he first question I get from leaders unexpectedly thrust into managing remote teams is some variation of the following: How do I make sure people are productive? What they’re really wondering is: If I can’t see my employees—in weekly update meetings, at their desks, taking clients to lunch—how can I be sure they’re doing their work?
But here’s what most executives should ask themselves: How do I make sure my people are working together and working well? This question gets to the heart of how leaders manage and design their organizations for accountability—and the issue certainly transcends remote teams. But this new way of working affords everyone an opportunity to “reset,” and to move teams away from an obsession with each member’s productivity and toward a mutual sense of responsibility.
In this article I’ll lay out a blueprint for why peer-to-peer accountability is so important and how leaders can build teams that share the load in achieving team goals. This new way of aligning teams is also the topic of a webinar Ied, hosted by Fast Company editor-in-chief Stephanie Mehta, on Thursday, April 16, at 3 p.m. Eastern time. You may view the session, Crossing the Finish Line Together: Peer-to-Peer Accountability in Virtual Teams, by clicking here. (Read to the end of the article for information on how to replay the first two sessions.)
Peer-to-peer accountability is the overloaded manager’s best friend. If you have to keep everyone accountable, you’re not actually leading. You will be in the weeds, and you’re not doing anyone any favors; in fact, you’re probably slowing your team and your company down. One of my clients is a prominent investor. This individual was managing a portfolio of about $1 billion, and the firm’s vision was to boost assets under management to $10 billion. The only way to grow 10x was for my client to let go of his choke-hold on new business development. That meant delegating, but more importantly, dispersing accountability into the fabric of the firm’s team.
So how do leaders move from “overload” to a shared load? I talk a lot about a commitment to “cross the finish line together.” That means it isn’t any one individual’s commitment to meet a goal or complete a project; it is the team’s responsibility. Like in a race, if someone stumbles, another colleague needs to stop, look back, and bring a teammate over. That might mean sharing resources, or sharing time, but it’s absolutely critical to have a team that shares accountability.
A good way to achieve peer-to-peer responsibility is to take a couple pages from the world of software development. There are two practices from the tech world that translate well to any kind of teamwork: “Agile” and “Sprints.”
In software development, “agile” is a system in which coders and engineers organize themselves into teams that are often cross-functional organized teams—with an eye toward moving quickly and solving the customer’s problem or need (the customer can be internal or external, by the way). You can see how, if done right, this builds accountability into a project. Because the teams essentially are self-selected, there’s a shared sense of responsibility to the endeavor. The presence of people from different departments provides checks and balances throughout the process. Again, the key is to make sure you have all the right stakeholders involved, but if an interdepartmental team crosses the finish line together, it likely means that the group has proactively addressed the kinds of issues that might scuttle the project—I’ve sometimes heard people call this a “pre-mortem”—thus achieving the goal.
Another software-development tool I like to modify for teams are “sprints,” which are exactly what they sounds like. The team gets a fixed amount of time to complete a set amount of work. In the corporate world, I like to encourage teams to sprint between meetings, so that in the intervening days—or maybe even hours, depending on the urgency of the project—the team agrees on what work needs to get done, by whom, and by when.
Moving to agile leadership and incorporating sprints gives your teams the framework for accountability. But how do you make sure your members are communicating with each other, and giving each other the information they need to hold each other accountable? I recommend a tactic I like to call bulletproofing.
When I start working with a new organization, I’ll audit meetings, and I’ve noticed that they all do a lot of “report outs,” one person after another just reporting out what they’re working on. What a wasted opportunity, particularly if a team has committed to holding one another accountable!
With bulletproofing, the report out becomes a focused presentation. An individual spends 15 minutes talking about the big projects he or she is tackling, the risks and challenges, and—crucially—what the team can do to help. The team then breaks into small groups of three to constructively discuss the presentation. These breakouts can be as short as 10 minutes, but the size of the group is nonnegotiable. If there are more than three people in the breakout, candor goes out the window.
During the breakout, the small groups discuss the following:
After the breakouts, everyone reconvenes and offers insight. The beauty of this is that you’ve done more than provide the presenter with feedback. You’ve helped mitigate risk by surfacing all the potential issues that maybe the presenter alone couldn’t have foreseen. You get fresh ideas. And above all, you highlight the inter-dependencies of the group.
Now the next time an individual reports back, the team can start holding this person accountable. The team is giving feedback—not just the boss.
Peer-to-peer accountability is a new muscle that our teams need to regularly exercise in order to fully develop, but once unleashed, your colleagues will realize that they need to own one another’s success. Only then will they cross the finish line together.
(I led two other webinars for Fast Company this month, and you may access replays of these sessions by clicking on the links for How Your Remote Team Can Outperform a Traditional One and Breaking the Fourth Wall: Candid Communication and Collaboration in Virtual Teams.)