The importance of setting roles and expectations in distributed teams


Team members are more willing to trust and cooperate with each other when they know what to expect from each other, especially in distributed teams where personal contact is limited.  Each team member should understand his or her role and responsibilities, as well as those of his or her teammates.  This is especially important between team leads in a client/contractor relationship.

Our research shows that… Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood—when individuals feel that they can do a significant portion of their work independently… In addition, team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest time and energy in collaboration.” Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2007.

The “ambiguous path” is fostered by assigning projects, rather than a series of independent tasks.  In The Vertical Activity Stack, we describe how to apply this in managing software development projects.

Chris Lema in Building & Managing Virtual Teams put it this way: “Task management can’t be the linchpin of your management approach with remote teams.”  He stresses that leaders should clarify what’s expected of their team members, why they’re functioning in that particular role.  Then leaders can free their people to make the decisions they need to make. In other words, design a system for your team that encourages autonomy.

When meeting on this topic, one approach is to have the team list all critical decisions and activities that they anticipate or for which they are already accountable.  These are then discussed and agreement is reached on who has which role.  While this process can take place over the course of the team’s collaboration, determining roles early in the team’s life cycle helps accelerate productivity.

If internal team members have other responsibilities in addition to their work with the remote team, consider how competing priorities will be handled.  Competing priorities can derail projects, so it is essential to handle this issue up-front.

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