Friday, November 07, 2008

Preparing For Multi-site Engagements

I've spent quite a bit of time in the last several years living and learning with the challenges of doing multi-site projects. From offshore development where I managed teams operating between the US and India, to near-shore development with teams on both coasts of America, to smaller engagements with 6 people in 3 west coast cities. I've had successes and not a few glorious failures. It's the pitfalls, missteps, and screw ups that helped me learn the most.

Recently, I was asked to give some feedback on the things that have the most impact to new multi-site engagements. This is a pretty common request these days and I've since written down my thoughts so I could present them more consistently. This post is a very succinct summation of the big ticket items.

Naturally, much of this advice would be tailored to the specific circumstances and players, but the items discussed in the post are all generically applicable. If your situation involves working with teams in India or Manila or Slovenia (as examples), you'd want to get some specific tips on dealing with those cultures. This is no different than if you will be working with any of the Native American nations or in Silicon Valley where there are special considerations. Always get the heads up so you can be sensitive to the culture in which you'll be working. But those are for other posts, on with the show.

My personal guide is an ordered list I cheekily refer to as the Four T's. In order of impact they are Trust, Time, Transparency, and Talking. I'll discuss each a little to explain what I mean.

Building and maintaining trust is the single most critical thing that can impact your engagement. It is extremely easy to take this for granted, especially since it seems so obvious. In reality, we rarely address issues of trust head-on in the corporate world, but they become very important when you don't have face-time to rely on in the relationship. Nothing builds trust as fast as personal bonding time, nothing destroys it faster than a lack of transparency. Once trust becomes compromised, every other facet becomes harder and more risky. Without trust, communication become s suspect and morphs from a tool into a weapon.

If you want to earn trust, get some face-time. Obviously, in the real world is best, but lacking that, get on a video chat. You have to be able to read and see body language. You have to find a way to bond and see each other as people not resources. You have to allow everyone to take the measure of everyone else and to fill in the mental picture that they'll remember and substitute into every other conversation regardless of media.

Recognize up front that coordination among parties in different physical locations is inherently going to take more time. It takes more iterations to verify directional correctness, ensure quality, and declare accomplishments. Everything just takes more time. Stop trying to pretend this isn't the case or even to minimize this to act like it won't. Just prepare and plan for the impact, embrace the reality when it occurs, and don't get cocky when things are going smooth and you think you can tighten up.

When it comes to operating transparently, make sure you are delivering messages properly. Any directional messages should be disseminated with the whole team at the same time. When possible, do all messaging to the entire team at once. Then reserve your smaller leadership group for issue resolution and check-pointing. This can feel unwieldy at first, but the dividends it pays in trust will more than make up for it. If you are suffering from any trust issues, this can be the only chance at repairing the damage and pulling the team back together.

Lastly, don't under-estimate the power of Talking. Emails do not carry tone or intent very well. They aren't very transparent so they wear down the trust and are the easiest road to miscommunication. This is not to imply you don't write things down. On the contrary, always follow up your conversations with a written summary of the talking points decisions, action items, etc. But as much as possible carry your meaningful conversations over voice. If you can add the element of your face and body language via video, this is all the better.

These are important things to consider as you move forward but the attitude in which you apply each of them is also critical. Remember that you aren't planning for efficiency, you plan so that you'll recognize the problems that WILL occur and fix them without a total collapse. This is similar to how automobiles are designed. Some years ago, some automobile companies made amazing and powerful engines but you had to take the whole thing apart to change the oil. Other companies came along with designs that weren't as efficient to run, and were a little more expensive to design and build. But the oil change was a simple thing anyone could do for a few dollars. Ultimately the more successful designs were those that made it easiest to deal with the challenges that were certain to arise (changing the oil) as efficiently as possible instead of trying to optimize for performance or build cost.

The last tip I'll offer in this post is about quality and standards. When doing multi-site engagements that involve parallel efforts or multiple work streams, consider separating the oversight for quality or standards enforcement into an isolated group. Leaving the oversight functions within the different operating units allows disparities in enforcement or standards to creep in. This often is construed as unfair advantage or favoritism or something equally nefarious. Left within each group this disparity is pretty unavoidable and is a very subtle disease that can do a lot of damage when left unchecked. Making a distinct group responsible for these functions will help avoid this issue and its variants. It can also serve as a single neck to choke when trouble does arise.

Don't forget that tips like these aren't any use if you don't treat people with respect and act with integrity.