What can a product manager do to overcome execution hurdles due to geographically dispersed teams?

 These days co-located product teams are an exception than a norm. Even before COVID hit us, most of the medium and large size companies were already having geographically dispersed teams. When it comes to product development, efficiency and effectiveness are paramount. A product manager plays a critical role in creating a product on time and on target leveraging geographically dispersed resources. 

There are some hurdles when it comes to working in geographically dispersed teams while creating products such as -

  • Language differences
  • Cultural incompatibilities
  • Fewer face-to-face interactions
  • Differences of ethical norms
  • Lack of exposure to user base and real user scenarios

However there are also distinct advantages to leverage such as -

  • Heterogeneous knowledge sources
  • Cost advantages
  • Access to diverse skills and experiences
  • Knowledge about diverse markets
  • "Following the sun" working

Leader ship team must realize that dispersion is now all bad. As stated in the paper 'The Bright and Dark Sides of Dispersion' by 'Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst' - "Conventional wisdom suggests that the performance of teams suffers with increasing levels of dispersion. Because of that, managers have typically viewed dispersion as a liability rather than an opportunity. But dispersion can provide substantial benefits if companies can take advantage of the diversity and varied expertise of team members at different locations. In fact, our research shows that virtual teams can outperform their colocated counterparts when they are set up and managed in the right way."

Image - 'The Bright and Dark Sides of Dispersion' by 'Frank Siebdrat, Martin Hoegl and Holger Ernst' 

However, for dispersed teams to  perform better than a co-located team a standard execution practice is essential particularly when it comes to product development. A product manager is one of the key driver in establishing such execution practices. Here are a few important practices that a product manager should setup / influence -

Strategically colocate resources -

As far as possible the product manager, UX designer and development lead should be colocated or at least in the same time zone so that they can have frequent design discussions. Once design is agreed between them, it becomes easy to spread the knowledge and handle objections working with other members of the team.

Collaterals to understand the vision - 

Make all the product related collaterals available to every member of the team. These should include but not limited to high level product strategy, recording of user interviews, detailed solution overview,  execution and rollout plan

Regular online meetings -

If teams are spread across continents, it is hard for all members to attend the daily scrum. Weekly / biweekly meetings must be setup to bring all the team member together and resolve any outstanding issues.

Disciplined meeting notes and action log -

Given the number meetings that take place and the decisions that are made it is very likely to  forget some of the decisions. Product manager or program manager ( if assigned ) must capture all the meeting notes and action items in a central location so that they can be referred at a later date.

Detailed epics and user stories -

Product manager must groom and maintain all the epics and user stories working with key members of development and UX team. 

Prioritized QA test cases -

Product manager should work with members of QA team to identify important test cases so as to feel confident about the quality of the product that will be delivered. QA team should come up with additional test cases as applicable.

Regular sprint demos -

Development team must do demos for all the functionality delivered in a sprint at the end of the sprint so that any discrepancies between requirements and implementation. 

In conclusion, a product manager can positively affect performance of geographically dispersed teams to deliver complex product by following execution best practices. 


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