Remote teams and rocket science

Aug 01 2012 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Many people act as if managing remote teams and trying to get projects off the ground when people aren't all together is a new concept. In fact it's been happening for a long time. A great example of that is celebrating its 43rd anniversary this year: man setting foot on the moon.

As Anna Faherty points out in this blog post at AccountingCPD, one of the huge innovations to come out of the US Space program had nothing to do with technology. It was the development of a way to manage information across teams that were scattered geographically as well as by discipline and function.

The idea of "matrix" organizations and how to run them is hardly a new one, but it's instructive to look at why NASA and its partners pulled it off when others didn't.

As Faherty (and a 1968 edition of Science Magazine) observes, one of the biggest innovations was the elimination of traditional, leader-driven project management techniques.

"NASA waved goodbye to their authoritarian top-down management approach, where a single project manager allocated resources and tasks to subordinate NASA staff. Instead, they said hello to a more consensual system designed to deliver energy, creativity and effective decision-making".

It's not hard to see how this could be more successful than in the Soviet Union, say, where top-down was literally the law of the land and the idea of unsupervised work was a non-starter. This doesn't mean it was easy, though.

Here are some of the challenges of working in a matrixed organization that continue to make us crazy today:

  • Conflicting priorities and fights for finite resources (both money and people)
  • No pre-determined conflict resolution system
  • Working in a vacuum, unaware of influences and factors that could impact everyone
  • Jealousy and "turf" protecting

The biggest factors in its success were a single vision ("By the end of this decade we will put a man on the moon" is pretty straightforward as mission statements go) and a highly motivated, brilliant work force.

When you realize that your iPhone has more computing capability than the space capsule that got to the moon and back, it should be clear that with the technology at hand, failure (while always an option), shouldn't be the default position or tolerated lightly just because working remotely or across functions is hard.

You can do it. And it's not rocket science. With the tools at your disposal it's a lot easier.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.