Teleworkers and Celebrations


I first started teleworking 19 years ago, and have worked out of my home ever since, in all sorts of configurations:

  • the only remote worker on the team
  • a team that’s entirely distributed
  • teams mainly located in 2-3 sites
  • teams on 2 or 3 continents
  • solo projects.

So I’ve seen a lot of successful and a lot of not-so-good configurations for teleworkers.

One of the challenges of being a teleworker is the issue of celebrations and recognitions.  It’s hard to find something individualized that fits each team member, and it’s easy to forget the remote contingent when planning the “We Shipped It!” release celebration, even when the remote contingent played a strong role in the accomplishment.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking for ways to do celebrations and acknowledgements for remote employees so I could reward my own teams.  There are some pretty decent ideas out there, but most didn’t seem to resonate with me or my software developer peers. So I started assembling my own list.

Acknowledging  teleworkers’ contribution to a big accomplishment with a line or two in a mass “Thanks, folks!” email message while the local contingent goes on a harbor cruise  or out to dinner or to a movie to celebrate sends a strong message.  Especially when that happens during a workday while the teleworkers are expected to just keep mushing along, like any other normal workday except with fewer chats from on-site coworkers. Yes, I’ve experienced this, including attempts to keep the celebrations quiet because remotes don’t feel left out of something they don’t know about.  Pro Tip:  They know and they do.

Seriously, if you’re fond of your teleworkers, that’s probably not the message you want to be sending.

And seasonal parties, summer picnics, and weekly wine-fests?  Sometimes seems like “Working remotely is reward enough!” so no need to even think about including remote workers in these celebrations unless they just happen to be on-site.

I’ve been there and done that on the receiving end.  Or been told, “Go take two hours and do something at the same time we’re watching our movie.” When presented like this, it’s not the same, not at all, and I sure don’t feel rewarded because it’s an isolating experience with no connection to colleagues, not a bonding experience.

For major milestones and even small celebrations, swag gets handed out.  Small laptop accessories, stickers, little mementos, flags, the occasional T-shirt, whatever.  Freebies for the employees and free marketing/branding for the company.  Remotes often get overlooked for these little items, because they’re not there for the party favors and besides, shipping things to them is a hassle.  On one memorable trip to visit colleagues on a different continent, we carted 15 baseball caps from that summer’s group picnic to a remote site where we had 15 employees on the extended team.  One of the people I was traveling with came from the main site and they brought them in their luggage.  Was there a hat for me or for the other five who worked remotely in the US? No, of course not.

Seriously, the swag problem is a no-brainer.  If you have 25 employees, then you get swag for 25.  Not 20 who go to the party and those 5 other folks who you never see but are voices on the phone and people who do pull requests and code reviews.  When the celebration is done, put the swag in the box and mail it, along with a “We missed you!  Too bad you didn’t get to see Avery bowl – 7-10 split Every.Single.Frame!” (or whatever) note.

Of course, the first and best way to include remote folks in celebrations is to actually include them.  Bring the team together regularly after a big milestone and hold celebrations then, along with planning for the next steps.  That way everyone’s there for the experience and the team is automatically strengthened.

But don’t hold off celebrating things, big and small, because “we’ll be getting together in a month.”  To be meaningful, the celebration has to be timely. When far-flung folks can’t be there for a timely celebration, be it a holiday party (any holiday’s a good time to celebrate) or a milestone, the show still goes on because that connects the team. So yay, we shipped!  Celebrate it!  And tell everyone that we did celebrate because building a culture that celebrates accomplishments and shares success is a good thing.  Put up pictures on a company board.  And ask the remotes to join in with theirs!

And that, right there, is the actual goal:  celebrations build team closeness.  Check your actions against that as the motivator, asking yourself:  Knowing what I know of this remote worker (you do take time to just chat with each worker, nearby or far away, right?), how can I use this to connect rather than exclude?

First, don’t hide the celebration and pretend it doesn’t exist.  Treating it as a shameful secret heightens the feeling of separation and second-class citizenship, whether or not there’s some sort of alternate compensation. If there’s a party or celebration coming up, let the remote workers know, “Hey, we’re all going canoeing next week to celebrate our release.  Friday, 2-5pm”.  At least they’ll know where everyone is.

And if it makes the celebration organizer feel a bit guilty to have this as the full sum of the conversation, well, that says that the remote worker should get something too….  So at the least, follow it on with “You’ve worked hard on this too, and we’re sorry you won’t be able to be there.  So take a couple of hours off to go see a movie or a ballgame or kayak on the river on us next week and send a selfie!” or something like that. If you have a display of pictures from these celebrations (electronic or on a wall somewhere) , make sure it includes the remote workers’ celebrations too.

This basic, simple format meets all the goals. Your remote worker

  • Had her accomplishment recognized
  • Had an opportunity to celebrate in a way that left the team still supported
  • Had an event that aligned with her activities, interests, and schedule
  • Had her celebration recognized just like everyone else’s
  • Gave others another topic for informal chat to bring the team closer together as people, not just voices on the phone

All with just a slight adjustment on the negative scenario above – in some ways syntactic sugar.  But also, with the pictures, actionable.

Sometimes generic ideas “Go do what you want!” don’t quite cut it, so here are some specific other ideas as well:

  • Dinner on us!:  A gift certificate for the remote worker and her family, which acknowledges the impact of the milestone on not just the worker but also the family.
  • Movie/Concert/Sporting Event on us: Again, with tickets for two and/or family.
  • Holiday concert:  In lieu of the generic holiday party or summer barbecue, maybe there’s a local seasonal music performance (Spring in the Park! 4th of July Blues Festival, Summer Art Festival).
  • Surprise!  It’s always been a simple morale booster to get a surprise package with thoughtful recognitions – a mug and some hot cocoa or coffee or tea for a winter celebration, seasonal food, simple things, and the seasonal party swag.
  • Coffeeshop get togethers: If your team is going out to lunch or a meal, end it at a coffeeshop or other IM location and invite your remote workers to join in then from a local equivalent, or even their own kitchen or back yard.  You can time this so that it adapts to different timezones – morning coffee, afternoon drinks, evening decaf.  Connect via IM or voice chat.
  • Togetherness via Technology:   If your team does monthly informal birthday celebrations or other similar milestones, put them on Skype or Hangouts or your favorite IM program, and everybody sing to the birthday folks!  If an in-office holiday party with caroling, send the music and join in the songfest.  Halloween? Everyone dons a mask and takes a picture then arrange a “who’s who?” guessing game.  Arrange for cupcakes or candy apples to be delivered separately, ideally timed for the morning of the party.
  • Personalized greetings:  Put together a chart or certificate with a personal acknowledgement and send it out.  Doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive, just “Thanks for making a huge contribution to the coolest project ever!” with screenshots, and then write a note, “Dave, the graphics wouldn’t’ve been this awesome without your attention to detail – THANKS!”  Frame and send. Or for local employees, do the same thing, but drop them off after hours, so when they come in the next morning, they have a “We belong to the team!” moment.
  • New toys: If the team is going on an active outing (picnic at the beach or park), send a related toy (flying ring, beach ball, whatever) or gift certificate (local cinema, spa, bakery), again with a “Create your own special moment!” theme.
  • Magician of the month:  When someone does something amazing or unique, send them a superhero cape or a magic wand or something to celebrate.  Ask them to send a picture back in their favorite place, with them doing magic things!  Highlight that in the group’s communications channels (slack, photo board, etc.)

Some people really don’t like to celebrate, whether on site or remote. Personally, I don’t like to expense personal meals, even when traveling, so telling me, “Go buy yourself lunch and expense it” just isn’t going to happen.   That’s OK, don’t force it, but do acknowledge their contributions and make sure they get swag.

These ideas really take just a little bit of thought, and even less action.  But it takes paying attention to detailsto make sure your far-flung team goes from good to gelled to great.  Because the team that accomplishes great things together also celebrates them together.  It just wouldn’t feel right to ignore Alex who lives in Minot, even if the rest of us are in Tallahassee – we’re a team.

The converse is also true: If it feels fine to celebrate without acknowledging remotes’ contributions, you’re sending the message that they don’t really matter.  And they know it.


This. At least sometimes, and when you least expect it

This article about the crap that women put up with every day and don’t even make visible because it’s so normal really got to me. I don’t go looking for being treated differently because of my gender. In fact others have to point it out to me at times because I’m pretty thick about such things.  So it’s gotta be gobsmackingly obvious before I even notice.  No females in any position of authority obvious, and it took me a long time to notice even that….

But if I mention something egregious, whether or not related to being female to a male colleague, friend, or family member, it’s immediately doubted and questioned:  “Are you sure?  Are you being rational or overreacting?  You know you can be a little too strong when you express your opinions, so it’s your issue to deal with.  Just rise above it and don’t say anything.”  and the like.

I’m reminded of Sheryl Sandberg citing the number of women who’d been warned about being too “aggressive” (aka bitchy) in performance reviews, as opposed to the number of men at GHC 2015.  Ok, men don’t get called “bitchy.” and the term “bastard” is almost a term of endearment.  As in, “the bastard got away with another one” said half admiringly.

I am reminded of the old posit that a lone woman on the team frequently finds herself with a minimal selection of roles:

  • one of the guys
  • bitch
  • group/room mom
  • temptress
  • invisible

I’ve been fortunate that on many teams, I’ve been a team member or team lead.  Not one of the guys, but folks don’t first think of me as a female to whom they have to apologize for swearing (my delicate lady-ears fall off at the sound of four-letter words) and don’t feel obliged hold the doors for me either .  Just how I like it(first one to the door opens and holds.  Easy peasy).

But sometimes when I least expect it, the gender thing hits me again, sometimes even with my normally well-adjusted colleagues.  I look around and I’m the only female in the room and there are 17 men. Or I interrupt someone who has similar group social capital and I’m a bitch, though I’ve not managed to complete a sentence without interruption.  Celebrations and thank-yous fall to me by default because “you’re so good at it, and I have no people skills!”  Told, “Oh, that’s just his way of giving you a compliment!” Or stares, though as a telecommuter, that’s been less of a problem.  I get rescued in weird ways, with a “lemme do that for you….” kind of thing.

And it’s a shock and I’m reminded again that it’s a crazy, unbalanced world we’re in.

The thing every single person, male or female, wants most is to be listened to and understood.  You don’t have to agree, just don’t say, “you’re wrong” or “Men have it much worse.”  Because, y’know, women leave this field at a rate 45% higher than men because men are masochists and enjoy having it much worse, right?

I will go far out of my way and give up sleep to listen to someone, hear them out.  If you’re on my team, that’s important to me.  Because, as I said before, I work with people, and people are very human.

Hat tip to a tweet from Rands (go follow his blog and tweets if you don’t already).

Process and Structure aren’t four-letter words

Why do people hear the word “process” and see themselves caught in a flood of molasses, moving slowly toward an ever-stickier goal? Why do people hear the word “structure” and think they’re going to be chained in place and performing jerky, robotic movements?

I try to school myself not to say these words. Not because I don’t believe in them. But because “them’s fightin’ words” for many people.

The moment I try to systematize something as simple as talking to a user, or plan for a second on how to engage users, if I use the “p” word or the “s” word, ears shut off and people hear 20-page status reports and if-then cases that run to 400 pages of instructions on how to brush their teeth or something.

No No No No NO!

I’ve spent many, many years as a musician, and one thing that I’ve learned is the value of jamming and the value of rhythm.  And that’s all Process and Structure are – the bones of the framework for the jam session.

Process is the rhythm around which the awesome project is built.  Rhythm can be heavy or light, but it needs to be there or things go nowhere.

Structure is the rules for what key to be in, the overall chord transitions, the tradeoff points between melody lines.   Structure can be heavily mathematically precise or loose and flexible, but, like gravity, it needs to be there or the jam session is just chaotic noise and wannabe soloists playing over each other as they jockey for position and attention or even just something interesting to break the boredom of noisy inertia.

My history is about not supplying too much structure or process.  It’s centered around light weight and trust in my teammates and shared goals that mean that none of us need overspecification and 400 pages of what to do if the cap is on the toothpaste or the lights are out when you get to the sink – you’ll figure out the best way.  Besides, the 400 pages of instructions don’t cover how to suppress new-vocabulary-word expletive education for the nearby minion when you’ve dropped the tot-lok magnet on your toe while trying to get the toothpaste out of the kid-proofed drawer. Oops, make that 401 pages of instructions. And counting.

Simple process: Remember to brush your teeth on the way to bed as part of the regular routine.  You know how.

One line and done.

When someone proposes a big, over-controlled structure to make a decision, the response shouldn’t be to pick it apart, and debate the merits of squeezing toothpaste from the middle versus bottom for hours on end, then move to rolling versus flattening as the tube empties.   Way too easy to get lost in the details and a permanent state of low grade hostility (“I am not even trusted to know how much toothpaste to use!”)  that substitutes for progress.

Instead, it’s back to what is the goal, and why is someone proposing that the toothpaste be kept in a drawer, neither in the front nor the back, but right in the middle, just left of center.  What’s the requirement here?  Off the counter?  Find in the dark so no brushing teeth with antifungal cream? These rules and over-detailed process specifications hide the bones of a very short, light statement that treats everyone as competent and allows for different brushing techniques.

How to extract that nugget from the overdescribed rules?  Here’s the simple, lightweight framework that I use:

First, are the goals clear?  Everyone know which end of the field we’re aiming for and what counts as a score?  In this case, WHY matters as much as WHAT, because you’ll never think of every.single what.  So the more every person knows what winning is, and how we know when we’re there, the more each one can test any decisions against “is this getting us closer to done and won?”

Second, what are the boundaries and what happens when we hit them?  If we all trust each other, where are the fences and issues where we need more visibility?  Is it when we do integration?  When we add new dependencies?  When the interfaces change? When performance testing shows significant difference from expectations?  What do those boundaries look like and what actions do we take when we get there?  Send an email?  Run some tests?  Ask for another set of eyes?  Put it under source control?

Third, what are some typical and hard situations where we need a structure or framework?  The typical, easy cases, well those are used to build the bones of the structure.   What do those workflows look like among all the individuals?  What’s the goals of each of their steps?  Those are the ribs of the structure.

The really hard cases are the ones that we test it with.  Within the framework do we come up with a way to handle the hard cases, all the way down to ugly details at ground level?  Does everyone agree that that way is acceptable, that even if there might be more than one possible way to cope, the framework drives to an acceptable means to address the issue?  We’re not looking for the best way here, just good enough and that the framework makes it easier to do the right thing and harder to do the wrong thing.  Honestly, when a real difficult situation comes up, it most likely won’t be exactly like the ones under discussion here, so the real goal is to make sure that the structure encourages the right process and acceptable solutions for things as they’re encountered

Fourth, what kind of communication and checkpoints do we need?  Even with connection points and fences and actions, it’s still worth checking in now and then to make sure that the framework doesn’t need some tuning.  These are the fine points of process.  I’ve found that demonstrations and discussions centered around actual use cases are much better than theoretical discussions.  Decide whether you need synchronization (meetings) or async discussions.  Use these lightly, and multi-purpose – tune process and build team – people are MORE important than the individual artifacts, because they’re going to be making many decisions outside the discussion, so these sessions are really about building understanding.  The goal is to have openness and trust that everyone’s working toward the same purpose, so these checkpoints are about making that happen more directly.  And “do we need this?” is always one of the first questions that we need to ask.  And adjust as needed.

This gives people the room to be themselves.  It means that no one is playing retroactive lawmaker, coming up with 50 steps to address yesterday’s minor issue that won’t ever happen again.  It means the team guides itself to efficient execution because there’s room to do it right and guidance on what “do it right” means.  And when that breaks down, there’s a way to deal with that which doesn’t involve acrimony.

Done right, process is as liberating and freeing and energizing as the best jam sessions.  People cover for each other and transition seamlessly and breathlessly, as a single living organism moving toward the same goal.

User Experience Driven Development – An Overview

I attended a talk last week about some pretty cool big data analysis. Part of it included a demo about how the conclusions were drawn – again, very cool  Unfortunately, the speaker also included the same comment a couple of times, “Of course, we need to  improve the user interface.”  Lots of words and a few boxes and highlights in what looked like a pretty standardized template, like the MadLibs games we would play as kids asking for a noun and a verb and a color and an animal and a food, filling them in and reading aloud a story about “One day I went camping in the chandelier  and we roped a red hamster and fed it pickles.  If you were familiar with what was being asked, you could get an understandable answer out.  If not, much hilarity ensued.

Now, first and foremost, I am a software developer.  I do a bunch of things, and I once wrote a post on another blog about how important it is for me that the project management pieces fit together as nicely as the actual software architecture, so I have a foot in both worlds.  But really, from the top I take a technical view of things, and while I am a writer, my favorite medium for writing is a software language, and my favorite entry mechanism is a programming editor.

So my favorite thing to do is to play with data, to build connections between different subsystems, to massage the data and the sources to make connections.  However the output looks. “We can fix that later.”  Or I could’ve said, “Of course we need to improve the user interface.”  Because I’m an infrastructure kind of person.

At least I was.  And then we tried a different way and got some pretty amazing results. And now I’m a convert.

The project was a manageability project, focused on applying data warehouse techniques to performance and manageability data.  Correlating log records, performance data, configuration data, health check output, and workload information to build a tool to allow at-a-glance management across the entire software stack and standardized across various data manageability frameworks.

We knew we had lots of data, but needed to turn that data into information.  Not much different than any other sensor analytics or BI problem, actually.  But with lots of objects to manage in a big data world, lots of workloads, lots of processes, lots of entities, there was no shortage of things we could do with it.  The real answer, was…. what makes sense?

The answer that we came up with was that we wanted to provide the tools for the various big data administrators to tell their stories.  To compare performance from last week, last month, last quarter, last year.  To predict when they would run out of headroom in their clusters based on workloads.  To see when workloads were outliers.  To be able to tell why things failed last night, looking at the log records and health check results from their Hadoop distro.  To handle the “Why is my query running long?” question when an user calls in after an ad hoc query – was it a disk failure or a crazy query plan?

That is, we had to focus on our users and what experience we wanted them to have.  How to make sure the tool fit their needs like a perfectly balanced hammer or screwdriver or saw.

So we started talking and walking through some scenarios based on our own past experiences in this domain.  Not individual use cases (though we sometimes did get to that level), but more workload tasks and “playing” with the data, working through “If I were debugging a problem, where would I look.”

This is trickier than it sounds, because each person uses different  keys to hint at what’s going on when they’re on a fishing expedition to figure out what’s going on.  Dietrich Dörner calls these “supersignals” in one of my all-time favorite books, The Logic of Failure. Frankly, I read this book, devoured it, really, and it changed my life in lots of ways. Not just for the projects I was working on at the time (not the one I’m talking about here) but also on the team dynamics and ecosystem in which we operated.  I still refer to my marked-up dead-tree copy, as well as the version on my tablet.  Amazing book.  HIGHLY RECOMMENDED….

Supersignals are each individual user’s way of dealing with complexity, “the existence of many different independent variables in a system.”  As Dörner says,

Complexity is not an objective factor but a subjective on. Supersignals reduce complexity, collapsing a number of features into one.  Consequently, complexity must be understood in terms of a specific individual and his or her supply of supersignals.  We learn supersignals from experience, and our supply can differ greatly from another individual’s.  Therefore, there can be no objective measure of complexity.

This is why one person looks at the log records first, then workload data for a particular job, and then the memory usage to discover an obscure problem with data ingest, while another person looks at transaction rates and disk IO rates before discovering the same thing.  And a third person looks at CPU rates and disk space usage and takes much longer to arrive at the same conclusion – it’s the set of supersignals they’re use to.

For situations, like this, you simply cannot prescribe a single precise workflow for arriving at at explanation of a particular scenario when you’re looking forwards at an issue.  (The answer is generally pretty clear with hindsight though).  Instead, the UX goal is to make it easy for each person to access data his or her own way, in the order she prefers to be able to suss out the factors that help explain and resolve the current situation.  Want to monitor logs by time?  Sure, easy.  Watching workloads throughput over time and for a particular application?  Fine! How about health checks at the server level ?  No problem – watch those too!

But sniffing out places where the issues are causing your antenna to twitch is only one piece of the puzzle.  The other piece is giving the tools to make it easy for you to tell your story (or, for this project, the big data administrator to tell his or her story ) to other people – other administrators, or managers, or even CxOs wanting to know whether there’s a big change in IT budget needed to handle upcoming trends, or when to predict the next quarterly rollup.

The UX for explaining these things to others is just as important as the UX for finding issues.  Both of these sides of the tool have to fit naturally with the way you think, like a chisel in a sculptor’s hand.

So we took a UX-driven design strategy.  We started with “what data is available, what tests could we do, what issues do people often see here?”  But we didn’t stay at that point very long.  Instead we jumped quickly to something very different:  We asked why would I care about this data? In what scenarios does this feed my need for information, and how  do I use it there?  Translated to different units?  Grouped across all activity? Isolated into a discrete chunk? Over time? One-time?  Associated with similar workload I recognize because they look like this? And so on.  What is that experience like?” is the question that drove us . Once we’d worked through that, the what of the actual implementation details was trivial.

This approach resulted in sketches and wireframes and mockups and “how do you connect the data?” and “when and how do you move from this topic to that?”  and “what kinds of charting make sense for this?” and other similar questions for anyone we could find who had any interaction with the subject at hand.  That meant lots of  fast user review and lots of informal feedback. Short cycles and lots of prototyping with show and tell.  And lots and lots of discussion about what might and might not work, where everyone’s feedback was critical.

As the wireframes and mockups were solidified, UXDD led us next into demos and discussions that invited people in, talking about how problems that they see would manifest themselves in different ways, sometimes ambiguous, so “that hints that we should go look at the event log to see if there is anything from this component.”   A radically different style of demo and discussion than what I’d typically used in the past, because suddenly it was real and personal and shared ownership, rather than instructions and canned scenarios and something akin to a scripted presentation spiel.

We learned a really important lesson here, one that was picked up from another great book, Sketching User Experiences:  Getting the Design Right and the Right Design by Bill Buxton.  The biggest advance was that we needed to have sketches when getting user input.  Not final, fancy drawings and screens with color and fixed positioning and fonts that looked like we’d invested lots of time in them, but obvious sketches and rough outlines.  If things looked too done, too formal, we found that we didn’t get real feedback and contribution.  At best we got “OK, that would work” or critiques of color choices or maybe small screen layout hints.  People didn’t want to criticize something that they thought was too “done” for their input to matter.

So we intentionally made things look sketchy for these discussions – no shading or detailed data, obviously fake-data graphs.  And especially not anything that suggested we’d invested a lot of time and effort in something  We’d bring up a drawing tool  and just start drawing circles and arrows and numbers and lines together on the fly, from a basic “nothing invested here, just to get us started” template. We didn’t want people to hold back and with a sketch, it seemed that they had no problems suggesting changes.  Sketches converted our discussions into a shared development/discovery process, rather than “can you comment on this?”. This actually turned out to be a pretty critical breakthrough for getting great feedback to refine our various screens.

In effect, we refined our UX for having a UX design discussion based on the style and depth of feedback received.

Those discussions also drove the infrastructure design for additional data acquisition, frequency, retention knobs, etc.  We took the thinking and feedback and worked backwards to figure out what kinds of data we needed, for how long for both decision making and retention, what it might be combined with and on what dimensions (not just temporally, but also things like workflow and cluster, and business grouping).  Then we worked to make sure that those associations were easy and natural to do.  Like breathing.

While the final details for the user interface for types of data or new services or new connections were being tested and finalized, we were busy hardening the plumbing and data acquisition.  Then, with it all integrated together, we could again examine the UX and play with the data to figure out whether there were additional ways to extract information from data, and talk more with our users to see what they could do now that they couldn’t do before.

This integration phase was the key, because it was only then that we’d discover disconnects between human thinking and what the cluster and its component entities did, everything from timescales to data that needed more translation before being human-friendly and query-read.  But the flexible architecture we chose made that level of change pretty easy.

In this way, the product advanced in leaps and bounds, with a breathtakingly fast turnaround.  And it led to fast understanding and a sense of ownership from our user community too. In the space of a half hour or so, it was easy to take users from “what is this?” to “can I have this now because I need it to answer the questions my boss just asked me about our resource usage, even though you didn’t show that exact scenario…”

Had we followed the more traditional use case driven design, “A user wants to debug a problem with a disk,” well, the result would most likely have been much less flexible. Do A, then B, then C, which will prompt action D and if that doesn’t work, step E.  And displays that, once you know what they mean, you can make sense of them, kind of like detailed weather models with lots of interpretation required, rather than intuitive understanding. These kinds of things are great with hindsight and with high predictability.  But many real-world problems aren’t like that, and it’s the hard ones that challenge you.

The technology in the talk I attended last week was pretty darn cool, but that coolness was lost in a sea of words and numbers, so that the important information, the actual value from the system, wasn’t visible.  It was technology but without an immediately compelling story that invited people in.  After the talk, I could see how I might use it conceptually but I couldn’t detail it out and integrate it into my big data worldview.  Why?  Because the interface made it appear that my involvement was entirely an afterthought, rather than the purpose of the exercise..

If the technology had started with the UX, and their related emphasis on why and how before worrying about the what of the technology, I could’ve been sold….  And for startups in this space, that’s the real key to traction.

Thanks to Gunnar Tapper for reviewing an early draft of this post.

Teams – Breaking Up

This is a tricky post for me to write, but one that needs said. Or at least… one I need to write.  Sigh.

There’s a lot written out there about how to form teams.  How to get them to really gel and be high functioning.  How to streamline the environment so they keep rockin’ and rollin’, having fun and delivering cool stuff. People call those teams, “The best I’ve ever been on!” and “When I look back at my career sittin’ in the rocking chair on the porch at the Old Developers’ Home in the afternoon sun, that’s the one I’m gonna smile about most!”

I’ve been on those teams. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been on more than one of them, actually, with people I would drop everything to work with again.    When the whole team has their heads in the game and we’re demo’ing and debating at show-and-tell sessions, there is no better feeling in the world. I’ve generally been the person who – in addition to my architecture and implementation tasks – has been the one who focused on the gelling and rocking and rolling, giving high priority to what I call “the teaminess thing.” Someday I’ll write about that and add to the universe my grab bag of tricks to help facilitate this because every single product designer should know that exhilaration, as often as possible.

But that’s not this post.

This is about what happens when the great project with that great team ends, either because it comes to a close or due to an external event.  What if that ending is happy?  What if that ending is unhappy?  Abrupt?  Tapering?  How do you do that well?  What happens to the team psyche then?  What happens to the individual members?

And most importantly, can you recreate the magic?  Or find new magic?

I wish I had the answers, the definitive answers, the guaranteed-to-make-each-team-better-than-the-last answers.  If you have them, please share.  Seriously. Because I’ve had success and gone onto greater things.  And I’ve had some very challenging times too, where it’s clear that the next-thing project just isn’t going the way I want my career to go and it’s time to move.

Meanwhile, here’s my take.


When the wheels come off of a team that’s tightly knit and focusing hard on delivery, the first thing that hits is shock and denial.  Maybe there’s warning signs – funding evaporating, corporate rumors of layoffs and budget battles, even discussions of spinoffs and or acquihires.  Maybe one or two key people bolt due to uncertainty or their dream job.  At that point, a team lead’s and team members’ antennae are twitching wildly, maybe hearing lots of rumors about what’s coming next.  But nothing concrete and definitive yet, except noises to calm the troops, lest the race horses and plow horses that make up a fabulous team get spooked.

And behind the scenes, lots of discussion about what might happen and whether it’s good or bad for “the best project I’ve ever worked on.”  As Rands says, “In the absence of information, people make shit up. Worse, if they at all feel threatened they make shit up that amplifies their worst fears.”  Every single team member has those fears and expresses them in his or her own way, and in a distributed team, those fears aren’t as visible.  So lots of one on ones and group discussions and comparing notes and DMs and Skype sessions.  Leads to more Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.  And that FUD causes more disquiet, just as managers go quiet other than “Hang tight.”

Searching for a lifeline amidst the rumors becomes a roller coast ride for as much of the team as is in on the secret.  A good, gelled team is a great hire, and companies and groups live for getting 4-6 high performance developers who work well together, especially if they’ve demonstrated that they can deliver.  Meantime, politically sensitive team members are also putting up feelers individually and in pairs.

But the gelled team is a loyal team, and no one wants to break up that magic so there’s a lot of magical thinking and denial too.  In the choice of technology or team, a tight knit team tries to find ways to work together across this transition, and at the same time imagining that things can continue if only certain features are delivered.  Or even serious denial that anything is going on and the team turtles into its shell, ignoring the environment and just continuing as if nothing is wrong.  At the same time, sharing lots and lots of rumors, and people start to think “What’s next?” and put out feelers..

Your job as lead or manager here is simple:

  • Be open and honest about what you know and don’t know.  Don’t spread FUD but do listen to rumors and assess the team’s concerns. Go for as much reality as you can, for good and bad.  Make time to talk to everyone, from most senior to most junior.
  • Acknowledge that the team is its own life, its own culture, separate from the software that you’re working on.  Try to ascertain how loyal people are to that team versus technology.
  • Be open that there’s a very real possibility that not every team member will cross the transition as part of the team.  And so the team will change, no matter how tight things are.
  • As lead, your job is to protect the herd as best you can, looking out for them individually and as a team, advocating for the continuation where possible and working to help folks transition if needed.  Look for ways to have the team continue together and actively represent the team in that process.  Play fairly with external opportunities for the team and for internal new projects, but focus on protecting the team psyche because it’s much harder to get back to fully-gelled and running comfortably at high performance than it appears, so focus on maintaining the communication and energy that make that happen:  Keep up the rhythms and rituals and humor and happenings that make this team special.  Even if the jokes become bittersweet at times.

If things back down from this stage and the team can continue its project, great!  The dedication and loyalty shown here further binds the team, making it more resilient if the issue resurfaces.  If the rumors start getting more concrete and leaning towards change, the openness that the lead fosters helps the team and its individuals cope with the impending change.

I’ve been the team lead here, worrying about getting everything done, even as I see our project coming to a very ambiguous close.  It’s hard, it’s a crapshoot that you’re aiming for the right thing given that you have no crystal ball, and even when you talk with other team leaders, it’s not clear you’re doing the right thing.  Looking at yourself in the mirror is painful as you ask whether you’re doing the right thing when you don’t have all the information either, especially if you’re pushing folks to complete something before the world ends, and you don’t even know whether it ends with a whimper, a bang, or a wormhole to the next thing.


At the point where rumor starts to become reality, the theoretical transitions break the old bonds.  If you’re lucky, the old project wiggles through and keeps going, with many or all of the existing team members intact.  If not, then the change is much more radical.

Each of us comes with a default reaction, an initial setting of how we view the world.  That setting can be overridden by logic and reason over time, but the first reaction is purely fright-flight-or-fight, often based on a glass-half-empty vs glass-half-full life perspective.  And so, as the rumor to reality transition occurs, this lizard-brain reaction becomes the first thing that each individual has to deal with, both privately and publicly.

And as team lead, you have to modulate your team’s reactions, public and private, while dealing with your own initial reaction.

What goal is the team striving for?  The answer to that might seem to be cool technology, but in my experience, actually the answer for what a really high-performance team is working for most often is itself – the high performing team does not want to let itself down. That sense of “we face the world together and we’re doing this as a team and I want to live up to everyone else’s high standards” binds a truly gelled team more tightly than any management incentives could.  Maintain that, and even if the team does get broken up, the loyalties and strong feelings remain.  Lose that, and the team shatters like a bad teenager breakup. But maintaining the sense of “we did not let ourselves down” is incredibly hard in the face of a startup failure or project cancellation.

And further, everyone’s role is uncertain, which causes a lot of jitter across the whole team, those looking forward and those who had blinders.

If the rumor mill stage distracted the team, or if it focused down hard to deliver and position for an uncertain future, this phase mostly has the temporary effect of blowing the team out of the water.  Even if the team is continuing, so much is changing rapidly, that very little gets done that can be directly used for the future.  Too much uncertainty.

And often, too many goodbyes.  Team members are letting go and perhaps flying apart.  Maybe some or all will work together in a new spot, or have different, parallel roles.  But the future is so uncertain beyond the next moment that there’s nothing reliable to hang a hat on and derive comfort.

No matter how optimistic a person is, no matter how pessimistic, the actual transition point is a shock and a blow, complete with the full on cycle of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.   A good thing is changing, and while change can make things better, regression to the mean suggests that this high-performance team backs down the old performance scale at least for a while, if it even continues in some semblance.  And that’s hard for everyone to accept.  The gelled team looks to itself for standards, dontcha know.  But now, everything’s changing.

If the team mostly stays together, with only a small amount of dissolution, then the lead’s role (in fact everyone’s role) is to look to its collective health.

If the team is breaking up and everyone’s role is changing, then essentially the old project is so radically changed or dropped.  And that hits a team with strong ownership hard, even if the project or product was reasonably successful.  When the project is stopped prior to a successful conclusion, it’s even harder. Perhaps the company is dissolving because the concept didn’t get the traction that the believers in the company thought it should. Perhaps the project didn’t quite get everyone over the wall and into the next thing and there’s survivor guilt and mourning combined.  The product might be cancelled for technical reasons or political reasons, causing everyone on the team to question the project underpinnings.  The product might be facing a retirement itself, leaving others to wonder uncertainly about what’s next after a period of being a comfortable expert.

At the same time, the team’s leadership is faced with its own mixed emotions at the end of the project.  A gelled team finds that the team’s loyalties are as much to each other as to the product, and now both are being blown apart, and the leaders are forced to examine what led to this result.  Asking hard questions and focusing on preserving the high points and building them into next steps for everyone – hard, very hard.

No matter how successful or unsuccessful the project was, for a gelled team, this is the hardest phase.  Used to operating collectively, the team has its own life and its own style with each member’s contributions as essential as breathing for the whole. And now that’s ending.  Emotions are ragged, people react in surprising ways and each member faces the reality in a different ways.  This is where people say things you’d never expect.  Sometimes incredibly poignant and highly complimentary as people appreciate the beauty of a gelled team and their colleagues.  Sometimes incredibly rude or hurtful or angry as they lash out at the disappointment and unfairness.  Sometimes things that can’t be unsaid, which just causes the team further pain.  Why?  For some people, sharing that pain is the way to dissipate it, to release it to the environment.

Be kind to one another in this phase, and try to understand and even forgive the hurtfulness and anger.  I almost wrote “be unfailingly kind”, but really, that’s almost superhumanly hard.  Be kind to yourself as well as others.

The team lead needs to talk with everyone, one on one and as a group and to encourage others to connect. The team is people first, project second, and is at its most rawly human at this moment. It’s a tall order for the mourning leadership, but it’s time to:

  • Acknowledge what was:  This team was a rare thing, so understand what and why  and look for things to replicate,  And celebrate and remember, ideally with something tangible, even if it’s just a drink in the local watering hole or a virtual coffee break for a distributed team, or a memento, light-hearted or serious, that symbolizes the project for everyone who contributed.
  • Accept that things change: Change can be good or bad, but it’s a constant.  Right at this point, each change can be like scraping open a skinned knee, over and over again.  Quote Dory and “Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming”
  • Laugh and mourn and look ahead and backward as needed:   Communicate to the team and to each individual what s/he means to you and to the project.  Remember the high times.  Talk about what might’ve led to a different outcome and acknowledge that you did the best you could (or if you didn’t, come to terms with that – together).  Tell one another that it is hard and a roller coaster, and that this is one last hurdle to get through together.
  • Make sure that the connections are solid, even as the team flies apart:  Set up parties and summaries, write recommendations, share contact information, ponder who belongs in your “If I ever start that company, I’d call this person up” list and tell them that
  • Nudge that transition toward the future for each person, with openness and honesty and respect for each person:  If you see someone struggling, offer a hand.  If you’re struggling, speak out.  But turn toward “We’re here.  It’s now. What’s next?”  rather than trying to recreate a past that doesn’t exist any more.

Here’s where you notice people struggling deeply.  The more heavily invested in the project, the harder the transition. We’re all humans, even as we write kick-ass software.  If someone seems to be having trouble coping, no matter your role on the team, take a few minutes to talk with them.  Point them to additional resources in the community if it seems warranted.  Acknowledge the change and hang tight.  You’re still connected by common humanity, as well as a joyfully shared past. And perhaps a future too.

Even if the “now” part really, really sucks.


After the cataclysm and the shock of the team being blown apart comes the next thing.  And that’s a restart.  For many gelled teams, losing that sense of connection is harder than seeing the project dissolve.  Especially if the next thing that comes along isn’t as great as the previous team, or just takes a while to really get rolling.

It’s a truism that often highly gelled teams in larger environments are sometimes broken up in an effort to spread the magic.  If you take four great people who can complete each others’ project-sentences and propel each other toward the stars, and you spread them into four different teams, well, that’s four times the magic, right?


When you take a high-performing team and spread its members among multiple teams, either at the same company or in different companies, you’ve lost way more than you’ve gained, both short term and long.  A high-performance team feeds off itself to be much greater than each individual part.  When that team and those bonds are dissolved, individual and group productivity both go down again, way down.  The supports, the mutual pushing to excel and delight in discovering together as a team is gone.  Even if individually, each of the players was and is a star and everyone is local and bulding on each other, the collective magic is now dissipated.

It can be rebuilt over time.  But “over time” is not “immediate.” As the team members start over in new gigs, singly or in small groups, it’s just… different.  There’s new stuff to learn, different people to learn from and connect with and bond.  But it’s now people speaking a slightly (or majorly) different language, with different culture and different jokes and different speech and habits, and they aren’t yet your peeps the way the old team was.  Of course the high performance team members can usually pick these up, and if they’re stylistically compatible (a big if), they can grow.  But meanwhile, there’s more of that mourning and feeling like you’re a stranger in a strange land.  And when the change was incredibly abrupt or forced, well, that’s when you ponder a career change going away from something rather than to something.   Because the new gig isn’t your home yet, and the old home was so fantastically awesome and probably not replaceable.

But the key here is to force looking forward and connecting.  The new team might be better than the old team or it might not.  But you never know until you commit because the only way to create a high-performing team is to get to the point where everyone on the team is fully committed..  As a wise person once said, “Commitment is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”  That’s your very first step in the next phase of your journey – allowing yourself to go all-in at the next gig.  When you do that, you know you’re ready to fully begin.  Even if the tentative beginnings come in the form of two steps forward and one step back.

If you’re a team lead on a team with a new member coming off a project like this, your job is to:

  • Expect some fits and starts, even if the new member is pro enough to not say anything.  Every time a new member is added to the team, there’s a period of adjustment and rebalancing.  It’s harder here because the new member is dealing with what’s missing, as well as learning the new ropes and culture and style, which could be high-performing but very different.
  • Give the new team members something to commit to.  Not something vague and nebulous, but concrete and forward looking.  And a team of people to do it with.  It’s hardest when the members of the blown up team are isolated on singleton projects or an isolated thread within a team project. At this point,  connections are the most important thing for folks coming off a great team. Having lost his/her old connections and identity/role, it’s important to show that new ones are possible.
  • Support and experiment to adapt culture in both directions.  As team lead, it’s your job to experiment to get the best out of your team, sustainably.  Try new ideas, encouraging open honesty from all parties.  While the new member(s) can’t go back, they can bring the best of the previous project’s style with them as stuff to experiment with.  Encourage positive, open honesty about what works and doesn’t, but give everything a fare shake.
  • Balance innovation with respect for existing team members:  A team member coming off a high-functioning team project, whether voluntarily or not, should not be set up as the “fix” for team issues.  That’s threatening to the new team, both hierarchically and to each team individual, as well as a huge hurdle of heroism for the new member.  Been there, done that, and between the pain of the layoff that blew up my old team and the resulting “I’m still here and they aren’t” survivor guilt, and the challenges of the team that I was dropped into, it was was hard and did not go well at all.  I moved on pretty quickly from that one.  Which leads to
  • Accept that the new team member might move on more quickly than other new members.  Why?  Because s/he knows what a gelled team is like, and is trying to reproduce that.  Or because s/he knows that the new gig was a landing place to figure out the real next step. Or cultural incompatibility.  Or because of team chemistry.  Or just needing time to breath if the switch was sudden and unexpected. But don’t let this linger – encourage commitment (ideally to your project) rather than twisting.  Twisting just drags everyone down.

And if you’re the team member that is in the new gig, you need to:

  • Be prepared to roll with differences.  They speak a different language here.  Learn it and learn the culture before you speak too deeply and publicly of a glorious past.  Especially if you do so in contrast to the present.
  • Look before you jump in with suggestions, cultural changes, etc.  Build the connections that enable you to do this without criticism, and without sounding like a One True Believer in The Old Ways ™.    Because this team was already working well for itself – no need to change that immediately when you’re the only one used to the new ways..
  • Decide quickly if this isn’t the right gig for you.  Coming off a project rebound is hard, so if the first position doesn’t work out, analyze it quickly and look for a second place to go.  But be fair to your current teammates by being honest with them about the process.
  • Be kind to yourself. This is really hard, and frankly, if it was that great of a team, you’re probably still feeling a bit of mourning.

Moving on

Had dinner with an old colleague from the most recent iteration of “best project I ever worked on” last week, while I was down at my company’s headquarters for some new work responsibilities.  The latest project ended abruptly when some of us were spun out to work on a project that I hadn’t previously worked on; unfortunately the awesome project we were working on didn’t get spun out with us.  Still, a  few of us from that team were included in the spinoff because we can adapt and deliver fast as utility infielders. So I’ve been floating, putting together stuff for training, setting up IT procedures, etc. for a startup.  Learning a lot, but the old team, the best I ever worked on, was split in multiple directions and the ones who are in the spin out aren’t working together in the same way as before.

It was great to see him, to hear what was up at the previous company, and to get his impressions of what was happening there and for his career after the changes.  We reminisced about old times and the fun that we had, even as folks on the team disagreed (sometimes vehemently) and then boom! we were off doing something.  As he put it, “We worked long and hard, but we knew why we did it, we wanted it to happen and be great, and we had fun doing it.”  No better testament to a great project than that – makes my day!  I offered to help in his career planning and made some suggestions of things he could explore, and talked briefly about the new company.

But in the end, it was clear to both of us that it’s time to look ahead, not back.  Yes, that was a great project, one of those “highlight of your career” moments.  But it’s done and no going back.  Take the lessons and skills and apply them to new situations, because the future is ahead of us, not behind.

Next time I’m in town, I’ll look him up and I hope we can have dinner and we can talk about what’s new as well as what was.  And I look forward to hearing that it’s great things for both of us that we’ve moved on to other things, things which can be even better because we can apply the lessons from the previous project and build on those to do something even greater.  And who knows, we might work together in the future, since he’s one of the guys on my short list of people I’d call if I start a startup.  Meanwhile, best of luck to him and to every member of that awesomely amazing team, and if there’s anything I can do to help or just to listen, let me know.

Being a Parent, Being a Software Developer

Someone once asked me, what are your experiences as a software developer and a parent? How do you balance the two? Especially as a senior woman who took a bit of time off to be a parent and then came back – how does that work? This was in the context of having a brand new baby coming. I’m far from that, and that gives me perspective that I didn’t have then. In hopes of helping someone else, here’s one person’s perspective…

First off, I will be very honest and say that I would not do it differently, I don’t think, but it’s not always been an easy road, and I’ve not always been comfortable with my choice. First the timeline:

  • Worked for 10 years after graduating from college
  • First kid born in my early 30s
  • Telecommuted starting when oldest was 6MO (we moved for spouse’s new job), while she was cared for by nanny
  •  Left workforce for a while after 2nd kid (1st one didn’t get me out of the workforce, but the 2nd did)
  • 3 kids total over 5 years
  • Returned about 6 years after I left to a group very close to the group I had previously worked with (diff. company because of acquisition)

Been working for 10 years since, doing all kinds of different things, both technical career path and leadership roles.

Choices and Consequences

If you choose this path, I recommend going into it with your eyes open and aware of the consequences (it’s not necessarily the right path nor necessarily the wrong path, just choices have consequences…).

My salary is lower than it would have been, had I not taken those 6 years off. My salary was slightly higher than my husband’s before I had kids. After and after taking time off…… not so much. That, plus cumulative years of not saving for retirement definitely have a financial impact. I am fortunate in that I am still married to my husband (26+ years now) and he is also in this business so making a good salary. But many marriages don’t work out, and sometimes even those that do have risky parts and accidents and that financial hit is harder on the one who took time off (who is more likely female). Some people never recover from this hit.

I would be higher on my career path than I am, had I not taken those years off. My company went through an acquisition and the levels were reset. The jobcode was the same, but new levels had been added while I was gone, and my old level was now 2 levels higher (if that makes sense…). Now I’m at a flatter startup, which doesn’t have such stratified levels, but the consequence still carries forward.  Caveat Emptor  again.

With one child, frankly, I was a better parent when I was working. For me, leaving the workforce and focusing on parenting with two and then three kids was both fun and not mentally challenging enough. I have raised 3 STEM oriented daughters, and have modeled for them that women can be excited and technically challenged and still be female and “Mom-orial”. When I was home and past the crazy, sleep-deprived days of early baby-hood, I had to challenge myself to keep my brain active. We walked and studied physics by dropping things and I was the tech-oriented Girl Scout leader and volunteered in my kids’ elementary school math classes and… And my kids went to lots of different activities and weekly to the zoo and the science museum and on woods-walks and other expeditions because frankly, for me, I went NUTS when at home all day every day. And so it was great and great fun. Are my kids better for it? I don’t know… It was definitely a luxury rather than a requirement.

The previous one is the key – the best expert on each of us is ourselves, and you might discover things you didn’t realize about your by choosing to continue to work. Or choosing to stay home. Or choosing a blend.

Plan for a return transition

American society at least tends to encourage women to take a career hit to raise children, and once women are out and immersed in that world, it can be hard to imagine a transition back. Between the negative self talk re family (how could I do all the things I do with my kids *and* a job?? What would be the impact on my kids? On my family? On my *life*? ) and the macho interview environment where taking a break stands out like a sore thumb and the interview stories are filled with gotcha deep algorithm questions and “what have you done on git lately?” (not all true, but that’s what it can feel like), returning can seem like a postponable, daunting task. And it is, if a person lets it be. What would you do if you were not afraid? comes to mind here.

I was able to return to the workforce easily because my old workgroup was staffing up a new project and people still remembered me from 6 years before. Someone looking for a recruiting bonus called up and asked if I wanted to come back. I was thinking I’d look for a job in another year or two (once youngest was in school), but was flexible enough to jump on this one. I sent a resume back saying “part time” and “telecommute” and they bit immediately. As a telecommuter, I still had a nanny (my kids got out more than I did), but was at home. My older daughters were very proud, another benefit of being a working parent.

My transition back to the workforce was also hastened because my older sister passed away about 4 weeks before my old colleague called up. Her death served as a reminder that life is short and one doesn’t always have the luxury of “I’ll do that in a few years when an opportunity comes around again…” Do what you love while you can, and for me, I love both parenting and writing software and am able to do both. Mostly.

The keys to making that transition possible were my ability to be flexible, the fact that I still networked and people remembered me, and I kept up with the fields I’m in, doing lots of reading, etc. Very important if you do decide to take a break.

Bring your all and be ready to flex

And that’s the most important thing for me – it was “take a break”, not “leave the industry.” Attitude matters. I love writing software, the act of creating something to match the system in my mind. I love doing it with an awesome team, and I love organizing that team so that we can do cool stuff and everyone’s head is in the game.  When that works, there’s no better feeling in the world.   When it doesn’t, well, it’s good to have a family to lean back on, to have crazy dance marathons in the kitchen and to go for walks.

And I love, love, love being the parent of 3 teenage daughters as well, and seeing the people that they are becoming. And modeling for them that it’s OK to be female and technical *and* a parent.  Even in the really hard moments when life is horribly out of balance.

Babies are small, very time-intensive, and as they discover the world, very delightful. In some ways, it really is a new love affair with life itself (but with much more sleep deprivation), and it’s hard to balance that with work when everything is attuned to exploring the world with new eyes and protecting this new life. As our children grow, it is amazingly cool to see how they and the world interact, and modern parenting comes with an endless supply of activities and engagements that can leave parents *and* children breathless with busyness and awash in the mundane. And I know of some people who revel in this, and some people who use it as a protective barrier to justify not taking risks and some people who balance that with their own adult interests. Only you know what the right choice is for you and it’s OK to discover that you do or don’t prefer a particular or binary choice, or that the right thing to do changes over time.

Leadership and vulnerability and distributed teams

This piece by Lars Dalgaard from the New York Times reminds me of how important it is to be human, including vulnerabilities,

Very easy to say. Much harder to do, because frankly, it takes time. Time to listen to every person on the team, to what each one says and what they don’t say. Time to build trust and safety and respect and comfort.

It’s even harder when a team is geographically diverse, and “getting together” means chat windows and skype sessions and hangouts.  These interactions happen intentionally – a deadline, a design discussion, a product review.  When they’re done, there’s not the same opportunity for a casual chat on the way to the coffee room or by the water cooler.  Instead, everyone hangs up and parachutes from a sense of being part of virtual group and a whole into the parallel universe of different time zones (Dinner!  Bed!  Kids off to school!) with jarring abruptness.  Where’s the sense of belonging in that?

So, how to get started turning a group of remote people into a team?  Here are a few very simple ways I use:

  1. Take a few minutes to talk at the beginning of the gathering:  Doesn’t need to be the formal checkin/checkout protocol, just “What’s new with you?”  or “Heard any good work-safe jokes lately?” or the ever popular, “How’s the weather in Omaha?  Fall colors yet?”  If you were in a meeting room, you’d say hello and chat for a minute ’til the meeting got started.  Don’t lose that.  Connect the spaces even if the geography is far apart.
  2. Encourage all voices:  Haven’t heard from someone in a while?  Ask them what they’re thinking.  If it seems like they’re distracted or not engaged, check in – “Are we missing anything?”  Make sure you poll everyone when making a decision, and change the ordering each time you do.  If there’s someone whose influence is such that others follow her, poll her later in the sequence.  Regular meeting?  Change the order you talk to people or the standing agenda so people pay attention.
  3. Express vulnerability and willingness to learn yourself. Instead of answering, express “I don’t know – can you explain further?” and “I’m not getting it” and “Geez, I have a cold today and just can’t think straight, so I’m not coming up with ideas.  Help me out here…”  Need to leave at 3pm for a family obligation?  Block it on your calendar and do it.
  4. Be yourself and encourage others to be themselves.  Feeling impatient or like a topic is done and gone?  Express that either directly or via private message to the person organizing the gathering. Feeling exuberant or excited by a discussion?  People can’t see that, so say it.
  5. Listen closely.  Not just to what’s said, but also what’s not said.  How are ideas expressed?  Tentatively?  Directly?  Each person on the team, whether collocated with someone or in their own little world,  wants one thing first and foremost:  to be heard and acknowledged and to contribute. Make that happen for everyone present and it doesn’t matter what else goes on – the gathering is a success and the team is closer.
  6. Encourage building on ideas – they start out fragile but get stronger as everyone takes ownership.    Lots of platitudes about this, but in the end it comes down to taking each idea and testing it 2 ways:  (1) If we *had* to use this idea, what would make it great and how great could it be?, and (2) How can we use this idea and other ideas too so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?  Explicitly ask those questions for each idea

Seems like a lot of talk, eh?  Yes it is, but in my experience, the payoff is huge:  A team that’s willing to argue and laugh and agree and disagree and then deliver, coming from a place where we all know each other as people, not just voices on the phone.  And most important, we trust that everyone on the team has the same goal because we’re comfortable enough to bring it up if we’re not sure that we’re all aligned.