A key success factor for distributed teams is their ability to self­manage. Fostering team self­management is an essential skill for the team leader working in complex distributed environments. In the absence of self­management, even a good team will flounder.

Further, distributed teams amplify team dysfunctions: Individual status may be misunderstood, conflict over a decision may be masked, problems may go unresolved or details of emerging issues may be lost. It also works the other way: Team strengths can also be amplified by distributed teams—if some team members are quick to action, the access that distributed environments can provide to the work can allow them to take charge quickly. This can spread to slower team members.

With over a decade of working with cross­organizational and cross­geographical teams, I have found that “invitation” is a powerful yet little utilized (nor even discussed) technique to encourage team self­management. Self­management is not a nice­to­have, it is absolutely critical.

Self­-Management and the Daily Standup

Typically, I will invite team members to take on a task or responsibility that might fall on to a particular role (e.g., an agile team leader or ScrumMaster) but might be better managed by the entire team. Let me provide some steps with examples from one of the first responsibilities I feel a team should own: the daily standup.

If you are not familiar with the daily standup, it is usually a brief daily meeting where the team looks at its work over the last 24 hours or so, and:

  • compares that work with its short­term goals (typically tied to an iteration of one to three weeks)
  • identifies anything blocking its work
  • decides how to adjust its work to continue to meet the goals

In short, it’s an opportunity for a distributed team to manage its own work.

However, I see some distributed teams struggle with the daily standup. Communications challenges, cultural differences, time zone disparities and lack of familiarity with team members can make the standup an awkward, drawn­out daily ritual for the distributed team. Also, poorly executed, the standup can lead the team to slowly drift off course.

For some of my distributed teams, the daily standup can be as short as seven minutes and still effectively coordinate the team. If the team is working on some challenging goals with many options, these standups sometimes can run longer as members collaborate to resolve issues and reach their goals.

In these more challenging situations, a standup may occasionally go to 30 minutes, but the team is back on track after this longer standup.

How can this be so effective for a distributed team? Invitation is the key.

The Daily Standup: Invitation Guidelines for Success

The key to successful invitation is to take small steps. If you typically lead meetings for your team, you probably do not want to say, “It’s all yours now! Good luck with the standup!” Just handing off the meeting will likely result in a fumbling, wasteful exercise for team members with no prior experience facilitating and, even worse, it will be demoralizing for the team.

Instead, I start by giving team members partial responsibility for the meeting. Here are some examples of small steps:

1. Using an agenda. For the first small step, I introduce a standard agenda for the standup (e.g., a typical form is composed for everyone to answer a few questions to the rest of the team: What did I do since last standup? What’s in my way? What do I plan to do next? Is help needed?)

2. Choosing the next to speak. Next, I might suggest a working agreement that the person speaking chooses the next person. This can help each person be brief in their update knowing there are others that need to speak.

3. Picking the leader for the next meeting. Then, once this practice takes hold, I might suggest another small step. For instance, the first person who joins the online meeting next time is the one to start the meeting. You might think this would encourage some to call in late. If so, this becomes an opportunity to speak with those individuals one on one and find out if there are other dysfunctions that are causing them to be reluctant to be the first to start the meeting.

4. Dealing with questions. Here’s an example of another practice I introduce to the team—namely, to hold questions until the end. If a team member has questions about the work of another team member, or if one team member is struggling and wants to ask for help, I’ll suggest they share this briefly, but hold the details for the end of the standup. This way, they are aware that others need to provide updates, and perhaps realize that they may not need everyone on the team to resolve the issue. Without this practice, I’ve seen many daily standups devolve into instant trouble­shooting sessions, and the rest of the team may not share important updates.

Once this last practice takes hold, the meeting is now mostly run by the team. Then it may choose to adjust the format of the meeting so it becomes more effective in coordinating its work. At this point, invitation has become imbedded on the team.

Say Why You’re Doing This

Tell them why you are inviting them to take ownership of some of these responsibilities. For example, regarding the practice of one team member choosing the next, I explain that this helps everyone be aware of which team members are on the call or the online meeting, and to listen to what everyone has to say, and not to be solely focused on their own update. Possibly, this may not be true for everyone on the team, but I find more people on the team will pay attention to what is happening in the standup and in the team overall.

This practice combined with the “questions at the end between team members” also allows those team members with a broader view of the work and goals to get clarification on progress and suggest some re­alignment of the work.

Don’t Volunteer Others

Invitation does not mean you volunteer others to take on a responsibility. People have to be willing to take the step or they will not own it. If you volunteer someone and they stumble, then you get the responsibility back and any resulting problems caused by the fumble of a team member. If the entire team can own the task, I find this is less likely to happen.

Give Options

Let them know a few different ways they may take on the task, but let them know they should experiment to see what works best for their team. Again, with the practice of one team member calling the next, I might tell them how I’m tracking who has spoken in the standup but let them know there may be other ways of tracking. I may let the team try it for a few days and ask members how they were tracking who had spoken. You will usually find a few approaches that other team members can use. In this case, I’ve now invited the team to create some of its own process.

What If No One On The Team Accepts Your Invitation?

Do not force the invitation. If you are trying to hand responsibility to the team so you can manage other responsibilities, don’t try to push the responsibility onto the team. If it is not ready to own the responsibility, find something else to suggest to the team that might be an even smaller step or an alternative task. And you may even just wait if the team feels it is under some pressure.

Finally, I find that continually inviting the team to own parts of their own process helps build momentum. As the team takes more steps to greater responsibility, it tends to pick up new responsibilities faster as members become confident in what they can own. As they own more parts of their process, they can adjust faster and become more effective in their work—and even proud of what they own.

A previous version was published on ProjectManagement.com August 15, 2016 by Mark Kilby.