Directi recently started offices in Bangalore and New Delhi. Both of these are meant to be development centers. Several of our related projects are being developed across these offices now. This document chronicles some advice from lessons we are learning in managing development projects across multiple remote offices.
A lot of the information osmosis in a single office environment takes place ad-hoc without any formal engagement / meetings (I call this the water-cooler effect). People chat with one another at the water-cooler, or during coffee breaks, or in the cafetaria or in the corridors etc. People socialize after work and invariably discuss work during social gatherings. People listen in to other people talking in the same room. This applies to vision, strategy, performance, goals, direction, culture, mentorship, processes, deviations, competition, industry etc. This information osmosis is taken for granted in a single office environment and is critical to the functioning of the organization.
Anywhere between 30-60% of a team's information percolation maybe taking place in this ad-hoc manner. Since this form of communication is unstructured, it is taken for granted and its existence is not palpable. Therefore its absence is not easily detected. Many a projects fail / get delayed due to lack of information percolation amongst geographically distributed teams and yet one can't put their finger on the reasons for failure, simply because unstructured and unplanned information flow, though critical, is taken for granted and is not directly visible.
Individuals split across geography, cannot partake in this auto-info-dispersal, resulting in lesser information dispersion through informal ad-hoc channels. Therefore organizations that have multiple offices must substitute the lack of informal ad-hoc channels by adding more structured meetings, dialogues, discussions to achieve the same level of information flow
This can be achieved by using various tools and implementing certain processes -
Twitter is by far one of the most simplest and yet the most powerful applications on the web today. Team members should leverage twitter or twitter like services (there are dozens of them) to post single line updates on their work on a continuous basis, multiple times during the day. I know many other project management tools that provide this functionality too (eg software from 37signals). Single line updates hardly take up any time. One can install desktop clients which make it quite easy to provide status updates, and they add considerable value in keeping all team members in sync, setting a pace and a maintaining a heartbeat within the team.
Directi has always been heavy on internal knowledge sharing. A few years ago, after a fair bit of investigation we switched our internal knowledge and document repository to a Wiki. Individual participation in creating a corporate corpus of knowledge has sky rocketed since then. We use wiki spaces for recording pretty much ALL information at Directi. On an average close to 1000 new pages of information are added every month across all our wiki spaces.
Many people are habituated to talk more than to write. What people fail to understand is information in a conversation is volatile. It serves an immediate purpose but does not result in any permanent record that can be referenced in the future. Additionally, talking is not always an option for geo-distributed offices, especially ones with non-overlapping timezones.
Individuals should make it a habit to write things down. Whether it is thoughts, ideas, notes, bookmarks, training material, requirements, impact analysis - make it a practice to write things down and then share them - through blogs, wikis, mailing lists - any relevant mediums. Every individual should make it a practice to make a written contribution in some way or another everyday.
Typically remote offices start out small. This means lesser individuals, lesser managers, and lesser experience with respect to your culture and processes. Some of the strategies that help in culture / process percolation are -
When starting a new office, it may help to try and seed each new office with a few existing individuals from the older one. If you can spare senior resources to do this, it is even better. You will find enough takers who are upto the challenge of setting up a new office in a new location and are willing to relocate for a near term period
Spend time with seniors and Managers at remote locations in order to acquaint them with our culture and processes. Ensure that they take initiative to spot any deviations and rectify them immediately.
Deviations from processes / culture are first spotted by individuals in the trenches rather than managers. It is therefore most crucial that every individual at every location knows that they are individually responsible for maintaining the organization's culture, environment, processes etc and that any deviation they spot is their responsibility to rectify. This may involve bringing the same to the notice of their manager or the management or any other agencies involved, even multiple times if required, until the deviation is fixed.