Clarity in Managing Distributed Teams

The Role of Clarity in Managing Distributed Teams

by | Distributed Teams, Knowledge Management

The New World of Work will be run by Distributed Teams… just like the world has always worked. 

We already discussed how one of the most important documents in Western civilization, the Magna Carta, was created by a distributed team… in the Middle Ages… who didn’t like each other… to prevent a civil war. 

Want to skip the articles? 

Download our free whitepaper “How a Distributed Team Built a Billion-Dollar Startup” for the full list of best and worst practices for managing distributed teams, and examples from a HealthTech unicorn.

Your Team Wants Purpose

McKinsey reports that 70% of people look to their jobs for a sense of purpose.

They also reported that 40% of people are considering leaving their jobs in the next 6 months. 

Your team wants purpose… and they’ll leave to find it. But with 85% of companies bragging about their mission statements, does this mean your team doesn’t care about your company’s goals? Do they not understand?

Or, maybe, you haven’t created clarity.

If You’re Confused Then Your Team Must Be

Why should any team members know what’s going on when 3 of 4 middle managers don’t know how their work connects to the company’s mission?

Congratulations if you’re one of the rare 25% who understand your company priorities. Skip to the next section, “How to Create Clarity”.

For everyone else… we’ve been there too. So have 75% of all managers. It’s a frustrating situation that takes great emotional intelligence to recognize. What to do?

Use our recommendations to drive a discussion with your own manager. If it’s a safe environment for open discussion, ask the question directly. If you’re uncomfortable asking so directly, frame the question as a way to reconfirm what you already know.

Start by creating your own clarity so that you can support your team. 

How to Provide Clarity Managing Distributed Teams

The conversations may be uncomfortable, but the How To is simple:

  1. Define what you want to achieve and why
  2. Outline what needs to be done and why
  3. Depending on experience levels, define how to do these things
  4. Encourage, celebrate, and integrate team feedback into the process

Let’s briefly explore each.

1. Define what you want to achieve and why

People mean well, but in the rush of work and life, we lose sight of the goal.

Create clarity with your manager and then share with your team. Outline what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it.

With a few exceptions, focus this step on the high-level goals. 

Knowing why unlocks creativity, guides people through tough decisions, and creates the sense of purpose that everyone wants.

Extelli logo

An example from Extelli: 

What? We want to make it easy for teams to turn local knowledge into team action

Why? So that anyone’s innovation can improve the world

2. Outline what needs to be done and why

Define specific milestones that are major portions of your goal. But, don’t tell your team exactly how to work. 

You have a smart team with unique experience. Showing them what needs to be done, connecting them with purpose, and letting them invent the best solution is where the magic happens.

Exceptions exist for situations involving legal requirements, safety, and healthcare. For most knowledge work, there is a lot of room for creativity.

Extelli logo

An example from Extelli: 

What? We need to make it as easy as possible to capture, organize, share, and learn from someone’s best practices

Why? So that our team always has an advantage

3. Sometimes, define how to do these things

We’ve talked about the exceptions where freedom of process isn’t ideal: legal, safety, healthcare, and a few others.

The other big exception is when a team member is inexperienced.

People new to the workforce complain about lack of feedback, accountability, and relationships. This makes team members guess. 

Experience can work against experienced hires in unfamiliar roles since they way they do things may differ from your needs.

Always remember that your process documentation probably isn’t as useful or relevant as it needs to be. 

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An example from Extelli: Creating “How To” guides is why we founded Extelli. The tool is built with the learner in mind, to make capturing and organizing guides smooth, and to make it as easy as possible to update guides.

4. Encourage, celebrate, and integrate team feedback into the process

Your team is probably made of a lot of smart, experienced people who want purpose from their work. That’s a manager’s dream. 

There’s no reason to ignore their questions, recommendations, and creative methods for achieving your shared goals.

This is called Bottom Up Innovation. Your team members are usually the front line with the product and the customers. It’s your job to integrate their feedback into the mission while keeping them aligned.

Extelli logo

An example from Extelli: As a product-led venture, we’re obsessed with what our customers tell us. Every week we interview at last 3 professionals about their needs and walk through the product with at least 3 customers.

Common Obstacles to Clarity

A 4-step list for providing clarity when managing distributed teams makes it sound easy but there are some big challenges, too. 

  1. Your leadership always changes the goals: We’ve all been blindsided by the C-Suite’s about-face. Something that was the #1, 2, and 3 priority yesterday is now a waste of time. Have a healthy and proactive conversation with your manager so that you can create clarity for yourself and then your team. 
  2. You don’t understand the goals: This is about the relationship between you and your manager. Your manager should be communicating with you and you should be asking questions until you understand. Use the recommendations in the previous section to help yourself help your team. 
  3. You don’t consistently communicate the goals: It’s been said that the day you’re tired of sharing the message is the day the message is just beginning to connect. Remember that your team, like you, has full lives, relationships, and priorities. It helps to use a consistent message every time. 
  4. You have the wrong team member: We saved this for last because it’s rarely the problem. But, bad hires happen. People’s lives change. Sometimes, a great member is pushed into a bad situation. Make sure you’re creating clarity at every level. Have candid conversations with the team member. Do what you can to help, quickly. Ultimately, remember that one bad team member can be contagious to an entire team. The cost of replacing them grows with time. 

When you know you’ve created clarity because your other team members are meeting or exceeding goals, you have confidence that you’ve identified the issue. 

Clarity and Distributed Teams

Providing clarity is your most important job. 

Without clarity, everything else is a waste of time. What’s hard to achieve in a co-location can seem impossible across offices, time zones, and cultures. But with distributed teams providing huge advantages to progressive companies, and most employees expecting hybrid roles, this is a skill any would-be leader must learn quickly. 

Today we’ve explored the importance of providing clarity on a team. What comes next?

Join the Conversation

Extelli lives in the world we’re discussing here… and we would love for you to join the conversation.

Check out our post about this topic on LinkedIn.