In a recent HBR article , the authors wrote about research they had conducted over a year on the relationships between how dispersed teams were and the speed at which their projects either succeeded or failed. While dispersed teams appeared to be more efficient than co-located teams when it came to completing successful projects, co-located teams were quicker at abandoning those projects which were doomed to fail.
The first finding seems logical.
Dispersed teams often have greater diversity than co-located ones which could lead to more creativity and innovation if that diversity is effectively leveraged. Dispersed teams usually also face more constraints with their ways of working which might encourage them to be more disciplined in their work efforts.
The second finding is more surprising. The authors provide three explanations for this:
- There are often higher coordination costs for identifying, communicating and addressing major project challenges when teams are dispersed. Team members at one location might feel that their work is proceeding well but be unaware of major concerns from other sites.
- Dispersed teams tend to invest more effort up front in discovery or planning activities to enable them to work autonomously. However, this might increase the likelihood of their being unwilling to write off sunk-costs.
- They might place greater faith in senior leadership’s ability to overcome significant issues with the project.
The authors do provide some suggestions on how to make dispersed teams more efficient at weeding out the walking dead:
- Improving the project intake process to be better at filtering out those projects which should never have been initiated
- Increasing the opportunities for dispersed teams to communicate between their different locations to ensure they have a complete picture of what is going on
- Increased management oversight
While I’m in favor of the first two suggestions, there is always a risk with the third of micro-management or overly heavy governance.
But what if the main reason that team members are unwilling to speak up proactively about impending failure is because they are afraid to do so?
Remember that the third explanation for the difference was the belief in senior leaders being able to resolve any major project issues. But just as we might have excessive faith in those leaders we don’t see regularly, we might also be afraid to share our concerns of project failure with them.
And this brings us back to psychological safety.
When leaders haven’t created a culture of safety then project issues are prone to fester longer. It is relatively easier for leaders to make staff who are co-located with them feel comfortable about speaking up, but it takes greater effort for them to establish and sustain such safety with dispersed team members.
But when we consider the financial and human costs of failing slowly, isn’t the incremental effort to create safety worth it?
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