The single best productivity hack for managing remote teams

How are you managing your remote teams and ensuring that they’re at the maximum level of productivity? Today I’m going to provide some insights on that topic.

Hi, I’m Peter Nichol, Data Science CIO.

Recently, we talked about the Ivy Lee Method, which ensures productivity on a team by focusing on individual performance. The method centers on six key activities. It’s similar to a to-do list but is limited to six items that must be completed during that day to maximize productivity. These items are also weighted from most important (one) to least important (six). Suppose you do complete all six items in a given day. That’s great. The following day, you generate six new priorities to focus on. If, however, any of the six things aren’t completed that day, they’re rolled into the next day in order of importance, and these items are completed in order of priority.

Today, I want to share my insights on a leadership technique that I’ve been using for years. I’ve found the results compelling. It’s also a great tool to leverage when working in a remote environment with global teams. It’s called the Top 5. It originated, in part, from the Ivy Lee Method; however, instead of six priority items, the Top 5 focuses on five significant classifications of work:

  1. Top five issues you’re facing (e.g., project-related start with project name)
  2. Top five business partner updates (i.e., scientists, stakeholders, and internal or external customers)
  3. Top five accomplishments
  4. Top five accomplishments planned for the following week
  5. Project or product status

Now, let me go through each of these quickly.

First, we have issues. These aren’t the typical issues you’d find in a risk register or a public-risk tracker. These items are the quiet and unheard issues that create team dysfunction. They include personal disagreements among individuals and political aspects impacting team performance. These issues are never going to make it into an official risk log. This is why the concept is so powerful. You, as a leader and a supervisor, need to understand what’s genuinely creating obstacles that prevent your team from performing at their maximum level.

Second are business partners. This section tells me what I’ll hear if I get a call from a business partner or a customer. Am I going to hear something positive? Did something happen that will create friction; e.g., a poorly run meeting, deadline missed, resource performance problems, etc. Regardless, I want to know how that conversation will unfold, and I want some talking points before I receive a call. This helps me stay on top of the latest business-facing concerns.

The third classification is accomplishments. What did the team complete last period? I don’t care what the manager or leader did. I care about the team results and the leader driving the team results.

Fourth is accomplishments planned for the following week. This step forces the individual to think ahead and anticipate change. If items are missed (this is similar to the Ivy Lee Method), they roll along to the following week. This helps to narrow in on soft delays. These are last-task completions, but they don’t necessarily impact the project’s go-live.

Fifth is the product or project status. I’ll go into more depth in another article about activity status because it’s a bit more complicated. This section has three main areas:

  1. 5’ONs: Schedule, scope, quality, value, budget
  2. Red, amber, green
  3. Comments

The 5’ONs are either “ON” or “OFF.” If they’re ON and green, that’s great. However, any of the 5’ONs that are red or amber require an open issue to be logged. The individual can determine if a risk is created or not. However, at least one single issue must be created to show how the item is driving the status. For example, if the schedule is OFF and amber, this is how that line item would read:

  • Schedule (A): Issue 199234. Based on initial timelines, the schedule may be impacted by two weeks for the SOW approval delays.

This tells me the schedule is impacted, there are action and mitigation plans in place, and it identifies that, if resolved, these would bring the project back to green. Think what getting the project back on track looks like or, said another way, think about “the road to green.”

Leveraging these five buckets allows the team to focus on the burning imperatives. It also removes the need for the leader to be a micromanager. Teams hate being micromanaged, and as managers, supervisors, and executives, we hate micromanaging. Yes, sometimes it’s a necessity. However, generally, this approach affords the leader a bird’s eye view of how the team is performing.

The Top 5 solves these questions:

  • Which individuals need support?
  • How can I, as a leader, be most impactful for my team?
  • What obstacles does my team need me to remove?

As you run Top 5 weekly reports with your team, you’ll quickly find patterns and common issues among individuals’ Top 5’s. There will be overlap, and there will be similarities. This is precisely what you’re looking for—common themes that are affecting not one leader on your team but many. These are the core challenges that you, as an executive, need to spend your time resolving. For you, as a leader, this removes the guesswork, because you now know exactly where to get involved. This ensures you’re removing the most critical roadblocks first and keeping your team performing at their best.

Think for a minute as you jump into this new week: Do you have a clear understanding of the roadblocks your team is experiencing? If you can’t answer which roadblocks that surfaced last week are common to more than three team members, you might want to consider implementing a Top 5.

If you’re interested in receiving a copy of a sample Top 5, no problem. Please message me on LinkedIn, and I’ll be happy to share an example with you.

I’ll offer up an additional idea regarding managing and leading remote teams. It’s called a WHIP.

Q: What’s the number-one problem with remote teams? A: Engagement.

A WHIP solves this challenge. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you have 15 people on the team. You queue up an idea—for example, “What’s the single most-impactful change we could make for 2021?” Then you allow each member of the team 30 seconds or less (timeboxed) to offer their idea. If they can’t come up with something in three or four seconds, they’re skipped and you WHIP around them and circle back at the end.

Why does this work? It works because it forces people to think of answers they don’t have—unlike, “Tell me about your last product meeting,” which is about memory recall. This method requires zero preparation time. A WHIP is a new idea that takes a minute to think about. It goes without saying that no ideas can be repeated within the WHIP session.

Are you looking for better engagement during your next remote team meeting? Try a WHIP!

Curious about what the Top 5 template looks like? Download it here.

Hi, I’m Peter Nichol, Data Science CIO. If you liked this article, please like or comment below, and have a great week!

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Peter is a technology executive with 19 years of experience, dedicated to driving innovation, digital transformation, leadership, and data in business. He helps organizations connect strategy to execution to maximize company performance. He has been recognized for Digital Innovation by CIO 100, MIT Sloan, Computerworld, and the Project Management Institute. As Managing Director at OROCA Innovations, Peter leads the CXO advisory services practice, driving digital strategies. Peter was honored as an MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award Finalist in 2015 and is a regular contributor to CIO.com on innovation. Peter has led businesses through complex changes, including the adoption of data-first approaches for portfolio management, lean six sigma for operational excellence, departmental transformations, process improvements, maximizing team performance, designing new IT operating models, digitizing platforms, leading large-scale mission-critical technology deployments, product management, agile methodologies, and building high-performance teams. As Chief Information Officer, Peter was responsible for Connecticut’s Health Insurance Exchange’s (HIX) industry-leading digital platform transforming consumerism and retail oriented services for the health insurance industry. Peter championed the Connecticut marketplace digital implementation with a transformational cloud-based SaaS platform and mobile application recognized as a 2014 PMI Project of the Year Award finalist, CIO 100, and awards for best digital services, API, and platform. He also received a lifetime achievement award for leadership and digital transformation, honored as a 2016 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader. Peter is the author of Learning Intelligence: Expand Thinking. Absorb Alternative. Unlock Possibilities (2017), which Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Triggers, calls "a must-read for any leader wanting to compete in the innovation-powered landscape of today." Peter also authored The Power of Blockchain for Healthcare: How Blockchain Will Ignite The Future of Healthcare (2017), the first book to explore the vast opportunities for blockchain to transform the patient experience. Peter has a B.S. in C.I.S from Bentley University and an MBA from Quinnipiac University, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. He earned his PMP® in 2001 and is a certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Masters in Business Relationship Management (MBRM) and Certified Scrum Master. As a Commercial Rated Aviation Pilot and Master Scuba Diver, Peter understands first hand, how to anticipate change and lead boldly.