a race-related gang situation but rather a neighborhood-related issue. They shared with us that even though gang violence can be prevalent in their neighborhoods, staying in school and going to the Boys and Girls Club in EPA helps them avoid getting into trouble. They suggested that in order to make progress with our project, we needed to gain the support of the whole community. This meeting was very enlightening and we are grateful that they opened up to us.