Managing distributed legal project teams is not, in my view, that different compared to managing legal project teams where everyone is located on one site.
Project managers and their distributed teams do rely more on technology to help with project communications, but I think the fundamental principles of developing and managing good project teams are the same, wherever project personnel are located.
Principles derived from experience
I have been a home-based project manager (and latterly a legal project management trainer and consultant) for just over twenty years. During that time, I have managed project teams made up of practising lawyers, professional support lawyers, legal I.T specialists and a range of other professionals working in the legal services sector.
As with my last blog post about working from home, I thought it might be useful to share some things which I have found work well for me when working as a remote project manager responsible for distributed legal project teams. I hope some of the points discussed will be considered helpful to you too.
For most of my career I have managed matrix teams created for the purpose of delivering specific projects, rather than having line management responsibility for a settled team.
Matrix teams are made up of people with differing skill sets, from different departments and / or organisations and reporting to different line managers.
Managing matrix teams can be challenging but, from a project delivery perspective, I prefer them. Matrix teams allow me to focus on project delivery rather than becoming too embroiled in day to day line management issues.
So how have I tried to approach remote project management, when members of the legal project delivery team are physically located away from me?
I have listed some key thoughts and working practices below for you to consider.
1. Supporting legal project teams
I have always started from the position that legal service professionals (and the legal services industry is full of professionals with differing skills and expertise) want to work as effectively as they can and to the best of their abilities. Its my job to help them do this.
The most obvious way of achieving this is to support the team and make sure they have the right access to information, tools and colleagues for them to do their work as best they can.
Once tasks have started I sometimes need to help clear away any obstacles which may prevent task completion or sometimes I may need to discuss and sign-off a change to a material aspect of the work in light of new information which has just come in. When this happens swift and clear communications with key stakeholders (especially clients) are essential.
When rapid change is required people value someone being visible, responsible and providing clarity about the change. That someone should be the project manager. Given the electronic communication capability most of us have at our disposal physical location should not be a barrier to being visible, responsible and providing clarity of purpose.
2. Lead with integrity
When difficulties arise or, even better, before difficulties arise, what you want as a project manager is for your team to feel confident enough in you that they will flag up any risks they can foresee or issues they are experiencing.
Acting with integrity is a huge asset when leading and managing teams. In my experience if team members see team leaders acting with integrity they tend reciprocate, which accelerates the development of a trusting team culture.
This point (as with practically all the others in this article) holds true regardless as to whether the project team is a distributed one or not.
However, being able to trust distributed team members just feels so much more valuable compared to teams which are located on one site. We can all relax a little and focus on the tasks at hand in the knowledge that our colleagues are also doing their bit.
Actions speak louder than words and most of the following actions help to create a trusting team culture by leading with integrity.
3. Involve the whole team in the planning process
Its really important to involve the whole team in the planning process. To achieve this its sometimes necessary to work around ‘dominant voice’ syndrome, where the most senior person around the table speaks the most and sometimes other people dare not speak at all.
When running face to face project planning meetings I like to run mini-workshops and exercises as a means of getting everyone involved. Well structured exercises and workshops are often the quickest way of generating lots of useful ideas. So for example I might run dot voting exercises, using post-it notes and flip-charts, when considering project risks.
Project Planning meetings also need to be held with distributed teams and, as with face to face meetings, ‘dominant voice’ syndrome needs to be avoided if possible.
Depending on the video-conferencing software you use, you may be able to achieve this by adapting techniques like dot voting to the virtual world.
For example Zoom has a whiteboard functionality which you can use to replicate post-it based dot voting exercises. Acting as meeting facilitator you can gather ideas from the team and write them down on the Zoom whiteboard. Meeting participants can then vote for their favourite idea using the Stamp functionality within the Annotate menu. Participants can do this anonymously too. Alternatively, you could simply ask teams to vote electronically (again anonymously) about certain ideas or potential course of action via the Zoom polling feature.
Clearly in order to do things like this you need know your meeting software well and be a little creative when using it.
The fact remains though, as when working with on-site teams, involving the distributed team in the planning process is often vital for project success.
4. Set expectations about different meeting types
When convening meetings sending out agenda’s beforehand, ideally containing time estimates for each topic to be discussed, is essential.
I also find it helps to set expectations about meetings when projects commence.
Hence I like to flag up the purpose of different meeting types, what is required of participants during each type of meeting and what outputs are expected from each meeting. This helps participants turn up in the right frame of mind and ready to contribute effectively.
5. Develop effective project messaging
For all projects, no matter how they are managed, project communications should be regular, consistent and meaningful.
The first step is to make sure your primary messaging works. Hence create a communication plan and stick to it.
Creating a one-page progress update report and sending it out to all key stakeholders (including team members) regularly during project execution should be easy enough to do.
However experience shows me its even easier to slip into crisis and fire-fighting mode on busy projects, one result of which is that the regular project update messaging slips. Letting the messaging slip is a mistake, especially when working with remote teams. Keep the status update reports flowing. Even if there is nothing much to say (and usually, there will be something) it’s reassuring for all key stakeholders to receive status updates regularly.
6. Short and focused team update meetings
Preparation for project status reports often become the basis for project team meetings, held either by phone or by video-conference (increasingly more of the latter).
With delivery team progress meetings, I sometimes adopt a (stand-up meeting) approach associated with Agile and go around each team member and ask: how are your progressing? Are you on track? Do you know of anything which is likely to stop you progressing with your tasks as planned?
The purpose of this is not to ‘name and shame’ people, but rather to make everyone in the delivery team aware of the most pressing issues and provide a heads-up about how they might be overcome. Hopefully, after setting expectations about the purpose and nature of status update meetings (see point 4 above) team members appreciate this and feel empowered to contribute openly.
7. Provide clarity about what is required of project team members
I have never tried to micro-manage. Frankly, when working with technical specialists this is usually not possible anyway. I do however set very clear delivery expectations. I have found the best way of doing this is to put tasks assigned to colleagues in perspective – ‘you need to do this by [time & date] according to [internal or external standards] because…’.
Sometimes I have received push-back from technical experts, especially those used to working autonomously. That’s OK, as I can understand why they are pushing back: they think I am trying to micro-manage. I’m not and I just try to explain this clearly to them.
Being a technical expert with a degree of autonomy and flexibility in the way they work is fine, but there comes a point when they need to acknowledge and accept that a task assigned to them needs to be done on time and in accordance with any relevant standards required.
Sometimes, as every experienced project manager knows, you just have to have a frank conversation with some team members to explain and hold the line about aspects of project delivery. This is where leading with integrity and developing a trusting team culture pays dividends.
8. Have a back-up person lined up for critical tasks if possible
Its good project practice to pencil in someone who can act as back-up for tasks, especially critical tasks.
Working with distributed teams means you can’t dash down an office corridor and suddenly press-gang a team member with a new task. Hence its particularly important to think about cover for critical tasks in advance. So,
a – identify critical tasks on the project plan which simply have to be done within a certain time
b – find someone else within the team or organisation who could do the task if required and
c – then speak to them and their line manager concerning availability.
Often some negotiation will be required with the line managers concerned, including a protocol or trigger mechanism for pulling in the reserve resource if required.
9. Praise people for the work they have done
Don’t forget to praise people for work they have done well.
We can all retreat into our respective bubbles at times, especially when working alone albeit as part of a distributed team. Justified praise helps morale and reminds people that they are valued members of the team.
If you are working in a matrix environment, also let the relevant line manager know that one of their staff members has performed well.
These things only take a minute or two by sending out a quick note of thanks by email and they are nice tasks to do in any event.
10. Use your thinking time well
I soon noticed after becoming a home-based project manager that I had more time to think when working at home. This is still the case and I try to use this time well – reviewing, planning and considering next steps.
Sometimes when working in an office it is easy to get so caught up with the ‘office adrenaline’ and literally run from meeting to meeting. Unsurprisingly, it can be quite difficult to set aside some quiet thinking time in this environment. I find this is less of a problem when working from home and so the quality of the thinking improves (that’s my contention anyway!).
Most of the points discussed above apply when running legal service projects regardless as to where team members are located – whether everyone is in the same office or located across the globe.
To be honest, I have never run a project completely virtually. Normally (pre Covid-19) it has always been possible to have at least some face to face meetings with team members, even if this has meant me doing the travelling to the office or client site.
Most commentators seem to agree that increased working from home, and therefore working as part of distributed legal project teams, is likely to remain a feature of the legal services landscape for quite some time.
It seems increasingly accepted too that, in the medium term, a return to pre-pandemic office life will be severely curtailed which means far fewer face to face meetings than most people have become accustomed to.
If so the modus operandi of legal project team working will change but, as noted at the beginning of this article, I think the fundamental principles of good project team management will endure.