Product teams that adhere to agile principles need to be a lot of things — customer-centric, collaborative, and able to respond quickly to change, among other attributes originally put forth by the 17 founders of the Agile product methodology.

But those founders created their Manifesto for Agile Software Development almost 20 years ago now and things have changed a bit. Over time, several more principles have sprung up and attached themselves to the agile camp.

In addition, one of the original twelve core values of Agile is now being called into serious question. It’s Number Six, which reads like this:

“The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

Traditionally — that has been interpreted to mean co-location is best. We’re here to shatter that notion and show product managers that distributed teams can be just as effective as those which greet each other every morning in person.

It’s all about your ability to challenge any preconceived notions that you have — or anyone else connected to the product has — about productivity, culture, and success. Here’s what we mean.  

Out With the Status Quo, In With a 21st-Century Mindset

For product managers who are still holding onto the idea that having everyone in the same room is necessary to spark creativity and innovation, there are two choices. They can cling onto the status quo that makes co-location a requirement or they can begin adopting a remote-first philosophy that’s increasingly more relevant for the 21st century.

You Need More than Tools. You Need the Right Mindset

On the tech side of things, the world has changed dramatically since 2001 when Agile was first laid out. We won’t cover that here but all you need to do is look around you to see evidence of tech-assisted team collaboration in action with video conferencing, cloud-based project management platforms, and more.

This is hard to ignore, even for managers who wake up every morning and suit up for work with blinders on.

This is really about the kind of mindset product managers will need to adopt if they’re going to tap into the talent they need going forward.

Let’s backtrack a little. Managers and leaders who resist change will argue that co-located teams perform better than distributed teams. Yes, you can make that argument. You could also argue that sound quality is better on old landline telephones but where would that put you? Missing out on a lot of exciting tech-enabled developments, that’s where!

Yes, Concessions Will Need to be Made

For distributed teams to have a chance, you’ll need more than a modern mindset, however. You’re thinking ‘oh, they’re going to talk about tools again’.  Nope, it’s not about tools, although the rise of helpful collaboration platforms like Zoom and Slack have facilitated the shift away from co-location in very big ways.

This is about processes. Structure. Setup.

In fact, if all you do is set up your team, business as usual, and then throw in a few tools to accommodate your remote members, you’re bound to fail. Team culture just won’t gel into anything that’s productive when the remote players are relegated to second-class citizen status.

For distributed teams to be effective, you’ll need to go back and rethink your processes. Change the way you have meetings. Rethink your channels of communication. Examine your own assumptions. Analyze the language people are using on written communication channels like Slack.

Another factor is existing weaknesses that have nothing to do with whether your team is distributed or not. “Going remote” can magnify these problems even though they’re rooted elsewhere. You’ll need to observe in-house team dynamics and call out problems that might be preventing the remoteness factor from taking hold. Again, here’s what we mean by that…

There are People Problems and Then There are Remote Problems

In any office setting, communication is key. Even when interaction is face-to-face, people often misinterpret what others are saying. But at least when you’re in the same room with someone, you have the benefit of using non-verbal communication to guide you to the true meaning. But remote teams have very few emotional cues to work from, which means you’ll have to develop a set of principles to instruct your team on Best Practices for comms.

That might mean trying to predict what kinds of behavior causes tension on a distributed team and then developing a set of guidelines to help your team avoid that behavior.

As a product manager, you may already have a dataset of experiences in your mind to help you with this. Think back on past projects where things went south: were there communication problems? What caused them? Fixing those kinds of ‘soft skills’ mistakes can help you set up a distributed product development team that really works.

Look for a Certain Set of Skills in Your People

Remote work has existed in a Wild West atmosphere, where workers come to the table with a wide variety of team player skills. Let’s assume technical ability but there are other abilities and skills that are now considered essential for distributed team players to have.

  • Writing Skills. This is becoming the new differentiator for talent in the tech field.
  • Communications Platform Knowledge. Confidence in communication and collaboration tools is a basic requirement these days.
  • Soft Skills.  Discipline, as you can imagine, is something you want to look for in a remote player.
  • Empathy. Empathy is the foundation of Design Thinking, effective teamwork, and more. The ability to debate issues in a productive manner requires an understanding of other people’s perspectives.
  • Ownership. Taking ownership of bad decisions means they can be fixed faster. When a team is distributed, ownership can become lost in the shuffle of asynchronous communication, vague language, and even sometimes language barriers.

These soft skills may not have reached your hiring radar quite yet, but they’re worth considering if you plan on tapping into the vast array of talent that exists globally.

The Final Word: It’s Okay to Start Small

Hopefully, we’ve got you thinking about your approach to managing distributed product development teams. Even if you don’t consider yourself the most progressive type of product manager, you can start small with a toehold and build your capacities gradually. Meanwhile, you’ll be doing your teams a favor by helping them develop a modern mindset and coaxing them gently along into the future!