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Why Lazy Project Managers Run Great Remote Teams

Being lazy is not a bad thing, just ask Peter Taylor, the Lazy Project Manager. That's a description he wears proudly. He's the author of the book "The Lazy Project Manager: How to be Twice as Productive and Still Leave the Office Early" and the blog of the same name. He's one of my favorite writers on how to handle projects without getting overwhelmed.

Of course, project management started a long time ago, but working remotely has brought new challenges. I recently asked him whether you can still take a "lazy" approach to PM when handling remote teams is so much work.

What's different about running project teams remotely?
Long ago, Bruce Tuckman defined the stages of teams as "storming, forming and norming" (and now mourning as teams disband quickly and move on to other projects and other teams). Virtual teams get past the "forming" stage pretty quickly, as teams always have. Resources are identified and roles defined.

It starts getting tricky just after that. The "storming" phase is important in preparing the team for working together, resolving character imbalances, sorting out territorial issues and generally getting everyone to know everyone else. Now without a face-t- face session (or two ... or three) this will be very challenging, and so you have to compensate somehow. During this time decisions don't come easily within the group, and team members will no doubt vie for position as they attempt to establish themselves in relation to other team members. Clarity of purpose increases, but plenty of uncertainties will persist. Typically cliques and factions form, and there may be power struggles. The team needs to be focused on its goals to avoid becoming distracted by relationships and emotional issues. Compromises may well be required to enable real progress.

So what? How does this change the role of the manager?
In a virtual situation a lot of these issues can be hidden, so as the leader you almost have to force the matter. It's also very easy to jump to a wrong conclusion about a fellow team member, apply stereotypical attributes, and miss tensions hidden by a reduced communication process and lack of physical visibility as to how people are behaving.

If at all possible, make the investment in a "hothouse" face to face meeting. By this I mean an intensive, almost 24/7 5-day team experience. Use an external facilitator to drive the storming process harder and faster to a conclusion. Make the business case that this is an investment, no matter how significant, that will pay off.

If this is financially impossible, then you may just have to accept that the "storming" phase will be longer than usual.

What is your role once things are up and running: the time period that should require less of your time as manager?
Once you hit "norming," the challenges decrease to a degree, but you have to be able to maintain the team spirit. At this time there should be agreement and consensus. Roles and responsibilities should be clear and accepted with the larger decisions made by group agreement. And you as the leader should facilitate and enable. Commitment and unity should be strong. This is also a time when the team may engage in fun and social activities.

So what do you do when you can't just head off to the pub for a beer or two?
One technique I have used is the "It's Friday" email exchange. On a Friday, it is encouraged that all those funnies, Dilbert cartoons, YouTube videos and so on are shared amongst the team. Be careful though -â€" err on the side of caution of what is funny to whom; culture, sex and beliefs can vary a huge amount in a team.

Another technique is to explore what you don't know about the team members. Each week on the team calls, get one or two to share hobbies or something unusual that they do outside of work hours Making new connections with common hobbies help bond a team.

And finally, rotate the team calls. Don't take the lead each time yourself, hand it over to a team member to take 20 minutes or so to share what they have personally been doing in the past week.

And then on to "performing" -- when the team is more strategically aware and knows clearly why it is doing through a shared vision. It is able to stand on its own feet with no interference or participation from the leader. There is a focus on over-achieving goals, and the team makes most of the decisions against criteria agreed with the leader. Make it to this stage and the challenges of remote working will have pretty much disappeared or the team will resolve the issues themselves and you will wonder what all the fuss was at the beginning.

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