Picture managing a team in space. You can't get any more remote than that. How confident would you be? Confidence in your team can be deadly if it’s not based on a solid foundation of honest communication.
Did you know that two-thirds of experienced managers fail in their first attempt at running a remote team? That insight came from 16 years of business research by Beat Bühlmann, who is now Evernote’s General Manager for EMEA (Europe, Middle East, and Africa).
His doctoral dissertation investigated what went wrong when remote teams weren’t able to achieve their goals. These teams all tended to fail in similar ways.
There is no simple answer but there are danger signs. Understanding how to set up an internal communications structure that supports conversations for problem solving has become a critical business survival skill, especially for remote teams. Their isolation and pressure can be so intense that they feel like they are operating on another planet.
Below you’ll learn from the mistakes of teams that crashed. Here are unmistakable warning signs from Bühlmann’s academic research, along with examples by the space marines who didn’t listen from the film Aliens. These danger signals should motivate you to strengthen your internal communication structure ASAP.
Danger Signal 1: Leadership experience doesn’t carry over to remote teams.
The two-thirds of leaders who failed had a great track record of leading teams, but remote teams call for different sets of skills. For new managers, who are often assigned to manage remote teams early in their careers, the failure rate is even higher, according to Bühlmann.
In Aliens, Ellen Ripley returns to Earth as the sole survivor from an alien attack portrayed in the first film from this series. As an external consultant and subject matter expert (SME), Ripley is pressured into riding along with a platoon of space marines whose project mission statement is to exterminate the alien menace on a remote planet.
Immediately there is a problem is with the project lead, Colonial Marine Lieutenant Scott Gorman, a capable but inexperienced commander.
Ripley: How many drops is this for you Lieutenant?
Gorman: 38... Simulated.
Private First Class Jenette Vasquez: How many combat drops?
Gorman: Uh, two. Including this one.
Ripley can clearly tell that Gorman and the marines are not prepared for this project because they are underestimating the challenges. Her concerns are dismissed due to her outsider status.
Gorman (to Ripley): You wouldn't be going in with the troops. I can guarantee your safety.
A classic case of over-promise and under-deliver.
The team brought lots of talent and cutting edge tools, but they never bonded, so they never really able to trust in the competence of their teammates. Warnings were laughed off and life-saving advice was ignored.
Your internal communication structure can correct for this by collecting data on team dynamics and prioritizing conversations to build team trust before stress tears them apart.
As Bühlmann expressed it, “Half of the team cannot win. Either the full team wins, or the full team loses.”
Danger Signal 2: Teams are separated by a cultural, generational divide.
The greatest strength of a remote team is that it brings together people who could never have worked together until now. That’s a key part of its biggest danger as well, because teams can be divided not just by geography, but by working times, language fluency, cultural norms, and much more.
Remote team members are often working on projects for other team leaders at the same time, meaning they have conflicting responsibilities, commitments, constraints, etc. Other offices have distinct communication infrastructures and working methods that shatter assumptions. Bühlmann said, “One of the biggest mistakes virtual managers make is assuming every office is like their own. They’re not.”
The team of alien “bug-hunters” was made up of a tight core of marines who had fought through life-changing challenges side-by-side, plus four outsiders: Gorman, Ripley, junior executive Carter Burke, and AI pilot robot Lance Bishop.
Burke was there to protect property and the company’s financial interests. Bishop was a big question mark in terms of what he was capable of and where his loyalties were.
Of them all, Ripley was the ultimate outsider. She didn’t trust the robot, the company, or the marines. She was 86 in Earth years, though she spent about 6 decades of her life in suspended animation, so there are definitely some generational communication issues.
While the marines are gung-ho about the intergalactic bug-hunt, and Burke is primarily budget-oriented, Ripley has seen just a single Alien kill her entire crew and is terrified of a planet full of them. She’s just an unemployed warrant officer from a giant tugboat, motivated primarily by her nightmares.
When what’s left of the team finally does comes together, the project is too far gone to be salvaged. Bühlmann recommended, “Make sure you know the local situation and environment of each member of your team.”
Danger Signal 3: Assumptions erode clarity.
Too often, team members assume that others understood them, then are surprised or angry when things do go as planned. Due to the nature of the remote teams themselves, a great deal of coordination has to happen over chat/text/email. However, a great deal of information is lost in the absence of nonverbal hints that carry vital context for interpreting the true meaning of the message.
Bühlmann estimated that misunderstandings across teams become 5X as likely when we move away from face-to-face conversations. With asynchronous channels, we may have no opportunity to clarify or correct ourselves. Sometimes it can be impossible to be sure if the message was even read, much less understood.
Each channel has an optimal message complexity and it is up to you to establish that in your internal communication structure. A very rough rule of thumb that Bühlmann suggested was:
“You should never have to scroll in an email. If you have to scroll, it’s not clear enough. You would be better off with a phone call or meeting.”
With the team from Aliens, their communications starts to break down as soon as they split up. Interference from radiation destroys the voice quality of the calls on their headsets. They lack flexibility. When things start spinning out of control, Gorman falls back on protocol, even though the team can’t hear him over their own screams. Ripley has to step in and drive radical change, breaking down barriers and brings the team back together to regroup. The project was in bad shape, at that point, but without her quick thinking, things could have been much worse. As capable as Ripley was, half of a team just wasn't enough.
A Happier Ending
Communication has changed a great deal since this movie came out three decades ago, but the lessons it can teach on managing remote teams are timeless. This year, on the 30th anniversary of the Aliens LaserDisc that restored 17 minutes of space-bound silent terror, review the film with your remote team and maybe your team can come to the credits with a much happier ending.
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