Melissa Perri (Produx Labs) on how to run a distributed consultancy firm

Here at Miro, we’re always curious about the ways leading companies from around the world approach product development and the challenges they face while organizing their work on distributed teams. We recently caught up with Melissa Perri, the New York-based founder and CEO of Produx Labs and author of the forthcoming book Escaping The Build Trap. Melissa shared what it’s like to run a distributed consultancy firm and work with clients all over the world. Here are her tips for managing remote teams and clients.

At Produx Labs, we often work remotely with our clients. We’re de facto product teams, but we work in New York and they work elsewhere. A lot of this work requires constant collaboration and communication, so I spend a lot of time thinking about how best to work together as product teams.

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The most successful distributed teams know how to communicate

Working with a remote team is all about prioritizing communication. As a product manager, one of the most successful teams I’ve worked on was a remote team at a company called OpenSky.  I was based in New York, and the rest of the team was based in Tennessee. It was hard at first to establish a working relationship. I flew down to Tennessee quite a few times to get to know everyone in person. But eventually, our team worked so seamlessly together from afar that we may as well have been seated right next to each other. We’d chat all day, sending links and images back and forth on less-than-ideal tools (this was 10 years ago, and Slack hadn’t been invented yet). We  would just jump on Skype whenever we needed to chat. We established an “open-phone” policy, just like an open-door policy if we were sitting in the same office.

After OpenSky, I went on to work with a company that wasn’t remote at all. Everybody sat side by side in the same office, which I assumed would only lead to an even stronger team dynamic. But somehow, I collaborated with my developers and the people around me less than I had with my remote team. I realized the connection with my last team had been so strong because we had actively prioritized it.

At Produx Labs, I work with companies all over the world. My core team and I are based in New York, but we have a bunch of collaborators who work with us remotely. So we try to replicate that OpenSky dynamic, emphasizing communication, scheduled check-ins, and constant sharing of artifacts and documents.

I find that teams struggling with being remote don’t prioritize communication with each other.  My team knows that I don’t care if they are sitting 9 to 5 in our office, coming in at 10, working from home, or working from London. As long as they communicate with the team, stay in touch throughout the day, and are available to collaborate, I’m happy.

Managing day-to-day work with a distributed team

Our team uses Slack and Zoom for almost everything. I value a proactive communicator, someone who keeps in touch throughout the day.  So if someone pings me to ask a question, or to let me know that they are moving on to the next step in a project, I assume that they are committed to staying in contact and on the same page as the rest of the team.

I find remote teams get into trouble when they don’t hear from someone for two weeks, and it is unclear on what they are working on. This is especially applicable within the nature of our work, as we collaborate with both full-time employees and subcontractors. Subcontractors have a lot of work going on and are always at risk of getting pulled in other directions. So we always encourage weekly or biweekly check-ins. Even if it’s just a quick message saying, “Hey, this is where I’m at, this is what my plans are, I’m going to keep working on this for the rest of the day,” that’s enough to signal a strong communication loop.

Luckily, a lot of the people I work with come from an Agile background, so checking in, doing retrospectives, it’s all in our nature. We like to keep a running shared document for each engagement, especially when we are working with remote subcontractors, that gets updated almost daily. This approach supports centralized communication, but also provides a great way to look back on how the project went once it is completed.  Whenever we wrap up, we like to reference this document to see what worked well and how we can improve our process for the next engagement.

Working with remote clients

We offer a wide range of services to our clients, from product strategy or product organization assessment, to roadmapping help, interim product team advising, hiring Chief Product Officers, or coaching executives.  A lot of this work requires a deep understanding of the client’s current state in order to confidently assess where they should be going next, but this isn’t always easy when your client is based in another continent.  So we always begin with an initial kick-off call to familiarize ourselves with the organization’s landscape, and we all align on the desired outcomes of the engagement. Then, we’ll spend several days with the organization on-site to gather data and get a stronger sense of what is standing in the way of their goals and vision.  Once we feel confident that we can start making strides towards the outcome, we work internally, but continue a weekly cadence of check-ins and updates with their key team members so that they are always clear and comfortable with our progress. When we are ready, we formally present our findings and suggestions to their stakeholders, and provide the necessary support to implement these suggestions.

We want our clients to feel empowered about their businesses and products long after our engagement is over, so we create dashboards for company leaders to reference and work from.  For example, we use Tableau to pull together key product and business metrics so they can determine whether or not their product strategy is on track and if their teams need help. Arming them with the ability to make informed decisions using real data is one of the most important things we do as a company.

Autonomy is essential—but just the right amount

Empowering teams to be autonomous is one of our core tenets, and autonomy is achievable in any organization if the right communication and tools are in place. Leaders get stuck when they don’t have the right information or tools to keep in touch with their teams.  So they start micromanaging, and can only feel at ease when they can physically see work is being done in front of them. I’ve never believed the office is the only place that people can get their best work done.

I see the same misguided weight being put on things like OKRs in order for leaders to try and maintain control. Their OKRs will read something like “launch this product by the end of the day,” rather than “increase our top line revenue by 20%.” Product managers are there to sift through information and help figure out, along with their developers and designers, what direction a company should be moving in to meet its higher-level goals. But the key to this is  to keep space above every level, where people can feel autonomous without constant monitoring. If the space is too big, everybody gets really nervous and doesn’t know where to go. There’s too much gray area. But if it’s too small, teams feel suffocated and can’t follow through with their initiatives. There is a perfect shade of gray, though, that allows teams to be creative and their leaders to feel confident and comfortable with what is happening one level below.

Product managers are there to help figure out, along with their developers and designers, what direction a company should be moving in to meet its higher-level goals.

 Melissa Perri

Creating mentoring and growth opportunities on remote teams

You can absolutely grow as a remote employee, you just have to be honest with the person who is coaching you, and you have to make time for it. When we coach, we make sure that the person we are working with has weekly check-ins with their manager, that they are talking constantly, and that they’re honest about what’s going on. I like to ask my team, “What do you need from me to be successful? What am I not giving you? Tell me, escalate it quickly, because I want to fix it.” I think it’s about having really open and honest conversations about where you are now and what you need to improve. It’s just about working together as much as you can, being really open about where you want to go, and being clear on what you need to get there.

It’s just about working together as much as you can, being really open about where you want to go and what you need to get there.

 Melissa Perri

ABOUT THE speaker

Melissa Perri

is the founder and CEO of Produx Labs as well as an international speaker, consultant, and product management coach. Melissa launched her school, Product Institute, in 2016. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Escaping The Build Trap, that helps companies implement a successful Product Management practices to ensure they build products of real value. For more updates, you can follow Melissa on Twitter or read her blog.

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