5 Governance Steps for Distributed Project Team Management

March 21, 2018 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMPChristian Knutson, P.E., PMP



Managing a distributed project team takes real skill and a definite commitment to putting a governance structure in place that enables success. This is a cardinal rule that I learned firsthand nearly two decades ago managing project teams in Korea, and it stuck with me through my career in the military. The take-away I learned with a distributed project team: a virtual presence is an absolute absence.

So, if your absolute absence is a given because you have project team members operating on three different continents across twelve time zones, then you must put in place the policies, processes, techniques, and templates to standardize activities and ensure the team is playing from the same sheet of music.

Governance is nothing more than how a project will be controlled to deliver intended outcomes. While a lot of effort can go into developing a viable governance structure, it doesn’t have to be that way on every project. In fact, the simpler the governance process and structure, the more likely it is to succeed!

When it comes to governance for a distributed project team, keep it simple. The more complex anything is with distributed teams, the greater the likelihood that it will fail.

Here are five actions I’ve cultivated over the past two decades that have helped me implement good governance on projects with distributed teams:

If the team doesn’t know what is expected of them, then you leave the definition of what right looks like to each member of the project team. Original thought can be a good thing, especially if your projects require innovation and ingenuity to deliver new and exciting products and services to your market.

What doesn’t require original thought are your expectations. Established when initiating a project, your expectations of team performance, individual accountability, and standards of conduct must be known and not fluctuate.

Related: How to Become a More Challenging Project Manager

If you do find that a change is needed, then ensure the adjustment is tied to project delivery or some company or client change in policy. Vacillating in your expectations is a project management risk that can lead to re-work, lost productivity or project failure.

Examples of distributed team expectations include:

Whereas expectations tell the distributed project team what right looks like for individual and team behaviors, goals and objectives tell the team where to focus their energies. When you establish goals and objectives, you give your project team targets at which to aim.

One way to do this is to align objectives to work packages in the project’s Work Breakdown Structure. Doing this gives specific distributed project team members responsibility for executing their work package to meet an established target date. The goals then align to the rolled-up work packages.

Another way to establish goals and objectives is to cascade them from the project’s strategic rationale from the business case. Why is the project being executed? With that answer, you determine what is required to make the project a reality. Next you determine how you will achieve each of the goals – the project objectives.

Most people like to know why they are working on a particular task. Those of us with the highest work satisfaction are happy specifically because we can answer the question of “why.”

On a distributed project team, it can be very easy for a project team member to lose sight of why a project is being executed because they’re far from you, perhaps working solo, or miss out on the culture of the home office.

Ensuring that your distributed project team members are able to explain why a project is being executed, what is being done to achieve project success (i.e. goals) and how the work will be accomplished (i.e. objectives) will help significantly to mitigate the risk of members working on unnecessary actions or accomplishing work contrary to what is required for the project.

You’ve established expectations of behavior and individual/team performance and set goals and objectives for your distributed project team. The next component of governance to put in place are Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for monitoring and controlling the project during execution.

Related: How to Measure the Success (or Failure) of Your Projects

One purpose for KPIs is to allow you to validate that distributed project team members are efficiently and effectively performing their work. Another purpose is to identify trends, both positive and negative, that may affect the project itself. Both are very important when you ha...

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