Managing a far-flung development team often means a flood of e-mails and instant messages. To avoid drowning in a sea of micromanagement, you must build a team you can trust to get the job done despite your geographical separation. It’s also your job to demonstrate consistent leadership and foster a spirit of trust, discipline, and commitment in your staff. Use this advice to conquer distance and build a solid base of success for your distributed team.

The challenges to overcome
Obviously, coordination is a problem in managing a dispersed staff. Some of the challenges are:

  • Consensus decisions can’t be made in minutes and often take days.
  • Monitoring performance takes more time and is less accurate.
  • Design is usually document driven. This can become a development task all on its own before any code is written.
  • Corporate camaraderie develops in a virtual atmosphere, not around the water cooler.
  • Project planning must be more detailed and anticipate change.

Building your team
Take stock of your staff to be sure they have what it takes to do the job in a dispersed environment. Then ask yourself if you have the skills to work within the constraints that come with a dispersed staff. Here are some suggestions:

  • Learn to build consensus by extended discussion, and proof through prototyping, rather than through pontification. Let the best ideas win, not those promoted with the most personality.
  • Follow up on your people daily by e-mail or telephone. Look for progress rather than judging their shortcomings. Adjust your expectations to the quality of your instructions. If you haven’t been clear in making assignments, you can’t expect wonderful results.
  • Accept that design documentation, often illustrated by prototype code, is essential to building a final system. Coding by the seat of the pants might work for small, self-contained projects, but it isn’t going to build a robust enterprise system.
  • Camaraderie is only built by a shared vision that starts with you as the leader and is taken up by your team through patience, persistence, and follow-through.
  • Plans must allow for both emergent and deliberate change. Any project plan that doesn’t account for these two flavors of unexpected influences isn’t a plan; it’s a dream.
  • Unless you can afford videoconferencing, the telephone is your only realistic means of “live” interaction with your staff. You’ll rely on it for instruction, correction, and the personal touch.

Don’t forget that, from time to time, your far-flung staff will need to hold group meetings. A week of face time can eliminate months of stumbling through e-mail chains of ill-conceived design ideas. This usually means air travel and the expense and complications it brings. If you can’t bring your staff together, go to them as needed. All the money your company saves by not housing your staff in a common location should justify the travel costs when big projects demand collaboration without compromise.

Examine your raw material
Management is as much about building competent and trustworthy people as it is about giving orders. If you don’t have the right people with the right skills in a distributed workforce, you can’t build a productive staff. Here are some tips for assessing your people’s ability to work on their own and your ability as their manager to lead from a distance:

  • Can they drill down on requirements and stay focused on the solution despite working on their own?
  • Will their solutions work in your corporate architecture and their components “snap together” to build the required system?
  • Are you enough of an architect to direct the design, or is someone else more capable?
  • Have your people shown they can be productive and successful with minimal direction and oversight?

Can you handle the truth?
If you can say yes to most of these questions, then you’ve got a foundation on which to start building a team that can overcome challenges and hit deadline.

Distributed workforce

Have you had to lead a distributed team? Tell us how you kept everyone together by posting a comment below or dropping us an e-mail.