Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to Do Remote Work the Right Way: 13 Dos and Don'ts

In your day so far, how many people have you interacted with who weren’t in the same room as you?  The ease of communication has increased the amount of remote workers and distributed teams. This trend will continue, despite recent moves made by BestBuy and Yahoo to curb remote work.

This is the situation for the team behind PMRobot and part of the inspiration for our online project management app. Our team members work from their homes or in co-working spaces across 3 time zones in Canada. These are some of the things that we’ve learned about making it work.

The Dos:

1. DO use collaborative tools that promote simplicity of interaction

Google Drive (formerly Docs) is our favorite tool for creating and sharing documents. The ability to collaboratively edit and comment, as well as store any kind of file, in seemingly unlimited amounts are hugely useful.

Skype is ideal when higher bandwidth communications are needed. If you need a longer phone call, you might as well go for a Skype conversation - using video adds an extra layer of context.

Google Hangouts is emerging as another very useful tool, which is easy to get into if you’re already using Google Apps, and doesn't require a desktop client. In the past, I’ve have had some trouble with the connection, so if you’re attending an important meeting with a client or other external contact, I'd recommend using Skype.

For wireframing, we use Moqups, which at this point is completely free and very user-friendly, but doesn't yet support collaboration. For collaborative wireframing, Balsamiq is a great option.

A tool for managing your projects is also helpful, much better than a random assortment of spreadsheets and to-do lists. If you’re a digital agency or software consulting firm, PMRobot has been powering remote teams for three years now.

2. DO meet in person at the beginning of the project

In truth, communicating complex ideas and building relationships is more difficult over distances. Meeting in person beforehand is important for developing trust and alignment of goals.

You have a lot to accomplish during a project kickoff meeting: Trust is established, goals and expectations are hammered out. Even if you’re not following a waterfall model, a common understanding and preliminary specifications need to be determined at the beginning.

3. DO ask for estimated deadlines, and follow-up if they aren't met

When you’re not co-located, you can’t simply turn to the desk beside you and ask about a piece of work. Similar to a kickoff meeting, individual tasks or stories require more communication before work begins. Asking the person doing the work to choose his or her deadline not only sets expectations, but empowers him or her to set their own bar and succeed on his or her own terms.

If the problem turns out to be more work than expected, it might not be worth doing. Getting an estimated deadline from the person doing the work ensures they’re working toward a finite goal. Following up after the deadline reinforces accountability, provides a check-in, just in case things aren’t going as planned.

4. DO use a chat tool 

Email communication has its strengths, but it’s also time consuming and has a slow feedback loop. A simple chat tool removes a lot of the friction to initiating a discussion and has the advantage over email of a faster response time.

Anything works, Hipchat, Google talk, AIM, Skype or even mIRC. Just make sure you play by the common chat rules of conduct. Respect your colleagues’ “busy” status so they can dive deeply into a problem without interruption, but also ensure you make yourself “available” when you’re checking and sending emails or other less involved tasks.

5. DO set up a phone call if the email conversation is getting emotional

An over reliance on email drags things out and causes tension and writing an email probably takes longer than you think. A few 20-minute emails add up to a few hours pretty quickly - eating up your time and the recipient's! Emotional emails can take even longer to write, and then more time still spent picking up after the fallout later on.

As soon as you realize that you’re about to send an emotionally charged email, get into your chat tool and set up a call instead.

6. DO Answer questions within a MAXIMUM of 24 hours

Unanswered questions lead to stalled tasks. Stalled tasks lead workers to start new tasks. Further stalled tasks compound, creating a pileup of unfinished business. Having too much work in progress is distracting and demoralizing. Be prompt in your responses to keep open loops from accumulating.

Knowing how important this promptness is, we built a question-asking feature into PMRobot, it gently follows up by email, and allows a response to be sent back via email.

7. DO Have additional work spec'd and queued up

Inevitably, some tasks are bound to be stalled due to unavoidable circumstances. Have other work ready to go for when that happens. If you're using an agile project management methodology like Scrum or Kanban,  you must be disciplined about having your tickets, or stories, planned and ready to go in advance.

The Don’ts:

8. DON'T email file attachments

This common practice is without a doubt THE fastest way to create mass confusion and ensure that you spend a lot of time digging through your inbox searching for version-control salvation.

This is why we use Google Drive to make changes and add comments within a single, shared document - it’s simple. Dealing with files appended with “-r2”, “-rev3” or “-jm-edit4” is frustrating and it’s rare that anyone actually goes back to the old files for reference.

Keep everyone on the same page, literally, by avoiding unnecessary version-control issues with email attachments.

9. DON'T interrupt people unless absolutely necessary

The biggest advantage of working remotely is the ability to work uninterrupted and make your own choices about when to focus on the work and when to delve into communication with your team members.

If there is something you need to get clarity on and need higher bandwidth voice communication for, use a chat tool to set up a time to talk on the phone. This has the additional benefit of letting people prepare, instead of having to suddenly switch gears for an unexpected call.

When in doubt, practice a little role reversal in your head. Would YOU want to be interrupted for this specific topic or could it wait?

10. DON'T bring in more people than necessary on conference calls

Meetings are rampant and massively time consuming. Play to the strengths of being distributed and let team members focus on their work. If a meeting needs 20 minutes, schedule it for 20 minutes, not 30, and respect that time allotment. If a participant on a call has said their piece and is no longer needed, let them drop off. Otherwise, you're wasting their time, and draining their energy to listen in on an irrelevant call.

To pull this off, set a timer on your phone for ten minute increments. Each time the timer goes off, look at the attendee list and see if anyone can be spared.

11. DON'T let roadblocks hold up the project

Overcoming roadblocks is a high priority. It’s tempting to move on to a new piece of work, and in rare cases, that’s all that can be done. However, focusing on pushing through roadblocks helps limit the work in progress and actually get things done more effectively. If there is a project manager or product owner, let them know as soon as you've done all you can to move forward, so that they can begin clearing the block.

PMRobot lets you mark a blocked ticket once you’ve done all you can for the time being, letting you move on, but keeping it present and within view so you remember to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

12. DON'T send emails when you're angry or frustrated

Queue them up as a draft, wait an hour, then edit. Delay again if you're still angry.

Negative emotions can be one of the most time-consuming and inefficient time sucks, and anger inevitably clouds your better judgement. If you’re writing it in an email, then it’s not urgent, right? So stop staring at it and thinking about whether or not to hit send. Walk away from it for an hour.

Depending on your disposition, you may have to repeat this a few times. Just remember, it’s better to err on the side of caution. You’re less likely to regret a witty retort you didn’t make, than an offensive email that gets BCCd to all of your upper management and HR.

And Finally:

13. DON'T do it all in email

You may have noticed a recurrent theme in this article; encouraging you to find alternatives to email when possible. DO NOT keep your email client open at all times, this is the best way to spend all your time reacting to outside forces and wonder what you got done at the end of the day. Email is in many ways the lowest common denominator for communication. Consider who you’re emailing and for what purpose - and then consider your alternatives.

Used properly; however, email can be very powerful, allowing you the time you need to express your ideas clearly and pull together all the links and other information needed to get your point across. Make sure you’re writing clear emails, use numbered lists/bullets more often than paragraphs and when it gets really long, write a short introduction so the receiver knows what they’re about to wade into.

Email is just one of many tools on your program management communications tool belt - prove you are a true master of project communications by knowing when NOT to use email as your most effective strategy.

The Benefits of a Project Management Tool

Using a web-based project management tool is one way to minimize your email use. A tool will often allow you to split your conversations into smaller pieces that are directly related to a specific piece of work, which can then be referenced when it comes time to do that work. PMRobot is been designed and developed Syllogistic Software, a team who've been working remotely for more than five years, living in Toronto, ON; Victoria, BC; Austin, TX; New Zealand, Thailand and wherever else we feel like working from.

For digital agencies and software consultants looking for a solution to your remote working challenges and want clear communication, faster execution and happier clients, visit now.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The New Marketing: Agile, Lean and Loving

The debate is long over and Agile Development for software is here to stay.

But agile is getting to be much bigger than its beginnings in software. It’s spreading into many new areas of practice, and achieving prime buzzword status.

The advent of the internet and digital culture has had a huge impact on marketing. Perhaps more than any other sector outside of software, marketing has finally embraced Agile in a big way.

I wanted to learn more about how Agile is impacting marketing and digital agencies, so I sat down to talk with Jose Albis, founder of the Albis Consulting Group.

Q: Jose, how is Agile changing marketing?

Well, it’s not just Agile that’s changing marketing. I like to say that “In Today’s Marketing, growth is ALL: Agile, Lean and Loving”.

Being Agile is all about being responsive, creative and fast. Being Lean means working in iterative cycles, testing, measuring what works and what doesn’t and constantly improving based on data. Being Loving means humanizing brands authentically, building community, offering remarkable experiences and seeking meaningful engagement with customers. Noah Kagan calls it, Lovegasms.

These three ideas are changing marketing as we know it!

Q: Wow. Tell me about what Agile means for marketing.

Agile is a new way of doing marketing. It's a combination of traditional marketing, with the influence of the agile software development movement. It's driven by the nature of social media and digital culture, enabling brands to more effectively influence the universe by reacting to the rapidly changing conditions around them.

Being an agile marketer is like being Batman. Before Batman goes into a situation, he has goals and an overall plan, but he knows not everything will go according to his plan. So he has his utility belt with him, and at any time he can use whichever tool he needs from his belt. An agile digital marketer’s utility belt has tactics and strategies covering content marketing, A/B testing, landing pages, SEO, PPC, social media, contests, games, etc.

It's a shift away from planning out entire huge campaigns at the outset, and instead using the Scrum process. Planning a “sprint” of 3 or 4 weeks, it's more of an iterative process. After each sprint, we look back, see what worked, what didn't and then move forward. One of the frameworks that come to mind is the OODA loop.

Q: What's an OODA loop?

It's a concept that comes from the military: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. Each sprint is a new OODA loop, we look back at the last sprint, see what worked, what that means, figure out how to use that, then execute. The speed and efficiency of the OODA loop can represent the competitive advantage of a small startup that is developing the same disrupting technology, against a bigger and slower giant corporation. Think of ‘first to market’.

Q: How closely does agile marketing resemble agile software?

It's very similar in its processes, for example The Scrum Process. I'm an industrial engineer, so it's very natural for me to look at a system and try to optimize it. Agile emerged from the world of software engineering which has special challenges, so it makes sense that engineers would create their own methodologies for managing their projects. Especially when the principles had been around for decades in the Toyota Production System.

Marketing has a lot of similarities to software, it's hard to plan the whole thing from start to finish, and it’s difficult to know how different parts are going to interact, until you build them and release them. Around 2005 or 2006, I personally experienced acceleration in SEO, PPC and Landing Pages which became more important, and marketing became more digital. Marketers were celebrating that direct response didn’t need 9 month cycles but only weeks or days, and at the same time Marketers became more dependent on designers, developers and IT in general.

The traditional paradigm is that marketers and engineers and developers can't communicate, like in the Dilbert cartoons.

Agile Marketing

But marketers had to learn to work with these IT departments, started to blend into Marketeering and they picked up Agile methods from them.

Q: How are clients reacting to Agile?

Most of my clients are finding it easier than ever before. Instead of me saying "First we're going to do 'this', then we're going to do 'this'... and we're not going to know anything until phase four, and it's going to cost you 10,000 bucks", they get amazing flexibility. Even my agreements are lean and agile, we fail fast to succeed faster. There's not a big commitment like with a big agency. It's very flexible and that way we learn about each other in the process. We work together for a few sprint sessions, and if the relationship is working well, we keep going.

Clients like it because we can get going right away, without having to spend tons of time planning up front and results are faster. A lot of the times we are working in projects that involve technology releases so the Scrum framework makes sense, like dancing to the same tune.

Q: What are some examples of brands doing agile really well?

Oreo is very agile with its use of social media. During the super bowl, the lights were down for maybe half an hour, and they managed to design and send out a very simple, clever, timely tweet within minutes, that was retweeted by thousands of people!

Their marketers are in a control room, reacting in real time and sending out materials designed for maximum impact.

Q: So why is it important for marketers to be loving?

What are humans, that brands are not, historically?

[John]: They’re physical beings? They have faces?

They are imperfect. Brands have always tried to look so good, so perfect, that they’re like a robot. That’s why, every time there is a challenge or an opportunity to apologize, it’s also an opportunity to display humanity, to be more loving.
Marketers should should think about how their brand would express itself if it were human. I, Jose, have my own human expressions, ways of speaking and thinking, and reacting to different situations. You have the human expressions that make you John.

So maybe your brand is "nice"... but everyone is “nice”, what is it really? Maybe your brand is assertive, like the Michelin man he’s like a super hero. Having that consistency is important and it's a huge opportunity for old brands to renew themselves.


Agile is changing the face of marketing, but it’s not alone. Being lean and loving brings the full package together and enables a brand to engage with the world in entirely new ways. These three forces are transforming the classic Mad Men advertiser into Marketing Ninjas,Gurus, and even Superheroes.

Thanks to Jose Albis for this fascinating discussion, follow him on twitter at @josealbis.

If you'd like to learn more about Agile, visit the Agile Development Manifesto and the Agile Marketing Manifesto.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Friendly new conversation view in PMRobot

PMRobot is just a tool which helps you get your work done. It shouldn't get in the way, and it shouldn't add a layer of separation between you and your collaborators. We've made a simple, but we think significant improvement to the conversations interface to emphasize the human element of your interactions.  

Bigger faces and a clearer indication of who said what should make for a smoother reader experience.

Take a look:

Old and Busted Conversation View

New Hotness Conversation View

If you're new to PMRobot, and looking for a solution to help your team collaborate, try it out. One project is free forever.