Face To Face Before Working Remotely

Camp Carson, Colorado. Colonel Wilfrid M. Nlunt, the commanding officer shakes hands with Colonel Denetrius Xenos, military attache of the Greek ambassador to the United States — a face-to-face meeting before working remotely.

Designing a new aircraft is a big deal. A very big deal. It's very involved, very expensive, and pretty risky. It takes the coordinated efforts of many different teams. When the Boeing Corporation began work on the new 777 airplane, it brought everyone on the project together for a kickoff meeting. There were thousands of people, all together, to get the project off on the right foot. Fortunately, Boeing owns many large aircraft hangers, so it could accommodate a meeting of that size.

...market or personnel conditions sometimes require that a project be geographically distributed. In such cases, OrganizationFollowsLocation is used to partition the work. But even when the work is partitioned in this manner, it is a challenge to actually implement the partitioning effectively. It may look good on paper, but the real people will run into a host of difficulties as they work it out.
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The pull of local organizations is so strong that it can overwhelm common architecture, market, and social aspects of a project.

Geographic distance makes communication harder. Different time zones create logistical difficulties for conversations. The cultural differences that often go hand-in-hand with long-distance cooperative work are sometimes staggering. The obvious problem is finding common times, but there are more subtle forces at work. One project was split between the United States and England. Conference calls took place in the morning in the U.S., which was late afternoon in England. Consequently, the U.S. people were fresh, but their colleagues in England were winding down, ready to hit the local pub. 

Difficulties in communication often weaken direct, effective communication paths, shunting communications to more indirect paths through the organization. Local leaders receive marching orders and pass them to their colleagues, but unintentionally add their own interpretation. Some may remember the children's game, "gossip" where a message is whispered from one player to another until it bears no resemblance to the original message. 

Although partitioning the project along geographic lines is necessary it has the side effect of isolating one location from another. They must communicate at defined interfaces (see StandardsLinkingLocations), and this results in people working on these interfaces without being able to get to know the person at the other end. People naturally tend not to work as well with those they don't know. It's hard to work with someone who is no more than a remote keyboard or a faceless voice on the phone. 


Begin a distributed project with a face-to-face meeting for everyone. This meeting should establish project unity, as well as give people a chance to get to know those they work with.

The meeting establishes unity by talking about project goals, intended markets, competitors, and the project architecture (important). (It isn't necessary that the architecture be nailed down yet; in fact, this can be a springboard for LockEmUpTogether.) 

The social aspects of a meeting are vitally important. Betsy Hanes Perry notes, "It is vital to leave at least half of the on-site time as UnscheduledTime. This allows group members to have impromptu conversations with the people they're closely coupled to. If you don't provide time for these conversations, you will find that bathroom breaks stretch on forever, and that the visitors leave frustrated." Steve Berczuk adds: "At Kodak we once had a group meeting of everyone in the division, from every location. The agenda was packed so tightly that we never really got a chance to meet each other." These social interactions are one of the reasons that videoconferences are no substitute for the face-to-face meeting. 

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Every organization needs a place to call "home". Hold the meeting in a place that is memorable because of its uniqueness, beauty, great food, or other memorable quality, so that the group can identify with that place and its good memories. Hold group activities at that place, beyond the drone of everyday business activities, that will make the place memorable. 

In a large project, the prospect of an initial face-to-face meeting may be daunting. But the Boeing company brought thousands of people together at the inception of the 777 project. Of course, they do own a few planes... 

The importance of this initial meeting should not be underestimated. For a distributed project, it may be the very best way to establish UnityOfPurpose. Furthermore, the social aspects of people getting to know each other go a long way toward resolving the tension between OrganizationFollowsLocation and StandardsLinkingLocations. It sets up an environment where you can do ShapingCirculationRealms successfully.

An initial meeting of everyone can easily be followed (often immediately) by a LockEmUpTogether architectural session. 
It may not stop with a single meeting. You may find that regular "all hands" meetings are worth the transportation expenses.