Default to “On Track”

5 minutes, 2 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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Almost anyone who has worked in a corporate environment is familiar with the litany of methods for communicating about progress and status. Status reports, burn-down charts, sync meetings, and weekly or even daily updates—they all presume that everyone needs to dedicate significant time updating everyone else. Remote work is an opportunity to re-evaluate this set of cultural assumptions. Establishing a set of conventions about collaboration can eliminate assumptions about status, and give a clear set of expectations for everyone in a distributed team.

The first convention for your team to consider is making its default state be “on track.” This means everyone assumes the team is able to accomplish its goals, giving individuals the autonomy to finish their tasks, release their products, or reach their sales milestones—unless someone explicitly says otherwise. This helps everyone reclaim time otherwise spent confirming whether they’re on track or not, and use it to focus on their work.

Defining this convention is an opportunity for you and your team to evaluate whether you understand your goals and each other’s role in achieving them. This depends on your context. A sales team, a customer-experience team, a people-operations team, and a product-engineering team will all have very different definitions for what being “on track” means to them.

importantChoosing to be “on track” doesn’t mean you are always implicitly meeting objectives. Instead, by choosing a default, you open yourselves to examining the obstacles in your path with increased awareness. Now that you know what your normal state should look like, you can define how much risk you will tolerate before considering a change of state.

For example, a customer experience team can agree that when a customer satisfaction metric dips by a few points, they’re no longer on track. This also means they have to monitor this state so they can understand if, when, and how it changes.

importantThis strategy also requires a foundation of psychological safety on teams in order for a generative culture to develop. That means individuals aren’t blamed when something goes wrong, and raising a status change to “off track” leads to supportive inquiry to help get back on track. By choosing to be on track by default, distributed teams build an environment where they can come together to solve the challenges that lie ahead.

When remote teams default to on track, collaboration and coordination are enhanced in a few ways. First, and most importantly, the uncertainty of whether or not objectives will be met is gone. Operating from the mindset that the team is on track reduces unnecessary team effort: there’s less of a need for status meetings, emails, and syncs. Second, the team becomes highly in tune with this state; when a change of state happens, it doesn’t go without notice. Being off track is a big deal—it’s communicated clearly, and the group must focus any available efforts to getting back on track, whether it’s by reprioritizing, cutting scope, moving dates, or creating any other solutions that may be available.

Pause for a moment and consider which collaborative practices your team has built around the necessity to report its state to others. How would your team members respond if you asked them what being “on track” means? What would happen if you stopped putting so much energy towards informing people of the state, and instead chose a default? Do you have enough trust in your team to do so?

A Note About Trust and Collaboration in Remote Teams

If I had to pick the one thing to get right about any collaborative effort, I would choose trust. Yes, trust. More than incentives, technology, roles, missions, or structures, it is trust that makes collaboration really work. There can be collaboration without it, but it won’t be very productive or sustainable in the long run.Larry Prusak, Senior Advisor and Faculty, Columbia University, author, Working Knowledge*

importantTrust is critical for healthy collaboration in remote teams. It’s also important for many other aspects of successful remote companies. For that reason, we’ve written an entire section on it, which we strongly recommend visiting in order to learn practical ideas for fostering trust in remote teams.

Establish a Predictable Cadence

An organization’s cadence is the rhythm created by defining periods of planning and periods of execution.

Developing a work cadence—one that is specific to a team, and that uses explicitly defined work practices—is important in enabling distributed teams to make work more predictable. When teams define a rhythm, the next beat is known, and everyone can play on-tempo.

What cadence you choose is highly dependent on the context of the team, and arriving at the right one will take some experimentation. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you choose what works for your company or team.

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