We all understand that talent, especially software talent, is spread world-wide. We all also have a basic understanding that the virtual work form required to harness this global talent is different from face to face work -- even with all our fancy technologies and increased experience at working "together apart." Successful virtual work requires explicit consideration of the technology tools, the organizational practices, and the people involved -- T-O-P Management. For Stuart DeSpain of Microsoft, the intertwining is very explicit in the form of: One Team, Many Places.

Stuart is the Principal Program Manager Lead in the Excel for the Mac group at Microsoft. Suzanne Kirkpatrick had referred me to Stuart as "one of the pioneers" when I asked her if she knew of people who practiced TOP Management. I knew Suzanne was right the minute I got on the call with Stuart. Stuart, like most of the people I talk to who practice TOP Management, has a strong dose of systems savvy. He is able to see all three categories of his technology, organization, and people options, and then can envision how these options could be intertwined for a strong result. But where did he get this system savvy and how did he come to weave the pieces together in practice? I posed the following to Stuart: “It would help if you could tell me a story or relate to me an experience you have had in which you learned an important lesson about technology, organizations, and people. Something where you learned something that you wouldn’t find in a book.” His initial response was that he didn't think he'd approached the issues systematically. But as he got into his example -- the expansion of the Excel for the Mac group -- I could see both an explicitness and intentionality around how he thought about the group's overall design and practice:
[Virtual work is] part of our DNA: For fifteen years the Mac business unit has spanned two locations: Redmond [Microsoft HQ in Washington state] and Silicon Valley [California]. This was not so much a plan, it's just how it happened. So we’ve built up a lot of comfort with the phone and video conferencing. That [background] helped us think about building additional capacity abroad…. We decided that one of the big centers of talent was Beijing. Great graduates, eager people…. our challenge was to set it up right. I’ve observed that when engineering campuses aren’t located across the street from each other that there’s a desire to treat the [away] campuses as vendors: give them specific tasks, throw them over the wall… “call us if there is an emergency, otherwise, call us when it’s done.” I didn’t think that a “vendor” approach would work well for us. We really couldn’t just box up Excel as it's an integral part of a system; it's part of Office. We wanted to do it right. Initially leaders sat down as a group and set out clear a vision statement as collective: One Team, Many Places. We use this phrase all the time: presentations, meetings… hammering that that is what we are. Not Excel in Redmond and Excel in Beijing. An Excel team across many campuses.
Catchy phrase and the key to effective distributed development success. The phrase acknowledges the role of people in TOP Management. As people we focus on people who are close to us. We have to work, be intentional, to focus on people who are afar. But Stuart and the Excel team didn't only think about the social psychology of the situation. They also carefully considered the role of technology tools and organizational practice.
We worked hard on how to translate that high level goal into very specific unifying actions. At every stage -- One Team Many Places. How are we going to deliver that no matter the situation? Travel, teleconferences, other tools... We settled on the idea of summits. The idea is to treat it like a trade show. Every six months one side or other would fly -- spend a week, like a family reunion, catching up. If there were presentations that one side or other didn't get to see, we'd show them. We're walking into our 4th summit next week. Even more impactful are the one on one or small group interactions. These lead me to see a lot of benefit to sharing a meal or drink or social experience. Summits included a lot of activity around tech problems, but evening social experiences bond the team so they think of themselves as a single tribe. Our pulse for summits is about every six months. But in a team located in the same hallway you'd see people once a week or daily....
To manage the time between the summits they focus on individual travel from both sides and high interaction teleconferencing. Even the teleconferencing is intentional, not just casual. The team is well aware of how one side could dominate the conversation and that there may be compromises due to bandwidth issues, configuration, the need to use the screen to show software features rather than faces, etc. There can be a heavy premium to using video, but they think it's worth it and design practices to manage the complexity:
We made it clear that it's worth 15 minutes of set up if that's what it takes. We have a note taker who scribes the meeting and projects the notes as subtitling. In addition we have an instant messaging conduit -- if someone can't interrupt another way, they can use that.
The note taking and additional instant messaging conduit are their "fall backs." The team is well aware of the limitations of video conferencing and actively manages the process to get keep the best "pulse" for the team no matter what the communication mode. They actively weave together each of the technology, organization, and people dimensions of their work and interaction. I asked Stuart how he knew that they needed to focus on One Team, Many Places. Basically, where did he get this systems savvy? A critical experience seems to be the key, as it was for Earl Lawrence, Eugene Lee, and Suzanne Kirkpatrick. Ten years ago he'd worked on a team where his group was in the role of being the smaller, afar portion of a virtual project. The "center of decision" was not at his site. Objectives would be set, then change, then change again. "We were miserable. We were disconnected from our own fate." Hindsight has been valuable. On reflection Stuart says he came to understand that the partner company was great, but didn't yet understand how to work with remote campuses. What his local group thought was an issue of lack of communication given their remote location really had more to do with the youth of the partner firm. They were still in a growth mode that meant objectives would change:
It had nothing to do with geography, just their being a new company. If we'd just talked about it, if we'd gone out for drinks during a visit and just talked about the mission. It we'd had the single conversation it would have changed the dynamic.
So, Stuart says he is always aware of that experience and is sensitive to the fact that the larger portion of the team will always be perceived as "where the good stuff happens," unless there is intentional effort to be One Team, Many Places.