Management tips for a thriving team

Five questions for VM Brasseur and Deb Nicholson: How to overcome communication challenges and encourage collaborative work when managing globally distributed teams.

By Nikki McDonald, VM Brasseur and Deb Nicholson
August 23, 2017
Friendship Friendship (source: Broesis)

I recently asked VM (aka Vicky) Brasseur, independent open source strategy consultant, and Deb Nicholson, Director of Community Outreach at Open Invention Network, to discuss their management techniques for encouraging team collaboration and shared goals, and for helping new team members get quickly up to speed. VM and Deb are speaking at the O’Reilly Velocity Conference, taking place Oct. 1-4 in New York.

When managing a globally distributed team, what strategies do you use to ensure effective communication?

Nicholson: I lean heavily on regular check-ins to make sure issues are dealt with early—way before they become bigger problems. Make sure people know they have plenty of ways to bring problems or challenges to your attention.

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Brasseur: Don’t wait for people to come to you! Regular (weekly) check-ins are vital, but a lot of stuff can happen during a week. As team leader it’s your responsibility to make sure everyone has the opportunity to be heard. Often that means keeping a finger on the pulse of the team and reaching out to someone who may need to get something out of their system rather than waiting for it to stew until your next regular check-in.

In your experience, what common communications challenges do most teams face, and how can they surmount them?

Nicholson: People get weird about deadlines in a group setting. If they’re too nervous about missing them, then they might not reach out for help. If they’re not serious enough about them, then nothing gets done.

Brasseur: People tend to get very heads-down and focused. Also, a lot of people are very aware of the distractions that random pings bring into their coworkers’ lives and considerately don’t disturb them. Both of these characteristics can be great, but taken to extremes can cause problems through a lack of communication. Making sure folks have communication opportunities built into their workflow can help a lot.

How do you get a new employee quickly up-to-speed and feeling like an integral part of the team?

Brasseur: Preparation is key. Before they walk in the door, not only do you need to have prepared a curriculum and resources for them for the first few weeks of their tenure, but you also need to inform them about what to expect. This puts people at ease the moment they join the team. Folks are excited on the first day on the job, but they’re also scared and confused. Anything you can do to minimize the fear while maximizing the excitement will go a long way toward making them feel like they belong and are welcomed.

Nicholson: I like to make sure they have a thorough understanding of who everyone is, what they do and how decisions get made. I want to minimize the times that they feel like they’re stepping on toes or surfacing issues in the wrong place or with someone who can’t help.

What are some techniques you use to help teams set collective goals and get them working collaboratively?

Brasseur: Before the team can set collective goals, we need to receive guidance from the company. What are the company goals we are all pulling toward this quarter/year? How can the team make a positive difference there? That’s where the team dialogue should begin. However, it’s easy to get distracted by the New Shiny in this conversation, so it’s important that everyone remember that maintenance and cleanup also help move the company forward and are worthwhile components of any team goals.

Nicholson: Once goals are set, I keep linking the mundane, day-to-day tasks back to our larger objectives. People can lose motivation when they feel like their work isn’t part of something, especially when they’re down in the details of something that’s a little repetitive or not very high profile.

What sessions at Velocity NY are you looking forward to attending?

Brasseur: Guy Podjarny’s talk on serverless security probably should be required viewing. Security is important for everyday software, but it’s particularly vital to consider it with something as paradigm-shifting as serverless promises to be.

Nicholson: Liz Rice’s talk on container security looks like she’ll be covering some big picture stuff while providing some practical takeaways.

Post topics: Operations