Best practices for establishing a communication framework for more effective cross-site and remote, cross-time zone, and cross-team collaboration.
Misalignment at any time during a diagnostic product development program can be devastating, in terms of project cost overruns and delayed time to market. Avoiding these pitfalls requires developing a shared vision of a successful project outcome, proactive risk management, leadership in decision making, and effective cross-team collaboration and communication practices.
In this article, we share key considerations for establishing a communication framework for effective cross-site and remote, cross-team and cross-time zone collaboration.
A well-defined cross-team collaboration and communication framework is the foundation for a successful IVD product development program. Project start-up activities should include defining preferred communication and interaction styles and methods across the team, as well as collaboratively developing a plan for how to communicate throughout the project.
The communication framework should:
Identify the lines of communication, the frequency of updates, cadence and type of meetings, responsibilities, ownership and decision makers.
Define what success looks like, including expectations, key performance indicators (KPIs), project milestones, deliverables and their interdependencies.
Align technical and commercial objectives across all teams (internal and external; technical and management).
Investing in this preparatory work and developing the framework together sets the tone for ongoing collaboration and pays dividends going forward, for example:
Knowing exactly which team members, key stakeholders and decision makers to consult on any aspect of the project enables disciplined program tracking and immediate course correction.
Gaining alignment upfront on the project details and how the teams will operate streamlines daily operations and helps ensure the success of the development program.
Defining the communication framework early on is key to delivering the best product development outcome; however, it is also important to have the flexibility to evolve and adapt the plan along the way.
In a recent project, when a number of technical problems occurred at the same time, a shift in daily management to focus exclusively on those issues led to quickly resolving them. It happened smoothly and collectively—the entire team recognized what needed to be done and responded accordingly.
Employ visual and daily management
Once the fundamental framework is in place, a combination of visual management and daily stand-ups should be employed to help maintain transparent communication and effective cross-team collaboration throughout the program. The combination provides both structure and flexibility to keep teams aligned. Stand-up meetings can be conducted virtually, and visual management boards can be either physical or virtual to accommodate remote team members.
Good visual and daily management is:
Team-based. Depending on the purpose, it can be a dedicated functional team or a cross-functional team with both internal and external stakeholders as required, working toward a common purpose and the ultimate vision of project and product success.
Visual. Anyone inside or outside the team can quickly assess if the team is “winning” or “losing” in terms of being on track with their key deliverables.
Held with a regular cadence. The frequency (daily, weekly or less often) is determined by whatever is necessary to understand the project team’s performance and allow proactive and collective corrective actions to be taken with urgency if the team is off track.
Focused. Ensuring process discipline aids in driving improvement around the most critical metrics to ensure project and product success.
Visual management for transparency
Visual management boards displaying all the key information about a project should be set-up at the place (or places) where the work is happening. If all team members are remote, the board should be created and shared utilizing digital tools and templates. For example, Excel can be used to create a visual management board and shared using Office 365 and Teams.
Visual management boards should include:
The master program schedule showing the entire program and swim lanes for the various disciplines, subsystems and/or functions. It should start with the product vision and highlight non-negotiable critical features, functionality and the project’s critical success factors.
A “run chart” capturing the key deliverables, major milestones, handoffs and inter-dependencies between major tasks.
An outline of the team organization and members.
Rolling 4-week schedules.
A risk management section for key technical- or program-level risks to allow for tracking progress against those risks.
Visual management is a powerful tool that plays a critical role and is appreciated by all team members. Transparency builds trust, which is essential for program success and team cohesiveness. A visual dashboard of key project metrics helps foster an open culture and is used in daily team meetings as well as weekly status reporting. The dashboard keeps everyone on the same page—building mutual team and stakeholder confidence as everyone can easily see if the project is on track to plan.
Furthermore, having cross-site teams replicate visual management boards at all sites (or virtually) helps all team members see how their activities fit into the overall project and where the key touchpoints are between their work and that of other team members.
Visual management is particularly crucial for remote teams. Clear communication and ensuring everyone is on the same page are essential to keeping the project moving.
Daily management for dynamic adjustments
Daily stand-ups are the vehicle for teams to dynamically adjust to the changes inherent in a project. Quick (approximately 15-minute) stand-up meetings of the team should be focused on:
Exceptions to the agreed plan
Providing a forum to highlight and adjust to new information
Addressing issues or obstacles affecting the schedule
Identifying any downstream impacts of changes
When a team member feels that they are out of the loop, it can be crippling to the individual and the program. With daily management, each team member is liberated to focus on their activities because they share the big picture. They know exactly what is expected of them, and they have confidence that they will be aware of, and will be included in discussions on, any major changes.
“Daily management and structured communication provide a loose framework that enables collaboration by giving team members the freedom to focus on what they do best, while providing a way to monitor the project status and adjust where needed.”
With trust and open communication, each individual is empowered to tackle any misalignments head-on as they occur. A best practice that reinforces transparency is to create an escalation path, allowing any team member or stakeholder to raise issues that are not being effectively addressed or may impact project success.
Streamline cross-team communications across locations
When team members are located in different locations, there are 4 key ways to improve the effectiveness of cross-team collaboration and communication:
Leverage video and audio capabilities. In long-distance, cross-site, and cross-cultural communications, seeing the person on the other end, especially when there is a language barrier, will help facilitate positive interactions. Using video is helpful in communicating non-verbal cues, facilitating closer relationships and allowing team members to stay more engaged and focused during meetings.
Take into account time zone considerations. Establish and maintain specific times for meetings and general availability, allowing for syncing communications across sites and time zones, and ensuring open channels and responsiveness.
Employ a visual management system with a master schedule. Especially important with cross-site and global programs, this system ensures that all teams stay aligned and accountable on their deliverables and in sync with the big picture every step of the way.
Make communication accessible and inclusive for all team members. Not all employees have easy access to a computer or email. Keep deskless workers engaged by leveraging platforms that utilize the tech they already have, like their phone. Text-based employee communication tools ensure all team members stay involved and connected.
The program manager – central to maintaining flexibility
The communication strategy provides an essential framework for successful program management. The Program Manager carries it forward, employing best practices and tools while monitoring the project’s progression and adjusting as needed. This includes:
Distilling project information daily into quick takeaways for the team members and key stakeholders—from top-level status reports to drill-down technical updates.
Actively listening and asking questions to stay attuned to the nuances of what stakeholders and/or internal project team members are saying, and what may be behind what they are not saying.
Remaining alert to proactively uncover and address potential issues or changes, and adapting the program as needed.
As mentioned, daily program management entails being flexible and able to communicate clearly and effectively at all times to stakeholders and team members.
A Case Story:
Solving a workflow challenge with clarity and confidence
During a recent product development program that involved cross-site and multiple engineering team complexities, it was necessary to coordinate testing and troubleshooting of multiple steps in a workflow. On top of it, there was a language barrier to overcome.
The Challenge — how to easily outline the issues and their statuses in a manner that would be clearly understood by the entire team and allow them to assess progress toward resolving issues.
The team came up with a fairly simple solution—the Confidence Chart. The chart covered every step of the workflow and used either red, green or yellow highlights to indicate how much confidence the team had in each step.
It seemed clear-cut, but this representation was truly a communication and collaboration game-changer that gave the team the clarity and assurance they needed to move the workflow forward.
It was such a success that the Confidence Chart has become a best practice for other projects. This easy dashboard requires minimal effort to maintain but has proven to be an invaluable workflow tracking tool for teams, especially cross-site teams.
Optimize communication and collaboration for program success
Communication and effective cross-team collaboration are the cornerstones of strategic program management. Aligning all parties on their operating parameters, individual milestones, and shared end-points upfront enables collective, cross-functional teamwork towards a specific target in a condensed timeframe. A flexible communication plan and effective daily visual management provide the clarity and transparency team members need to be most productive.
Gain commitment and alignment from stakeholders and leadership.
Determine the desired behaviors to drive and how the team will operate.
Define what constitutes program success.
Determine the key performance metrics.
Establish a communication and collaboration management strategy by determining meeting cadence, identifying stakeholders, and determining preferred communication/ management tools.
Set up the visual management at the place where the work is happening, or virtually, if needed.
Track progress against the critical metrics with regular cadence.
Take corrective action as soon as the team is off-track.
Adapt the communication and collaboration strategy, adjusting it to accommodate program changes and learnings.
With strong strategic program management, teams are able to adapt on-demand in response to unforeseen changes in commercial strategy or technical execution, or challenges along the way. All of this is essential to program success.
One final thought
Don’t let perfect get in the way of better. Do your due diligence with your communication and cross-team collaboration strategy preparation, then implement and adjust to accommodate program changes and learnings.
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Paul is the Senior Director of Hardware Engineering based in our San Diego office. He has over 15 years of experience in guiding product development teams to deliver market winning products, with a focus on resource management, people development and process improvement.