How to Manage Distributed Product Development Teams

An important tenet of the Agile Manifesto is that successful product teams must collaborate daily from a shared co-location. But, we wish to challenge this notion. Remote product teams (spanning continents, cultures, and time zones) are very much the need of the hour. And, with sophisticated collaborative tools available, distributed teams can be as productive as co-located ones. A changed mindset from product managers and some flexibility from team members is the only requisite.

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We have compiled a few actionable tips and tools that can help you in the task:

  1. Use collaboration tools
    Don’t rely on email communication for any of your tasks. Important emails might get lost in crowded inboxes. Plus, there is no way to confirm if your email has been read or not. Instead, leverage tools for scheduling meetings, informing participants, conducting user interviews, reporting results, brainstorming ideas, video conferencing, estimation meetings, and retrospection meetings.

    • Tools for scheduling meetings– Calendly and Google calendar

    For remote working teams, it’s a given that everyone will not be available for meetings at a moment’s notice. Provide ample notification in advance. Tools such as Calendly and Google calendar raise alerts before meeting time.

    Our Recommendation: Google Calendar. It allows people to pick a slot that suits their calendar. Time zones are converted to local time automatically to save effort.

    Google Calender

    • Tools for project communication– Trello, Slack, JIRA, and Glip

    Communicating project status via emails is a passé. Tools have dedicated workspaces and dashboards meant just for your project. Team members get a community feel and exert complete attention when using these tools. They have an integrated chat interface, emoticon plug-ins to convey reactions, and automatic email notification features.

    Our Recommendation: Jira with GitHub has made issue raising and bug fixing painless. It’s open-source, allowing developers to make changes locally before publishing them.  Git’s flexible nature lets you create a variety of workflows and allocation rosters. Agile teams vouch for Git as their topmost collaborative tool.

    jira-with-github

    Featured Resource: Ten Secrets to Make Your Product Development a Success

    • Tools for video meetings – GTM, Zoom, stickynotes.io, and Mural

    Off-location teams often feel isolated or have an impersonal outlook towards the project. To build team solidarity, video meet often. Besides seeing and hearing your far-flung team members, you can share the screen, chat alongside, and bring everyone at eye level. Do remember to send the video link well in advance to ensure maximum turnout.

    Our Recommendation: Zoom is a great video conferencing tool. It possesses an additional feature of jot voting. Mural is a lightweight online whiteboard where participants can interact and exchange ideas. Stickynotes.io, a virtual way to keep notes, is a great alternative to pen and paper.

    Zoom

    • Tools for sharing information– Google forms, Zapier (shared folders), Google sheet

    User research is an essential step in the product development lifecycle. After you conduct user interviews using Zoom or GTM, share findings instantly using Google forms or Zapier. If nothing else is available, Google sheets is a viable option. Here, you can collaborate, comment, share with stakeholders, set privacy settings, check edit history, and download the sheet contents to your local system.

    Our Recommendation: Google Forms for its intuitive interface and instant transfer of information. You can even add a Trello or JIRA plugin to it.

    google-forms

    • Tools for usability tests – surveymonkey.com, usertesting.com

    Another important milestone in the product development journey is usability tests. Check your product’s MVP or website’s UX or application’s wireframe using any one of these tools.

  2. Make reporting mandatory
    Fix a daily reporting schedule and provide multi-channel reporting mechanisms. Since your team is distributed, it’s necessary that managers should know if work is going on as planned. Use virtual desktops to get a sneak peek into operations. This is by no means snooping. It is, in fact, essential to pinpoint errors in time and avoid loads of rework later. Apart from the weekly or so-sprints, day-to-day reporting can work wonders to meet deadlines and clear backlogs. Managers should act as facilitators more as supervisors. Provide the right tools and train people to use them correctly. Encourage members to report all types of bugs in a common channel for everyone’s advantage. Have a Google sheet where people can log issues and possible solutions and keep the sheet updated at all times.
  3. Meet virtually often
    Team building is hard when you have distributed teams. Try to get team members together on the same page using meetings, informal discussions, workshops, brainstorming sessions, retrospective meetings, estimating sessions, and other artifacts. But bare in mind that not everyone is in the same time zone as yours. So choose a comfortable slot and invite-only key members. Keep meetings focused and ensure that people have concrete takeaways from the interaction so that they don’t dismiss it as a waste of time or effort.
  4. Allow asynchronous reporting
    For lengthy Sprint sessions, follow Converge and Diverge principle. Have a brief kick-off session where you spell out the meeting agenda. Then, allow people to diverge for individual ideation. Thereafter, have a brainstorming session using tools such as standups.io and Standupbot. They withhold discussion until everyone “checks-in”! Permit asynchronous reporting by using the Planning Poker plug-in that comes with JIRA and Trello. Be mentally prepared to work some odd hours to check in to your teammates from the other hemisphere.
  5. Understand Cultural Differences
    Your team members may be from cultures far removed from each other. Language barriers and varied work cultures may be an impenetrable wall. Try to interact informally with each other during lean hours using IMs such as Skype, Google Hangout, and Whatsapp. Encourage people to share work experiences and put forth their inhibitions. This is critical to build an atmosphere conducive for free thinking.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. Each project comes with its own set of limitations and distributed teams have to set their own course to overcome these challenges. The onus of conducting a successful product development lies solely on the shoulders of project managers.

Comment your best strategy below and stay tuned for more resources in this area.

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