Communication

The 6 Worst Business Communication Meltdowns in Distributed Teams

by Sasha Viasasha
July 5, 2017

Distributed teams aren't natural. They don't just happen. They have to be crafted carefully like any creation of an artisan. The pathway that distributed teams that in communicating their progress on business objectives need to be built link by link. 

Many companies skip that essential stage. They just get an idea, put some people on it and hope for the the best. The following six meltdowns can happen anywhere --  even the best of teams -- but they are more common if you don't start with the best business communication strategies for your project.

Here's what often goes wrong and how to fix each one. 

1. Multiple Channel Confusion

Often distributed teams, especially those in different time zones, have there are only a few hours of ideal contact time for live business communications. One daily phone call or even just a few per week are normally sufficient for optimal coordination without slowing down everyone’s productivity.

In low performing teams, it’s common to see workers firing off emails with “Urgent” in the headline just because they want to handle problems as soon as they arise. Not all problems deserve that kind of treatment. “Touch It Once” is good advice for working through your own tasks, but that’s not a practical policy for a distributed team.

The Fix: Best practices suggest it’s more effective to send an email when the answer can wait a few days or the question can’t be answered without some research. Call to find an immediate answer, but before you do, send a message letting your teammate know what the call is about and the urgency level. Unless you are seeking a yes/no answer, text and chat leave too much room for misunderstanding.

2. Time Slippage

89% of projects by high performing teams make it all the way through to successful completion. Low performing teams complete 36% or less, according to the Project Management Institute. One of the primary causes of projects going off the rails involve lost time that is never recovered. That sets up a chain reaction of others missed metrics and rushed sub-routines that dooms a team project to finger pointing and recrimininations.

The Fix: Beetroot, a Swedish-Ukrainian firm that generates on-demand software development teams, cautioned that effective business communications for  distributed teams requires specified time guidelines. “Avoid vague terminology such as “ASAP”, “in your own time” or “whenever you have a chance”. These expressions could be efficiency-killers within an in-house team. Make coherent plans, set specific deadlines and don’t rely on chance.”

3. Unclear Decision Authority

Many projects get permanently stalled in waiting on approvals. Set up a rolling decision authorization schedule based on time zone. Ideally this should be established before beginning the project, but it’s never too late to put it in place. If approval is to keep managers notified of progress and to manage resource allocations, then decisions can be handled at a lower levels.

The Fix: Some teams build more trust in handing off approvals by building approval authorization into machine learning tools. Set hard limits the timeline of decision-making turn around and keep the project on track. Timing can mean everything, especially when there are sales are on the line.

4. Bad Contact Data

Kathleen Carley, Professor of Social and Decision Science at Carnegie Melon University, published a study in “Industrial Crisis Quarterly” of how organization can prevent communications breakdowns during a crisis. She used mathematical models to draw conclusions about how your communication organization affects your performance.

The Fix: Professor Carley concluded that organizations are more effective when they invest in making sure that all company contact information is accurate and up to date before investing in new communication channels.

5. Brook’s Law of Team Disintegration

Team members have varying levels of self-motivation and teams as a whole tend to take on some aspects of dominant personalities. They may need more structure or greater flexibility to deliver on time. Even a single new member, or a member whose personal life has changed, can alter the team dynamic.

Brook’s Law of project management states that “Adding manpower to a late project makes the project later.” The reason involves the complexity of adding late stage communication links. The number of active communication channels in a project is equal to half the product of n times (n-1), where n represents the number of project team members. 

Formula:  CC = n(n-1)/2, where CC means Communication Channels and n stands for the number of people on the team. 

If there are 12 people on your project team, that means 12*(12-1)/2 which equals 132/2 or 66 communication channels. Adding one more person brings that up to 78 active channels, dramatically ratcheting up stress on the system and involving someone without team understanding or trust.

The Fix: Teach the team to value proactive check-ins to stay on track and bring in more resources before it’s too late. If communicaton difficulties exist, try to iimplement fixes before adding another member onto the team. Even if you have to start them working idependently, you can delay integration until the team is caught up and back on schedule. 

6. Sub-group Splintering

Agile software development methodologies are very clear on the point that teams need face time. The Scrum Alliance found that project teams do their best work in intense sprints of one to four weeks, followed by a retrospective where the team gathers to review what worked and what didn’t. These post-sprint meetings are absolutely crucial to strengthening team cohesion.

In the absence of face time, either on video or in person, teams tend to form into sub-groups with all the inherent problems of insider/outsider status in the larger team. One Stanford University study on distributed teams concluded that, “Managers of internationally distributed teams often are tempted to reduce interdependence between distributed groups as much as possible because of communication and coordination difficulties. We caution that by limiting the motivation to engage across differences in this way, ethnocentrism and bias between subgroups may grow, increasing the risk that subgroups ultimately will reject each others’ ideas and work.”

The Fix: Managers should take on the responsibility of conducting retrospectives regularly and encourage subgroups to recognize the accomplishments of competing subgroups. Either physically or virtually, managers should experiment with transferring team members, either physically or virturally, between work sites. The transferred workers tend to maintain their existing communication networks AND build new networks with subgroups at the new location.

A New Kind of Team Building

Teams don't normally coalesce without a reactive agent in the form of intelligent management. The care that business leaders put into the crafting of project teams can pay back enormous dividends in project completion stats. To learn more about how to integrate remote teams, investigate our ebook in the link below.

At Spoke we're designed a simple but robust application that make it easy for you to turn your mobile phone infrastructure into a business phone system with enterprise level functionality and security. We're developing smart features to help your business grow, and to mediate the unique communication barriers of our digital age. Whether you want to consolidate a remote team, answer customer queries, or build a strong internal culture, we've got you covered.  

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